As we saw last week, Manto was probably the best observer of communal violence in Bombay. It is remarkable that his writing of this period has not been translated till now, 70 years after it was written.
In this piece, he writes of the mayhem that came to the city during the Quit India movement.
The thing about Manto is, as we shall see in this essay, that he is essentially detached from his material. Not in the sense that he doesn’t care about what’s going on – in fact he’s terrified, confused, angered and appalled by it.
But in the sense that he doesn’t bring his religious identity, in so far as he has one, to his writing. That makes him unusual and interesting.
This essay was published in a 1942 compilation Manto Kay Mazameen.
Batein, written by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel
I returned to Bombay hoping to spend some time with friends and give my battered mind some rest.
Instead, on reaching here, I was so jolted that far from rest and recreation, I even lost what little sleep I had.
Now, I’ve never had any interest in politics. I put politicians in the same bracket as soothsayers. I’m exactly as much interested in politics, actually, as Gandhiji is in cinema.
Gandhiji doesn’t watch movies, and I don’t read newspapers. Both of us are wrong in doing so. Gandhiji would do well to be acquainted with our movies, and certainly I should be reading the papers.
Anyway, I reached Bombay. The same streets whose cobbled stones which I had worn down with my walking for five years. The same Bombay where I’d seen two riots fought. It was the same beautiful city in which I had seen the blood of not a few innocent Muslims and Hindus spattered.
The very place where Congress had now passed a law on prohibition, banning all alcohol. In doing this, they had removed from employment those thousands who tapped toddy and brewed liquor.
It was the same Bombay whose dhobis I had seen standing 12 hours in water, toiling away, and were now drinking a vile and poisonous spirit to relieve their pain.
The city where in the canyons between magnificent skyscrapers thousands slept on the footpath.
I’ve seen, as I said, two riots in this city. The reasons were the same – mandir and masjid, cow and pig. Mandir and masjid – to me only stone.
Cow and pig – to me only flesh.
This time, in Bombay, I saw new things. Not the usual riot between Hindu and Muslim, not a fight over temple and mosque, not fury over cow and pig.
An entirely new sort of chaos and a new storm raging through this new Bombay.
One day I got a phone call informing me that the entire Congress leadership had been jailed, including Gandhiji who wasn’t even in the Congress.
I said: “That’s fine, these people keep getting into and out of jail all the time.”
The news didn’t surprise me. But then immediately after, another friend phoned me to say that Bombay was incensed by the news. The police had lathi-charged the mobs, even fired at them. The army had been called in and apparently there were even tankers on the streets.
I couldn’t leave home for three days. And so I began reading the newspaper and heard terrifying stories from people.
The Muslim League is a mosque. The Congress is a temple. This is what I gathered from the papers. The Congress seeks independence and so does the Muslim League, but their paths aren’t the same. For some reason they can’t work together. Perhaps this is because a mosque and a temple cannot both be in the same place.
I thought that the Hindus and Muslims would busy themselves in this war and their blood, which did not mix in mosque and temple, would finally mingle in Bombay’s drains and gutters. I was surprised to learn that even this thought was totally wrong. The city was divided.
There’s a long road that leads to Mahim. At the end of the road is a famous Muslim shrine (AP: Makhdoom Mahimi on Cadell Road). When the rioting began and reached this part of the city, the youngsters uprooted trees from the road and carried them into the bazaar as barricades.
Then something interesting happened. Some Hindu boys were dragging a big piece of metal on the road towards the shrine. A few Muslims walked towards them. One said politely to the Hindus: “Dekho bhai, this is where Pakistan begins.” A line was drawn on the road.
So those boys, intent on rioting, quietly took their pole and carried it over to the other side. It was said that after this, no “kafir” dared come into “Pakistan”.
Bhendi Bazaar is Bombay’s Muslim heart. There was no rioting here this time. Its Muslims – who earlier took the lead in violence against Hindus – now sat in the hotels sipping cups of tea and breathing long sighs.
I heard a Muslim tell my friend: “We’re only waiting for Jinnah saheb’s order.”
Listen to another story from this same riot.
An Englishman was passing in his car. A mob stopped him. He was terrified, unsure of what terrible fate awaited him.
He was surprised when one of the young men said to him: “Let your chauffeur sit in the back now and you drive him. You be the servant and him your master.”
The Englishman immediately took the wheel and the driver sheepishly sat in the back. The Englishman felt relief at being let off so easily. The rioters were absolutely delighted at their triumph.
In another place, the editor of one of Bombay’s Urdu film magazines was walking down the road. He was out on work to collect advertising dues and so had worn his suit.
He had knotted a tie and also had a hat on. The rioters stopped him.
“Hand over the hat and tie,” they demanded. Frightened out of his wits, the editor handed them over. The mob tossed the offending articles into a fire.
Then a young man said: “What about the suit? Even that’s a sign of the colonialist.” The editor now threw himself at their mercy.
“I have only this one suit. It’s what I have to wear to the offices of film companies and recover advertising dues from their owners,” he said, “If you burn it, I’ll be ruined and lose my earnings.”
When the rioters saw his tears, they let him off with his suit intact.
The place I live has mainly Christian homes. Christians of every shade – dark, wheatish and white. They consider themselves a part of the colonial race, the English. That’s why these riots affected the Christians badly. Their legs, dressed in trousers and skirts, trembled.
When news came of the violence getting closer, the men stopped wearing their hats. The women stopped wearing skirts and dresses and now wore saris instead.
In earlier riots, when we left home we carried with ourselves two caps. A Hindu topi and a Rumi topi. When passing through a Muslim mohalla, we put on the Rumi topi and when walking through a Hindu mohalla, the Hindu topi. In this riot, we also bought Gandhi topis. These we kept in our pockets to be pulled out wherever needed.
Religion used to be felt in the heart, but now, in the new Bombay, it must be worn on the head.