Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto: A review

Thirty-seventh book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.

When ‘Bombay’ was changed to ‘Mumbai’ many years back (it’s actually a decade or more, but seems like yesterday), I was a kid. It didn’t really affect me so much, but I used go around correcting people every time they called ‘Mumbai’, ‘Bombay’. I don’t know why I did that, maybe I asserted my sense of belonging to the city by claiming to know the correct name and declaring it to those who didn’t love it enough to care. Or maybe, it was just a sense of smug satisfaction of having just corrected someone. Whatever it was, I stuck to the name and have used only Mumbai ever since.

Some of these people, I used to think, were actually pretentious snobs who did not want to associate themselves with the linguistic cultural movement of Mumbai. I was also far more nationalistic back then, and saw ‘Bombay’ to be a vestige of the colonial past of India and wanted to shake it off. Anyway, what happened is that I consciously avoided ‘Bombay’ and soon, it was out of my lexicon.

I still meet people who use ‘Bombay’ and I have asked them many times why they do that when it is clearly no longer ‘Bombay’. They tell me that they don’t know, they just like the sound of ‘Bombay’. I gained a little understanding of why they do that, when at the beginning of the year, I read Jerry Pinto’s ‘Em and the Big Hoom’.

Bombay is not just a name, it stands for the cosmopolitan air of a young city that throbs with life. A city of great inequality, yet full of opportunity. An unforgiving city; an all embracing city. A city that never sleeps; a city where one can sleep anywhere and at any time. Bombay is the city that people love and adore; a city for which they have a special corner in their heart. While Bombay is the warmth and camaraderie of people staying wall to wall in chawls and sharing their city with quaint little bungalows housing unassuming rich people; Mumbai is about cut-throat competition and high rises that stand isolated from the crowded slums.

bombay stories coverBut above all, Bombay, is Manto’s Bombay. It is the city of playful prostitutes and the insouciant destitute. Where Khushiya the pimp, blushes when his girl opens the door to him naked. Where for ten rupees, a young girl gets to take a horny grown up duo, on the ride of their lives through the city! Where the smell of a girl lingers on longer than her memory. It is the city of good times where time stands still. Goodwill and love are what drive Manto’s Bombay and the foundation of the city is laid on liberty and the pursuit of carefree happiness.

Where Mammad Bhai is not at all, the terrifying goon that he is made out to be and Mozelle isn’t such a selfish bitch after all. And where Janaki finally finds love in a vial of penicillin. Manto’s Bombay is a city of love and a sort of deliberate careless humanness.

Manto wrote in Urdu (or perhaps Hindustani) about Bombay, but Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed have done a wonderful translation. I don’t know how much better the original version will be, but I can say for sure that this version does carry the essence of the stories. For those of us who aren’t well-versed with Urdu, this book offers a beautiful chance to experience the literature. Don’t miss it.

Now that I’ve read Manto’s stories about Bombay and know what it’s all about, I will try to find my way back to it. I just hope that I don’t run into Peerun on the way, or my luck is up.

(The words in italics are the titles of the stories in the book. I have also collected excerpts from the book. A big thank you to Utkarsha for lending me this book and encouraging me to read it.)

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