Photographs by Hashim Badani | Dramatic reading by Kausar Munir | Text by Hashim Badani, Shubhra Dixit, Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

SAADAT HASAN MANTO, the renowned yet controversial Urdu writer, spent considerable time in Bombay — a city that featured almost like a character in many of his stories and essays. From living in a chawl in his early days, old Irani cafes, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods to goons on the streets, prostitutes and most importantly ordinary men and women — Manto’s depiction of Bombay bore much of his spirit too.

The essay Do Gaddhay (The Great Pothole Mystery) was written by Manto after he had moved to Pakistan and in the context of the newly-formed nation, but it may very well have been about India. Unsurprisingly, it seems just as topical in contemporary India.

As the agent provocateur, Manto puts in perspective the glaring injustices and the hierarchies that defy logic but repeat, seemingly ad infinitum; where the comfort of ministers continues to take precedence over the masses they claim to represent; where communist is a vilified word still bandied about without much thought; and the relationship between the government and citizens is, well, abusive. He expresses his own confusion over the status quo and says he will always regret that no one could explain to him why it was so.

This dramatic reading by lyricist Kausar Munir was recorded at the American Express Bakery building in Byculla, Mumbai. The building came into existence in 1935 on what was then known as Clare Road. Manto is believed to have lived on this street after his marriage, in a complex then known as Adelphi Chambers, now the Ismalia Co-operative Housing Society. It's a fragment of the city the writer inhabited for a large part of his adult life, from 1936 to 1948 (with a brief hiatus to Delhi in 1941), and for which he remained nostalgic till his death in 1955 at the age of 42. This is an attempt to place Manto's words in the Bombay he left about 70-odd years ago.

"After living there for 12 years I find myself in Pakistan. I’m here because of what I learnt there. If I leave and go elsewhere, I will remain the way I am. I’m a walking, talking Bombay [sic]... I loved the city then and I love it today," Manto said at a gathering in Lahore on 28 October 1951, as quoted by Professor Gyan Prakash during a talk titled 'Manto’s Bombay' in 2013 at the National Museum of Pakistan.

The question is, where is Manto's Bombay? It exists in fragments of his stories and physical structures which haven't yet been marked for redevelopment. You can't walk around and place Manto's Bombay in the Mumbai of 2018. That city is long gone. We are no longer the political hotbed, the multicultural city he knew or the one he yearned for after he moved to Lahore. However, if you walk the streets of south-central Bombay once dusk has set in, let your imagination run free, and squint just about hard enough — you will see glimpses of what Manto called 'home'.


Manto's first stint in Bombay began in 1936 and a chawl in Grant Road's Arab Lane was his first residence.

“I was paying nine rupees a month for a room that didn’t have water or electricity. The building was horrific. Gnats fell from the ceiling in thousands, and rats were everywhere, bigger than any I’ve ever seen, so big the cats were scared of them.”

— Excerpted from 'Peerun', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


Manto frequented the area around Kennedy Bridge. It wasn't the brothels that were the draw though, he went there to gamble or have a drink or two.

"...This place had neither furniture nor any space to keep it. And where would she bathe? There was no bathroom here. It was a two-storeyed building with forty rooms. For everyone, there were only two shared toilets, whose doors had vanished somewhere"

— Excerpted from Manto's essay, 'The Story of my Wedding', Why I Write, translated by Aakar Patel


Manto's Bombay, often, simply forms the backdrop to the drama that plays out in his stories. He does, however, mention Congress House off Lamington Road. The narrow lanes around Congress House still feel the same.

"Jinnah Hall and Congress House are both government-owned, but a urinal at a short distance is just as free to spread its dirt and stench."

— Excerpted from 'Mutari (The Urinal)'


The area around Arab Lane now has dilapidated,, crumbling structures. While the streets were full of activity and buzz during Manto's time, now they seem to be wrapped in a lull.

“If you haven’t been to Bombay, you might not believe that no-one takes an interest in anyone else. But the truth is that if you are busy dying in your room, no one will interfere. Even if one of your neighbours is murdered, you can be assured you won’t hear about it.”

— Excerpted from 'Mammad Bhai', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


When Manto moved to Clare Road, after his marriage, it was a far more upscale and cosmopolitan area, in contrast to what it is now.


Along with the Parsis, Muslims and Hindus, it was home to Baghdadi Jews and Anglo Indians, most of whom have now migrated.

"In earlier riots, when we left home we would carry two caps. A Hindu cap and a Rumi topi. When passing through a Muslim mohalla, we would put on the Rumi topi and when walking through a Hindu mohalla, the Hindu topi."

— Excerpted from Manto's essay Bombay In The Riots, translated by Aakar Patel.


Sarvi, an Iranian Cafe was a hub for intellectuals back in the 1930s. One can only imagine which stories Manto thought up there.

"...Take the cart out for a tour of Bhindi Bazaar or go to a saint’s shrine and then return to Arab Alley and go to an Iranian restaurant..."

— Excerpted from 'Mammad Bhai', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


"Most of the men slept during the day and worked nights in the nearby factory. Everyone lived right on top of one another, and yet no one took any interest in anyone else..."

— Excerpted from 'Dus Rupaye (Ten Rupees)', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


The area around Grant Road, apart from being known for brothels was also a gathering space for many as it housed many cinema theatres. Swarms of people descended here daily to see their favourite stars on the silver screen.

"...If you went past White Alley, you would come to the Playhouse where movies were shown all day. Lively crowds swarmed outside its four theatres, and men rounded up customers by ringing bells in an ear-splitting’ fashion and yelling, ‘Come in- come in- two annas- a first class film- two annas!’"

— Excerpted from 'Mammad Bhai', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


A bonesetter's clinic in Madanpura stands not far from Manto's home in Clare Road.

The stories written by Manto had elements of 'hiptulla', a word coined by the writer to describe eccentricity. There are some specific characters and locations that emerge prominently in his stories, which help a great deal in making sense of the city as it was. There is no clarity in terms of the exact meaning of this word. ‘Hiptulla’ could also be defined as peculiar, strange or something new.


Nothing remains of the building where stands this barber shop in Gamdevi which was established in the 1930s. The number of barber shops in the area has also reduced, over the years.

"...There were masseurs, too, who knocked their customers’ heads around...If you want, you can easily find a masseur at even three o’clock in the morning, and all night you can be sure to hear someone calling out from this or that street corner, ‘Pi-pi-pi’, which is Bombay shorthand for ‘massage’..."

— Excerpted from 'Mammad Bhai', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


While Manto arrived in Bombay in 1936, lived in the city for 12 years and then left for Pakistan in 1948, the most popular cafe then was B Merwan. It remains as it was then, with its old-world charm intact, right next to the Grant Road Station.

"If you walked from Faras Road down what people called White Alley, you would find some restaurants at its end. Restaurants are everywhere in Bombay, but these ones were special because the area is known for prostitutes..."

— Excerpted from 'Mammad Bhai', Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories, translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Alam


The area around Grant Road was a hub for every kind of vice and entertainment. Brothels stood beside cinemas; cinemas stood beside watering holes.

"When a friend is in trouble for want of money, I am inevitably troubled and saddened. But often I have desisted from offering help. This is because I need money to buy whiskey."

— Excerpted from Manto's essay 'Do Gaddhay (The Great Pothole Mystery)', Why I Write, translated by Aakar Patel

In this quest for glimpses of Saadat Hasan Manto's Bombay, it seems change has spared at least some pockets of the past. But as Manto would say, “For me, remembrance of things past has always been 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.” We, too, move forward.

Editorial support by Neerja Deodhar

- All photographs © Hashim Badani for Firstpost