December 2, 2023


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Book Excerpt: The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto – Volume 1 – Poona & Bombay by Nasreen Rehman (Aleph Book Company, 2022)

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An exclusive excerpt from The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto – Volume 1 – Poona & Bombay by Nasreen Rehman (Aleph Book Company, 2022)


Saadat’s view of women is complex and contradictory. Like most male writers of his age, including his older European contemporaries, Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), and the Progressives, Manto often deploys the binary of the so-called respectable woman (mother, wife, and sister), and the ‘respectable’ harlot.

In Manto’s everyday life, he witnessed how gendered violence was imbricated in an intersection of class entitlement, religious hypocrisy, colonialism, and nationalist politics. Bibijan and Balaji were the persons with whom he had his closest bonds from early childhood. He shared Bibijan’s humiliation and grew up as her outraged and emasculated son. Saadat understood what it meant to be a woman with no private income—and thus in economic bondage. He witnessed how his intellectually precocious sister Balaji remained tied in marriage to the obnoxious M. U. Khan because she too had no independent means or the luxury of an education to improve her life.

Invariably, Manto’s women are cast in a sexual mould—as wives and potential wives, or harlots and actresses. The world in which Manto lived, men married women for their reproductive function, as breeding stock to propagate and raise a family, and to enhance a family’s wealth. Like so many Manto characters, such as Babu Gopinath, Hamid, and Maqbool (in this volume), for erotic pleasure men turned to the world of the harlot where they expended and often lost their wealth.

Heterosexual marriage was the central institution to restrict a so-called decent (sharif) woman’s sexuality. Religious, social, and political institutions, custom and law, official and popular discourse converged to propagate a belief system whereby sharif women were brainwashed from childhood by age-old ritual practices and narratives to construe sexual desire and agency as unnatural and taboo—even sinful. Their duty was to procreate, preferably sons, for their husbands and to strengthen the patriarchal family, and ensure that ancestral property remains in the family.

Yet, in his writing, Saadat’s sense of camaraderie with his wife comes across. Saadat shared his writing with Safia; and encouraged her to write—he ran errands for her and ironed her saris. In Bombay, their relationship withstood many strains, notwithstanding that Arif’s tragic death precipitated Saadat’s descent into alcoholism. The autobiographical turn in his writings reveals that he began to spend time in the company of sex workers—the extent of his pursuit is left to the imagination. In ‘Mummy’, in which both Saadat and Safia are present, he writes of Mummy’s concern about the couple not having another child so many years after Arif’s death.

Saadat’s nephew Hamid Jalal writes that in family discussions, Manto always revealed himself as ‘…conservative and almost a reactionary on issues like women’s education and mixed social gatherings.’Indeed, in Bombay, there were no signs of Saadat expecting Safia to conform to social segregation. He wrote ‘Mrs D’Costa’ in the first person—in the sympathetic voice of a pregnant woman, who is Safia. In ‘Mummy’, Safia travelled with him to Poona and met his friends, but unsurprisingly, he kept her from his alcoholic binges The gatekeepers of patriarchies, religious elders, and the government did not deny the existence of sexual desire and pleasure for men. On the contrary, they ensured that men could turn to the bazaar to find women to suit all tastes. Furthermore, families, society, the government, and the law looked away as libidinous men preyed upon women who worked as domestic helpers and cleaners in their homes or subordinate positions in offices and industries, including the film industry: women who resisted or complained could lose their livelihoods—and even their lives.

Additionally, although colonial and Indian bourgeois and other reformists decried pornography in their drawing rooms and the media, the elite and bourgeois certainly had access to blue films. In the story ‘Women’, watching blue movies elicits a bashful and hypocritical response, as both men and women watch them.

In Manto’s stories, wives are often either domineering nags, such as the protagonist Mustaqeem’s (whose name means righteous) wife in ‘Mahmooda’, or satirical and hapless creatures such as Mrs D’Costa and Mrs D’Silva. Wives with sexual agency, such as Zubeida in ‘Suited Booted’ (Kot Patlun), are temptresses or cast in a satirical mould like Izzat Jahan, an educated working woman. Marxist women come in for a fair bit of criticism. Perhaps, Hamid Jalal was right that Manto preferred his so-called ‘respectable’ women in the four walls of the home, the ‘char divari’.

Even a sex worker such as Kuldip Kaur in ‘Cold Flesh’, who has an insatiable libido and sexual agency, is a murderous psychopath. She is not unlike the vamp in the film Fatal Attraction (dir. Adrian Lyne, 1987). It is worth commenting that almost forty years apart, in both narratives, the men are rescued and redeemed. Ishar Singh is almost sanctified with redemptive humanism in death. In Fatal Attraction, the faithful wife saves her unfaithful husband and marriage—in an act of vigilantism, she murders the violent interloper. Significantly, in Pakistan, when Manto wrote of erotic pleasure between two married couples from different social class backgrounds in Top, Bottom, and Middle, he was charged for obscenity and found guilty.

Manto rages against the commodification of human relations. In ‘Babu Gopinath’, the protagonist informs Manto that he likes to hang out at shrines and brothels, although he knows that in the former human beings barter their faith, and in the latter, parents trade their offspring. Manto has sympathy for sex workers, harlots, and street walkers. Saugandhi in ‘Humiliation’, Sarita in ‘Ten Rupees’, and Gungu Bai in ‘Loser’, are not mere sex objects compelled to sell their bodies (usually to bourgeois men from different walks of life), but nuanced human beings trapped in their profession. They seek agency and dignity.

Manto’s stories compel a confrontation with questions of homophobia, the boundaries between pornography, obscenity, erotica, literary realism, and voyeurism. Saadat’s matter of fact descriptions of two women making love in ‘Smoke’ implies a non-judgmental acceptance of same sex love. Nevertheless, in ‘Mummy’, Sen, a music director lures Ram Singh with promises to make him a singer. But when Sen does not keep his word Ram Singh murders him. In ‘Mummy’, Manto’s heroine, Mrs Stella Jackson advises Ram Singh to tell the truth at his trial. She continues, ‘Without a doubt your hands are covered in blood, but it is the blood of something unclean and unnatural.’ Ram Singh’s testimony is accepted; and his acquittal is celebrated. Arguably, Manto is writing about different attitudes towards same sex love, since in the first instance (‘Smoke’) he is observing an act, while in the second (‘Mummy’), he is reporting words spoken by Mummy—but she is an admired protagonist.

Excerpted with permission from the author and publishers of The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto – Volume 1 – Poona & Bombay by Nasreen Rehman (Aleph Book Company, 2022)

About the Book

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) needs no introduction. One of the greatest stars of Urdu literature, Manto published over twenty collections of short stories in a literary career spanning almost two decades. Several of these have been adapted into films and plays that have won a multitude of awards and his stories about the 1947 Partition remain some of the best accounts ever written on the catastrophic event. This book is the first of a three-volume series that will contain all of Saadat Hasan Manto’s 255 known stories translated into English for the very first time. Volume I collects fifty-four stories and two essays written by Manto about his time in Bombay and Poona in colonial India. The anthology includes well-known stories like ‘Mummy’ and ‘Janki’, which provide rare insights into the Poona film industry; the fascinating story of ‘Babu Gopinath’; and ‘My Marriage’ and ‘My Sahib’, two essays that read almost like stories. These meticulous translations by award-winning writer and translator Nasreen Rehman, distil the aura that Manto creates of a time, a place, and a moment.

About the Author

Nasreen Rehman is a lapsed economist who worked in the private and public sectors in the UK and Pakistan before she turned to the arts and humanities. A historian of emotions and aesthetics, Nasreen is a translator, an activist, an academic, and an award-winning screenplay writer, who believes in the power of the arts to transform societies. Born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, she divides her time between South Asia and the UK.

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