Manto lived the early Bombay dream. He spent a little time in the film industry and found some success as a writer and a cultural figure. He was acquainted with some of the greatest names in the industry, as this piece shows, though he drops names very lightly. He tell us here the story of how he came to the city from Amritsar and how he settled here, getting married to a girl from Mahim.
The story of my adventures in Bombay (Meri Shaadi, by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel)
I’ve written somewhere that there were three significant events in my life.
The first was my birth, of which I have little information. The second was my wedding, the third my becoming a writer of short stories.
Since the episode of my writing is still on, it’ll be getting ahead of myself to talk about it.
For those who want a glimpse into my life, I’m writing about the story of my wedding, which is also the story of my coming to Bombay. I’m not going to reveal every detail, mind you, some of the material will be elided over because it is not for the public to know.
Let’s start our story a little before the event. Over a decade ago — I can’t remember the precise year — I was asked to leave Aligarh Muslim University. The reason was my tuberculosis, which was thought to be incurable. Anyway, to try and recuperate, I took some money from my sister and went to Batot, a village on Jammu’s border with Kashmir.
When after three months I returned home to Amritsar, I learned of the death of my sister’s little boy (she lived in Bombay and had returned there after a few days in Amritsar).
I should say here that I had seen very little of my father before he died. When my simple and very kind mother had married my sister off, she gave her son-in-law all the money our family had.
My mother now realised this was a mistake and things had become so bad that we were utterly at the mercy of others. On top of that came the news of my nephew’s death. On coming home I was therefore in a sort of depression. I felt like running away from it all. I even had thoughts of killing myself (had I stronger will than I do, I would have gone ahead with it).
Just then, I got a letter from Bombay. The owner of the weekly Musawwar, Mr Nazir, wanted me to come over and edit the journal. I packed my stuff and set off immediately. I did not even give a thought, I now realise, to how my mother would get by alone in Amritsar. But I was off.
When I reached Bombay, Mr Nazir hired me for a salary of Rs 40 a month. After he found out I was sleeping in the office, he began cutting Rs 2 from my salary towards rent every month. When he got me another job alongside, as a munshi of the Imperial Studios, for a salary of Rs 40, Mr Nazir cut my salary from Musawwar by half, to Rs 20.
And, of course, he continued to cut Rs 2 as rent.
Now this was the time when once-great Imperial Studios was in terrible shape. Its owner, Seth Ardeshir Irani, was trying very hard to set the company right, but it is obvious that in such a place salaries would not be paid on time — and they weren’t.
Seth Ardeshir’s ambition led him to think of producing India’s first colour film, and for this he imported expensive processing machines. The ambition was in keeping with his past. Seth Ardeshir had earlier made India’s first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931.
When the company was made to bear the burden of the colour film, things went from bad to terrible. But work continued.
We didn’t get our salaries, but were given a portion, called an ‘advance’. The rest of it was owed to us and showed on the company’s books.
The director of this colour film was Moti B Gidwani. He was a man of literature and fond of me. He asked me to work on the film’s script. I wrote it and, amazingly, he liked it. But he could not bring himself to tell Seth Ardeshir that the story of India’s first colour film had been written by a clerk.
It was decided to attribute the story to some famous person. At first no such man come to mind whom I knew. Then I remembered Prof Ziauddin, now dead, in Santi Niketan. He taught Persian to students in Tagore’s university.
I wrote to him explaining my problem. He was fond of me, and so agreed to participate in our little fraud.
The film released with a credit to him, and was a colossal flop (AP: The film was Kishan Kanya, released in 1937). The company’s straits became even more dire. At this point, on Mr Nazir’s recommendation, I was given a job in Film City at Rs 100 a month, and so I moved there.
When AR Kardar came to Bombay from Calcutta, Film City signed a deal with him for a movie.
Stories began to be written, including one by me which was liked by Mr Kardar. Unfortunately, fate then intervened.
Seth Ardeshir learnt I was at Film City. He may have lost some of his influence of old, but he could still command those producers of his generation to do his bidding.
He gave such a dressing down to the owners of Film City for poaching me that I was taken by the ear and sent back to Imperial Studios, with my script.
My salary was now doubled to Rs 80, and I was told I would be paid separately for my script. The film was being directed by Hafizji (of Ratanbai fame). When I had joined Film City, and was being paid regularly, I stopped sleeping at Musawwar‘s office and took up a room in a chawl, that was frankly disgusting. A chawl is a building with long corridors on each floor to which are attached single rooms. The toilets are common and on the ground floor, all in a row. I paid for this hovel a rent of Rs 9 a month.
The place was so full of bedbugs that they fell from the roof like rain.
Soon after, my mother then came to Bombay, where she was staying in my sister’s flat in Mahim.
When she came over to see my in my chawl room, she wept. My relations with my brother-in-law were strained. I was banned from entering their house and he had forbidden my sister from meeting me. I found his behaviour appalling, though I hope god is merciful to him.
Anyway, I was speaking of my mother’s tears. She noticed my poverty, the lack of clothes, my working at night in the light of a kerosene lamp. My eating in a cheap hotel. She noticed all this and cried, for I had seen better days before.
Remembrance of things past has always been for me a waste of time, and what’s the point of tears? I don’t know.
I’ve always been focussed on today. Yesterday and tomorrow hold no interest for me. What had to happen, did, and what will happen, will.
After she had cried her fill, my mother asked me: “Saadat, why don’t you earn more money?”
I replied: “What will I do with more money, Bibi Jaan? What I earn is sufficient for me.”
She said sternly: “No. The reality is that you cannot earn more than you do. If you had been more educated, it would have been different.”
That was true. But I had never been inclined to studying. I failed in the 12th three times before being admitted to college (AP: Manto actually failed in Urdu).
In college my mind wandered even farther. I failed twice again. When I went to Aligarh Muslim University, as I’ve told you before, I was booted out for having tuberculosis, and that was hardly my fault.
Despite all this, I tried to laugh off my mother’s concern. “Bibi Jaan, what I earn is enough for me. Now if I had a wife, you would see what I am capable of earning. It’s not very difficult to make money here, you know. A man can make his fortune even without a proper education.”
After hearing this, my mother asked suddenly: “Will you marry, then?”
I replied without a thought: “But of course.”
“Then come to Mahim on Sunday,” she said, “and wait on the footpath under the flat. I’ll come down on seeing you.”
She put her hand on my head. “We’ll arrange for your marriage, inshallah.”
As she left, she turned back: “But look! Make sure you cut your hair before you come.”