Saadat Hasan Manto is almost a sacred name in literary circles. His life story is as celebrated as his works, especially short stories. If you have been reading Indian literature, it is impossible not to know him. Bombay Stories, however, the first of his works that I read and obviously with a lot of pre-conceived notions. I expected good, profound, evocative, classic writing and I got all of that. I expected the India during the partition days – stories in this book look like were written much before independence, so I missed that part. All the stories are based in Bombay – as Mumbai was then called and revolve around a single element of the city – its prostitutes. Do I get a picture of Mumbai of those days – I get a deep insight into a small slice of the city.
While reading the book I had a constant question, would the works like these have contributed to creating an image of Bombay for the rest of India – remember in those days not many people had the privilege of traveling to Bombay and experience the city too often. Prostitution was not new or exclusive to Mumbai, but this compilation makes you feel as if every woman who landed in Bombay was here to work as a prostitute.
The stories do bring out prostitutes as women, women who do not care for the society, women who had power over men they slept with, women who worked to earn their living but still lost it all for heart, women who are as vulnerable as they are strong, women who are always alone and women who fear above all their shelf life. The ease with which author presents them and their relationship with their clients make it feel like an accepted norm in the society of 1930s and 1940s, and I am not sure if that is the true picture of the society, as it existed.
These stories of Saadat Hasan Manto are literally immersed in an isolated world that belongs to men and their concubines. There is hardly any place for families or wives; Wherever they are, they are mentioned in passing by. Most men do not seem to have any work except drink and spend time with women. I understand there are always few men who enjoy on inheritance but most are not fortunate enough.
In describing women, Manto paints a visual picture of the women he writes about. The woman in all her filthiness and beauty stands right in front of your eyes. One feels her tiredness every morning, you empathize with her moods and you feel for her. You hate her and you love her, as the author wants you to. You experience the living conditions she lives in be it a slum or a posh hotel. However, did Manto give these women a voice – I am not sure. What he did achieve is bring your attention to this section of society. Most of us may tend to believe it does not exist.
The author of Bombay Stories has written all the stories in the first person. And it is as if you are getting pieces of his life – the author has made it explicitly autobiographical. There are mentions of Saadat Hasan Manto moving cities between Delhi and Mumbai. The author mentions the films he worked on – his essay in the appendix on why he does not watch movies anymore sounds juvenile now, but I assume may have been enlightening for the audience in those days who may not have understood film-making and the tricks involved at all.
Nice read… if you want to immerse yourself in the often-ignored world of sex workers.