This is the angry, bitter, traumatised Manto who, having left Bombay for Pakistan early in 1948, wrote from Lahore arresting fables of the ravages and ruptures of Partition such as "Toba Tek Singh", the Manto who was capable of compressing the horror and the inhumanity of what he saw into stories sometimes no more than two lines long. (Here is one called "Resting Time": "He is not dead, there is still some life in him." "I can't. I am really exhausted.")
But there is another Manto, the Manto who came to the city of Bombay from his native Amritsar in 1936 at the age of 24, and who over the next twelve years, working as a scriptwriter in the Hindi film industry, became the poet of the charms of chawl life, of joblessness, gossip and drink, of rags-to-riches stories, of sudden affections and bitter partings, of vagabonds and prostitutes, of the sights and sounds of the big city, all of which he recorded with great affection and sly humour. This is the Manto I like best, and this side of him is often seen in its most vivid form not in his stories but in his non-fiction pieces about the film stars, directors, lyricists, and playback singers of his times, most of whom he knew very well through his work.
Here are Manto's pitch-perfect first three paragraphs from his essay on Ashok Kumar, which pitchfork us all at once into a world of frenzied passions and hectic disorder:
When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, the entire Bombay Talkies was in turmoil. The film they were making had gone on the floor and some scenes had already been shot. However, Najmul Hasan had decided to pull way the leading lady from the celluloid world to the real one. The worst affected and the most worried man at Bombay Talkies was Himanshu Rai, Devika Rani's husband and the heart and soul of the company.It is opening worthy of a great story or novel: so many things rush by so quickly, but by the end of it all we not only feel like we have a grip on all the action, but also on the natures of the three people implicated in it. Notice how sly Manto's comedy is. Logically the first sentence should have been, "When Najmul Hasan ran off with Devika Rani, her husband Himanshu Rai was in turmoil," and only later should Manto have spoken of how a film that was already on the floor was now ruined. But instead he makes us believe for a moment that the loss to Bombay Talkies is the most important consequence of Devika Rani's flight, and only tells us about her hapless husband in the last paragraph. And lest we think that he is being unnecessarily cruel towards Rai, Manto balances things out in the next two paragraphs. One pokes fun at Devika Rani in the juxtaposition of boudoir and film set (the latter being the place "…where her talents had greater chance of flourishing"), while the next pours cold water over poor Najmul Hasan, who had appeared in paragraph one a dashing hero.
S.Mukerjee, Ashok Kumar's brother-in-law, who was to make several hit movies in the years to come, was at the time sound engineer Savak Vacha's assistant. Being a fellow Bengali, he felt sorry for Himanshu Rai and wanted to do something to make Devika Rani return. Without saying anything to Rai, he somehow managed to persuade her to come back, which meant that he talked her into abandoning the warm bed of her lover Najmul Hasan in Calcutta and return to Bombay Talkies where her talents had a greater chance of flourishing.
After Devika Rani came back, Mukerjee convinced the still shaken Himanshu Rai to accept his runaway wife. As for Najmul Hasan, he was left to join the ranks of those who are fated to be deserted by their beloveds for less emotional, but weightier political, religious or simply material considerations. As for the scenes he had already done, they were trashed. The question now was: who was going to be his replacement?
And yet there is also something poignant about these paragraphs. That something is not to be found in the writing itself, which is too assured to reveal it, but we feel it when we find out that Manto wrote this piece and the pieces alongside it for a Pakistani film magazine in Lahore in 1950. He was out of work in the new world to which he had migrated, and pining for the Bombay that had supported not just his material life but also nourished his imagination and his powers of moral discernment for the best part of his adult life. Manto was never to return. His condition grew steadily worse in Pakistan, he was almost always out of work and had a family of four to support, he was prosecuted by the state on charges of obscenity for his story "Thanda Gosht", he took to drink, and finally died tragically early in 1955. These long journalistic pieces - about Ashok Kumar, Nargis, Rafiq Ghaznavi, Nur Jehan, Paro Devi - are not pieces concurrent with the events which they describe, but rather attempts to fix in memory a world which had been left behind forever.
Manto's portraits often bubble with a writer's insight into and sympathy for character, a feel for the shape of individual human nature in all its aspects. Here is a bit from his essay on Nargis, who became a star very young:
She was simple and playful like a child and was always blowing her nose as if she had a perennial cold - this was used in the movie Barsaat as an endearing habit. Her wan face indicated that she had acting talent. She was in the habit of talking with her lips slightly joined. Her smile was self-conscious and carefully cultivated. One could see that she would use these mannerisms as raw material to forge her acting style. Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things."Acting, come to think of it, is made of just such things." With this one sentence, presented as a tentative thought, Manto establishes the relation between what might be said to be a person's real self and the acted self that they project for the camera, showing how they overlap and are nourished by each other. Stars From Another Sky may be not just the most dazzling but also the truest book ever written about Bollywood.
Another thing I noticed about her was her conviction that one day she would become a star, though she appeared to be in no hurry to bring that day closer. She did not want to say farewell quite yet to the small joys of girlhood and move into the larger, chaotic world of adults with its working life.
Several stories by Manto have been made into films: Mrinal Sen's Antareen (1994), Fareeda's Kali Shalwar (2001), and Toba Tek Singh by the Pakistani director Afia Nathaniel in 2005, but I have not had the fortune of seeing any of these. Kishwar Ahluwalia's translation of Manto's story "The Hundred Watt Bulb" can be found here, and Mushirul Hasan's translations of the Manto's Partition stories can be found here. Here are two good accounts of Manto's life and work by Khalid Hasan and Khurram Ali Shafique.