This book was sent to me by Penguin Random House India in exchange of an honest review
Saadat Hasan Manto was a short story and script writer as well as a novelist and a journalist. He is best known for his short stories, including the famous ‘Toba Tek Singh’. He spent many years in Bombay before he migrated to Lahore after partition, and most of the stories in this collection were written then lending them a patina of nostalgia.
The cover of this book showcases the photograph of a group of young women and little children standing in a darkened doorway looking out at the photographer with varying degrees of delight on their faces. And yet, it appears almost as if they are held back by an invisible barricade from stepping over the doorstep and out into the world. It has a bittersweet quality to it, which keeps becoming compounded as you begin to read the stories in this anthology.
Bombay stories is essentially a collection of stories about the lives of prostitutes in Bombay before partition, and most probably as they are even today. Each story deals with prostitutes, either as the main protagonists or as the objects of desire for his main protagonists. A majority of the stories were written by him after his migration to Lahore and as most of these stories are anecdotal they give the impression of being journal entries. The ones in which Manto himself does not appear gave me the impression of being about him nonetheless, which may not be true at all. All the characters in his stories are more or less settled in their ways of life, which happens to most people when life has beaten them down sufficiently. There is no struggle by his characters to better themselves or look for some utopia that exists only in their minds. All their actions are restricted to the spheres in which they move – so his prostitutes are not looking for a ‘way out’, his pimps are happy plying their trade, and his friends who talk high and long are human enough to feel no qualms about sleeping with women for money. At times it becomes a little overwhelming – this moving through the red-light districts of Bombay with Manto and the dramas of life that play out there and one wonders why he couldn’t just have written about the lives of school teachers or vegetable vendors. But, like a friend of mine pointed out, the life of a prostitute is already mired in a certain pathos by virtue of her trade, which in our puritanical society is considered to be the last resort for survival open to a woman and thus provides an easy canvas for an artist to create his works. It seems callous when one puts it that bluntly but it also has a ring of truth to it.
I had heard such praises about Manto’s writings from so many different people that I was really looking forward to reading his works. However, this collection was somewhat of a letdown after all that I had built him up to be. His most famous short stories are not included in this anthology and, like I said earlier, the stories here read like journal entries to me. His genius lies in the descriptions of the city and the people which are succinct and capture a complete picture in two or three sentences. His sense of humour that springs up here and there is innocent and honest. His relationship with his ‘capitalist-minded’ wife as portrayed in the stories seems one based on love and trust carefully tucked under the blanket of the usual nitty-gritty of matrimonial life. His political views and his secularism come to the fore again and again in his works. In today’s politically correct world, he would probably be considered a racist for his descriptions of people – but when reading his stories you realize immediately what he wants to convey when he mentions these cliches and you can’t really blame him. His cliches are in no way derogatory, they are just the way he perceives people belonging to a particular place, sect or religion, and since he is surrounded by so many cultures and communities in Bombay he uses them again and again to characterize them clearly in his mind. As I am sure most of us do to this day.
But if you are picking up Manto for the first time, I would suggest you look for collections containing his more famous works before this one. Bombay stories is in no way a bad or boring book, but it fails to convey the true genius of a man who was unique in his view of life, looking at it through naked eyes with not many embellishments but for those he decided to bestow on it in his role as a ‘short-story writer’.