Manto has moved to Bombay from Amritsar and found a job in a magazine, and in a film company. He has little money, lives in a chawl and is fond of drinking. When his mother comes to him and is horrified by his state, he says to her nonchalantly that he isn’t earning more only because he doesn’t need to. If he were married, he would immediately make more money.
His mother says he should marry, and in a moment he regrets, he says yes. She tells him to come to where she stays (in Mahim, with her daughter) the next Sunday, instructing Manto to make himself presentable and get a haircut.
Meri Shadi (by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Aakar Patel)
I didn’t get that haircut.
I did however manage for some reason to put black polish on my canvas shoes. I had to pay twice the usual rate to get them cleaned and white again.
That Sunday I wore them with my white slacks and went off to meet my mother. I reached Mahim and stood on the footpath in front of Anang Leto Mansions as she had asked me to. Mother was waiting in the balcony of my sister’s third floor flat. She came down and asked me to walk with her.
But only 25 feet down the road, we stopped at a building, Jaffer House. We went to the third floor, where mother knocked on a door. A maid opened and we went in. Mother went into the ladies’ quarter of the flat. I was welcomed by a fair and good-looking man of middle-age. He took me into the living room and sat me down with great affection. He was informal and put me at ease immediately. We began to chat and soon told one another what was important about ourselves.
His name was Malik Hasan. He worked for the government, and had an interesting job. He was a fingerprint specialist with the police. His salary, and this is the level of detail he was comfortable revealing, was reasonably good. He had fathered many children. He liked, and this was interesting also, to bet on the horses and to gamble.
He filled out the crossword every morning but hadn’t won any prize doing this. This was what I learnt about him.
I told him everything about myself, holding nothing back. That I worked in the movies, for a company that didn’t pay salaries, only an advance now and then so that employees would not be reduce to begging.
I’m amazed that when I revealed to him I drank, even in such straightened circumstances, a bottle of beer every evening, he did not react negatively. He heard all that I had to say intently and with great interest.
When I rose to leave, Mr Hasan knew every page from my book of life. As we walked back, Mother said the family had come to Bombay from Africa. “They know your brothers well,” she said. Mr Hasan had been a barrister for 10 years in East Africa. She added, and here was why I had been summoned to Mahim on this Sunday, there was a girl in the family for whom they were in the process of finding a groom.
Many proposals had come and had been rejected as unsuitable. What they wanted was someone from a Kashmiri family, like ours. “I’ve told them about you and kept nothing hidden,” she said. Well, that was it then. Whatever I had omitted to reveal in my own candid session, Mother had finished off in hers.
What could this lead to, I asked myself. That they would agree to me as the man for this girl I could not imagine. There was, I’m being honest here rather than modest, nothing about me that would make me fit for her or any other respectable girl.
I had put all thought of this behind me by the time Mr Malik invited me home the next Sunday. Again, when I went he was very gracious as a host and warm to me.
Lunch was soon served.
There was chicken, meat koftas, vegetable curry and a delicious chatni of dhaniya-pudina and pomegranate. Actually all of it was delicious – but so hot that sweat broke on my brow. Soon, however, I became used to the spice and enjoyed the meal.
After a couple of more Sunday invitations, I met the family and became familiar with them. After this, one day mother said to me without warning: “They’ve agreed to give her to you.”
Now, as I told you, I had laughed off this business of getting married. When I heard her words I was staggered. That someone would give me their daughter – especially after knowing me! – I had not imagined possible.
Exactly what did I have on offer as a suitable candidate? I had no proper education after passing my 12th standard (in the third division). I was employed in a place that paid bits of salaries, not salaries. And my line of work was films and journalism. Such men as me are not welcome in the company of the gentry. My house was a slum (and even that I had to pull strings to get after the landlord found out I was involved in Bollywood). I wasn’t ready to do this, not prepared at all. And when my mother added that she had agreed to the proposal on my behalf, I began to panic. I didn’t show that to her, or say anything that might indicate it, but my thoughts turned immediately to how I could be rid of this disaster that, truth be told, I had invited upon myself.
After much thinking and considering, I came to the conclusion that thinking and considering were useless here. I surrendered to my fate. I would just go ahead and not resist it as it came. Now I had made up my mind, but the reality was that I was still broke. How would I pay for the ceremony? This was troubling, especially because by now the company had stopped paying even the “advance” that it infrequently did earlier. Meanwhile came news from mother that she had set a date. I thought of running away from Bombay, but some strange power held my feet.
Only one unpleasant solution came to mind – that I confront my employer, Seth Ardeshir Irani, with the news of my wedding and get some money out of him.
The company owed me one and a half thousand rupees. Now if I got this money, I’d be free of worry. Heck, I would be rolling in it.
And so I walked up to Mr Irani. He didn’t have the time to hear me at length. Whatever I could say to him as he walked from one place to another, he heard on sufferance.
Then he said to me: “Look Manto, you’re aware of the company’s state. If it were healthy, I’d have married you off myself.” This was true. He was a large-hearted man and many employees in the past had seen the measure of his generosity.
But now he had little to offer and I could see the despair on his face at not being able to give me my dues.
You can imagine how disappointed I was. I had in fact begun to walk away when he called to me. “I can only do this – give you the things necessary for the wedding,” he said, “Go call Hafiz.”
I ran to get Mr Hafiz and Mr Irani gave us the names of a few shops. He wrote something on a chit and said: “Take Munshi Manto with you and get him whatever he needs.”
We set off in a car and came to a market. Here I picked out a couple of saris. These were debited to Mr Irani’s personal account. Next stop was the jeweller’s. Here an assistant was sent with me, because I had wanted the girl to choose her wedding ornaments herself. We reached Jaffer House. The girl’s mother, whom I called Aunty, was shown the ornaments by the jeweller’s man. She picked out a diamond ring, a pair of pearl earrings, a pendant and some bangles. I pleaded with her to take more, but she didn’t want this to be an expensive deal for me.
I wish I had said to her: “Aunty, such an opportunity will not come again for me. They owe me one and a half thousand rupees.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t and all of this came to four or five hundred only. I never got the rest, and only a few days later, the company folded. Now Mr Nazir, in whose magazine Tasawwur I worked, doubled my salary back to Rs 40. This was a relief, and I could continue downing that bottle of beer every evening (which was important).
I began to suspect that this wedding was ill-omened. I had no support in getting it organised. I had neither friends in Bombay nor loved ones. I had a sister here, true, but I was forbidden from even entering her house. All the work for the event I had to do myself. People had to be invited, stuff had to be bought – not to forget that I needed a haircut.
But I was at it. As I was returning from giving an invitation to Syedd Fazal Shah, owner of Shah Jahan Mahal Hotel, I slipped and fell on some stones. I fell so hard and hurt myself so badly that I fainted. Now I’ve fainted only three times in my life. This was the first time. The second time on hearing news of my mother’s death. The third time when my son died. This falling down and fainting was certainly not a good sign and I was convinced now that the wedding was going to be a disaster for me.
Anyway, I bought what was needed from the market, and then I reached Jaffer House for the nikah. My body sang out in pain as I climbed the stairs up to their flat. And here, I entered a totally different atmosphere, a festive place.