In many ways, Manto was like Mumbai- brave and brimming with life. Whether it is travelling in the local or watching the high tide at marine drive, Mumbai breathes a different air where it does not matter what the other person is doing. Even in a crowd of lakhs, everyone is alone. On Manto’s 110th birth anniversary, we look back at India’s most beloved yet controversial Urdu writer Sadat Hassan Manto and his love for Mumbai.
Manto explains the city of Bombay “Where in the canyons between magnificent skyscrapers, thousands slept on the footpath”. The extravagance and despondency of the metropolis fascinated Manto making the city his lifelong muse. His soul breathed Mumbai and his pen chronicled it unabashedly. “Main Chalta Phirta Bombay hoon.” Manto endearingly used to tell his family and friends. In his short life of 42 years, he spent nearly a decade in Mumbai. between the 1930s and 40s.
Manto wrote magnanimously about everything that the city inhabited from its people, places and Bollywood. Delhi based writer and scientist Gauhar Raza says, “Few writers have written on Bollywood the way he did. His understanding of how the film industry operates was unique. He was far more brutal and critical of the industry as opposed to other writers who wrote in a ceremonial civilized way. That’s the thing about Manto, he could criticise even his friends very harshly yet with a lot of love.”
Delhi based writer Sadique says that the majority of Manto's writing has taken place in Mumbai. "He had moved there from Amritsar. Mumbai was the centre of arts in a sense because of the film industry. Many writers of the time were moving to the city in search of work, fame and livelihood. For Manto, Mumbai was the city where he established himself as a storyteller, essayist, editor and screenplay writer. It is also the city where he got married. One can read some interesting ancedotes in his essay 'My Marriage'. Then there were the riots that took place in 1940s. His story Ram Khelawaan is a perfect retelling of that time."
Sadique who has personally researched a lot on Manto also tells this writer some interesting facts on Manto. "The World usually remembers Manto as an alcoholic. My personal research told me that Manto suffered from a stomach disease which could not be cured till the end of his days. Drinking for him was a way to lessen that discomfort. Another lesser known fact is that his name was not Manto but Mintu, (names ending in U are common among people from Kashmir. The former Manto was given to him by a writer."
During this phase, Manto not only found work in editing but worked as a published writer of stories and radio plays. His work in his tiny apartment in Arab Gully, followed by Byculla and in film studios like Imperial Film Company, Saroj Movietone, Filmistan, and briefly Bombay Talkies proves he absorbed a spectrum of influences. Accounts say actors such as Nargis and Ashok Kumar often visited him in his home in Byculla in Mumbai.
Manto was the editor of a film magazine called Musawwar. Manto wrote for filmmaker Ardeshir Irani, who directed Alam Ara, the first Indian film with sound and Kisan Kanya. He also wrote the 1943 film Naukar, and Chal Chal Re Navjavan the following year. Manto has even acted in a film based on a soldier during Second World War.
Like the city of famous and infamous professions, Manto’s writing traced every aspect of society. His collection of Mumbai-based stories ‘Bombay Stories’ preserves the diverse culture of that time- a canvas for shades ranging from film stars to prostitutes, gangsters and pimps. Manto often visited the dark lanes of Kamathipura, the city’s largest and most vibrant red-light area for alcohol and material to write. His gaze was impartial and equal for all. “Every woman may not be a prostitute, but certainly every prostitute is a woman.” says Manto.
On his 110th birth anniversary, as we look back at Manto’s legacy, one wishes to acquire some of that fierceness, some of the courage to represent the truth, and realize the humanity Manto long wished to see in the subcontinent. Gauhar Raza says, “Manto not only shaped literature but an Indian identity. He taught us how to look at the society.”
Writer Pratap Sehgal who also shares his birthday with Manto talks about his relevance in the day, “Manto is the name of human tragedy in face of squalor and chains inflicted on us by society. He wrote on communalism, injustice, women's rights, and later the absolute lack of humanity. These issues are still all around us immortalising Manto the man, and the writer.”
Mumbai's energy remained alive in Manto much after moving to Lahore after the Partition. His love for the city can be fathomed in an essay addressed to his readers. A few lines read, “Today, I find myself living in Pakistan. It is possible that tomorrow, I may go to live elsewhere. But wherever I go, I will be what Bombay made me. Whether I live, I will carry Bombay with me.”