Nearly ten months after my nikah, I found myself in a rather delicate situation. One evening, Ashiq, an extremely foolish and uneducated friend, who was an ignorant sucker but an expert in the art of dancing, decided to cheer me up. He plied me with beer, helped himself to a little as well, and took me in a friend’s car to visit a girl he claimed was his student. When he knocked on the door, a female voice asked, “Who is it?”

Ashiq responded, “Ashiq,” which means, lover.

A fat expletive rang out, “Ashiq’s...!”

A furious Ashiq broke into the house. I followed him in and saw him thrash a servant. Let me cut the story short – the following day, when Ashiq was arrested, he told the police that there was another man with him, and I was detained.

In no time, my in-laws in Mahim heard about this misadventure. I was not quite sure how to face them. I put myself in the position of my lawfully wedded wife and imagined her in tears, thinking, “It is not even possible for me to get rid of this scoundrel I have married.”

I decided I should speak to Khalajan about the shameful episode. Nonetheless, when I expressed my concerns to her, she said, “You’re mad to have such concerns. We’re sure you’re blameless.”

Although relieved by Khalajan’s response, I continued to believe that the nikah had brought me nothing but bad luck. The company’s finances were reeling, and again, we were getting an advance payment instead of a salary. The fees for my story were due by right but I saw no likelihood of getting it.

Almost one year after the nikah, my in-laws were fed up of waiting, and at their insistence, Bibijan fixed a date for the rukhsati, a ritual when the bride’s family send her off from her childhood home (maika) to her marital home (susral).

Worried that my inability to run a household would turn a decent girl’s life into hell through no fault of hers, I was in no hurry. I wished with all my heart for matters to not head to a rukhsati, which for me was no less than the Day of Judgement.

Now, the weekly Mussavir was doing very well. Its office had moved to a more pleasant area, and Mr Nazir and I now lived in this office. There was a telephone, and Mr Nazir had a tiny car which he drove around the city to procure advertisements. Every Sunday, I went to Mahim and occasionally, through the cracks in the door, I caught glimpses of my wife. I returned home after dinner, cursing myself and asking why I had played the game of marriage when I knew I would be lousy at it.

With just ten days left for the rukhsati, I jolted into action and rented a flat at thirty-five rupees a month near the office – in fact, in the same building. I earned forty from Mr Nazir and asked him to pay the rent every month. I had to feed my wife and myself on an assured income of five rupees a month.

I cleaned the flat thoroughly, wiped its dirty wooden floor and doors with caustic soda, and locked it up. I gained an audience with Nanubhai Desai, and nursing a fantasy of goodwill, I asked about my salary and the fees for my story. But Seth Sahib asserted he could not give me a single paisa. Livid at his blunt response, I swore at him and was physically thrown out of the company’s premises.

Immediately, I telephoned Baburao Patel, editor of FilmIndia, and recounted the entire episode to him; and added that if Nanubhai does not settle my account, I would go on a hunger strike. Familiar with my hit movie, a vexed Baburao immediately telephoned Nanubhai and told him that if Manto goes on hunger strike, the entire press would stand by him and therefore, the seth must arrive at a compromise immediately.

Baburao and Nanubhai did not reach an agreement over the telephone, but when they met in the latter’s office, they summoned me. Nanubhai and I apologised to each other. Finally, we decided that because of the company’s sorry state, I should agree to half the amount owed to me and was given a post-dated cheque for nine hundred rupees.

After a few days, when I telephoned Nanubhai Desai to remind him that the due date was approaching and I was going to cash the cheque, he asked me to meet him before going to the bank. When I met Nanubhai, he asked me in a rather pathetic voice if I would accept five hundred rupees in cash.

I agreed immediately, although the proper amount owed to me for my honest hard work was eighteen hundred rupees, from which we had subtracted nine hundred in our agreement, and now he was offering me five. With just four days to the rukhsati, my hand was forced, and I had to take prompt action. I took the company’s car, which had just enough petrol to reach the petrol pump, where I paid for the gasoline and asked the driver to take me straight to the market.

I had five hundred rupees, and I used it to buy saris and other sundries for my bride. When I reached home, my pocket was almost empty, as was the flat – without even a broken chair.

I had an elder in town, Hakim Muhammad Abu Talib Ashk Azimabadi, a very refined gentleman. When he heard that I was bringing my bride home to an empty flat, he took me to a furniture shop, where the owner knew him well. On easy instalments, I bought goods from him that included two spring beds with steel frames, a cupboard for crockery, a second-hand dressing table, a desk, and a chair for me, and so on.

When the consignment of goods arrived in my flat, I was disheartened because the furniture disappeared in the two massive rooms. I purchased two wicker moorhas and put them in a corner, but like the rest of the furniture, they disappeared as well. I filled up the rooms with whatever I could find from here and there, and inspected the flat, in an attempt to delude myself that now it looked fully furnished.

Finally, the Day of Judgement arrived. Bibijan had moved in with me, and I had told her that I was going to arrange everything for the barat, the bridegroom’s procession to the bride’s house. Mr Nazir had sent invitations to several people, most of whom were filmwallahs, and my barat, therefore, was a filmi barat.

The guests included Mian Kardar; Director Ganguly; E. Billimoria and D. Billimoria, famous actors of the time; Noor Muhammad Charlie; Mirza Ashraf; Baburao Patel; and Padma Devi, the heroine of the first technicolour film. When Baburao Patel heard that Manto’s mother was on her own, he sent Padma Devi to our place to help Bibijan look after the guests. I managed to hire some chairs and order bottles of Vimto from the nearby Irani hotel but remained anxious, wondering how I was going to run my household.

I had just entered my office when my sister telephoned from Mahim and asked, “Tell me, how are you?”

I repeated Agha Hashr’s famous phrase, “The lion is in an iron cage,” and added, “I am facing a strange dilemma. I am preparing for my barat but have only four-and-a-half annas in my pocket. Four annas will buy me a packet of cigarettes and a matchbox for two paisas – and then the story’s over.”

The poor soul could not help me, and even though her husband had not permitted her to attend the rukhsati or see her brother as a bridegroom, she said to me, “Saadat, I’d give my life for you. Stop your car for a bit in front of my flat. I want to see you.”

She became very emotional, and I tried to keep our conversation brief, after which I went to the neighbouring salon, got a haircut, and bathed in the hammam – all on credit. By the evening, I had smoked an entire packet of cigarettes. And now all I had was a matchbox in my pocket – and that was half-empty.

I changed my clothes and put on the suit given by my in-laws and fixed my necktie. My hair was of an acceptable length; when I looked at myself in the mirror and was confronted by a cartoon, I laughed a lot.

After the guests joining the barat had assembled, someone turned on the festive lights. Padma Devi and my mother attended graciously to the guests before a cavalcade of ten to fifteen cars headed towards Mahim. I was in Nanubhai Desai’s car, bareheaded and without a sehra, the traditional veil of flowers that covers the bridegroom’s face.

When we reached Jaffar House, I asked the driver to drive on a little further where I could see my sister standing on the footpath. I got out and walked up to her, and with her eyes brimming with tears, she stroked my head lovingly, congratulated me, and offered a prayer for my future happiness. I hurried back to the car and asked the driver to reverse.

As I walked in, I saw Raffique Ghaznavi, Director Nanda, and Agha Khalish Kashmiri engrossed in banter. Khalajan had made excellent arrangements for a splendid feast upstairs on an open terrace. The food, in keeping with Kashmiri tradition, was as delicious to eat as it was a sight to behold. Everyone ate to their hearts’ content, and after dinner, the guests began to chat. Agha Khalish Sahib recited a humorous poem, extempore.

When the festivities were over, I was summoned downstairs and delivered to the bride. Now, everything feels like a dream. I cannot recall the jumble of thoughts in my mind when my bride was with me. I caught her hand, and in a shaky voice, said, “Come on, then.”

We walked down the stairs, and Billimoria offered his car. Bibijan made the bride sit in the back seat, and sat next to her, before she asked me to sit. This meant that Bibijan was sitting with a Qur’an wrapped in a velvet cover on her lap, between my bride and me. My bride’s neck was laden with garlands of flowers.

When the car started, my mother began to recite a verse from the Qur’an under her breath. By now, I was less agitated and wanted to tease my bride, but what with mother sitting between us reciting the Holy Qur’an, all desire froze instantly.

I cannot recall how long it took us to complete the journey. Suddenly, we were home, in a building constructed in the old style, with more wood and less brick, and commonly held to be one of the grand hotels of Bombay at one time, won in a bet from a friend by His Highness Sir Agha Khan. Mother went up to the flat with the bride. I was thanking my friends when Mirza Ashraf arrived with a truck carrying the bride’s dowry.

As the dining table, chairs, a sprung bed, teapoys, a sofa set, trunks, and so on were offloaded, Mirza Ashraf and the truck driver began a longish argument over the fare. With Mirza Ashraf acting the clown, finally they settled matters, carried everything to the flat, and arranged all the items here and there temporarily. Before he left, Mirza Ashraf whispered in my ear, “Look here, young man, don’t make us lose face!”

I was exhausted; besides, my throat was parched and did not respond to Mirza’s jest. The following morning, one-fourth of my body had transformed into a husband, and this had a calming effect on me. I drifted into my imagination and could see stretched across the balcony a clothesline with swaddles and nappies hanging from it.

The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto

Excerpted with permission from the essay ‘My Marriage’, from The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume I, Bombay and Poona, translated from the Urdu by Nasreen Rehman.