If there was ever a Bard of Bombay it was Manto, the subcontinent’s greatest writer of short stories. Earlier this year – the anniversary of Manto’s birth – the photographer Ram Rahman visited the neighbourhoods where Manto and his friends lived, worked and played.
Appropriately, our journey began with a search for two books: Bitter Fruit, the complete English translations of Manto’s works by Khalid Hasan, and Stars From Another Sky, a collection of portraits from the Bombay film industry. Walking from bookstore to bookstore in downtown Bombay not only did we not find any copies, most of the booksellers looked mystified at the name! Finally Bitter Fruit was found at Kitab Mahal book store. Then we began to look for traces of Manto’s city.
Throughout his time in Lahore, Manto suffered from poverty and alcoholism. He even spent some time in a mental asylum. When he died in 1955, a few months before his 43rd birthday, he was a broken man; arguably, another casualty of Partition.
Manto’s protagonists are usually ordinary people. His Bombay was a cosmopolitan and relatively integrated city in which Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jews all lived in harmony until the communal violence that erupted in the approach to Independence. In his stories about that period you encounter both generous humanity and the most bestial, inhumane acts, sometimes involving the same person.
In Manto’s touching short story Mozail, the heroine of the title is a fiercely free-spiritedJewish Bombay girl who, during an episode of Muslim-Sikh violence, sacrifices her life for the fiancée of her former Sikh lover Tarlochan:
The bazaar was deserted. The curfew seemed to have affected even the usually brisk Bombay breeze. It was hardly noticeable. Some lights were on but their glow was sickly. Normally at this hour the trains would start running and shops begin to open. There was absolutely no sign of life anywhere.
Mozail walked in front of him. The only impact came of her wooden sandals on the road…Tarlochan felt scared, but Mozail was walking ahead of him nonchalantly, puffing merrily at her cigarette…
The door opened slightly. Tarlochan asked Mozail to follow him in. Mozail saw a very young and very pretty girl standing behind the door trembling…Mozail said to her: “Don’t be afraid, Tarlochan has come to take you away”…Karpal Kaur was taken aback, but Mozail gave her no time to think. In one movement, she divested her of her loose shirt. The young girl frantically put her arms in front of her breasts. She was terrified, Tarlochan turned his face. Then Mozail took off the kaftan-like gown she always wore and asked Karpal Kaur to put it on. She was now stark naked herself.
“Take her away,” she told Tarlochan, She untied the girl’s hair so that it hung over her shoulders, “Go.”
“Then, this one here, whatever her name is, can slip out. The way she’s dressed, she’ll be safe. They’ll take her for a Jew.”