Saadat Hasan Manto
Perhaps the greatest short-story writer in Urdu, Saadat Hasan Manto, would always dress up in sparkling-white kurta-pajama, sit stooped in a chair with his legs drawn up under his body, its weight falling on them. Urdu novelist Ismat Chugtai once recounted: ‘I saw a man stooped, like an insect in a big chair against a large table.’
Manto loved fountain pens. In Bombay, where he had plenty of money while working in the film industry, he would go around looking for the exorbitantly priced Parker and Sheaffer pens – the most prized brands at that time. It ‘was their novelty, rather than utility that attracted him, for he seldom used them. To write radio plays and film scenarios, he used his Urdu typewriter, which was a slower process but gave him time to think, while for short stories he always preferred a soft pencil, which helped his hand keep pace with his thoughts’. Ismat had a green ‘ladies Parker’ fountain pen gifted to her by Manto, which I finally inherited, and is one of my prized possessions, despite the fact that it doesn’t work any more.
According to Manto’s nephew Hamid Jalal: ‘Though an agnostic, Manto would start every story, essay or play by inscribing the number 786 on top of the page, which means “In the Name of Allah”.’ And if he ever forgot to do so, he would discard the paper and start afresh on a new sheet. Commenting on this, Manto once remarked: ‘I who often deny the existence of God in one stroke, become a believer on paper.’
Shoes, sandals and gold embroidered jooties [footwear] were the love of his life, and he loved giving them away. Once, at a friend’s house, the host praised his newly acquired jooties. That evening, on his way out, he quietly left them behind for his friend and walked back home barefoot. ‘In fact, next to alcohol, footwear remained his abiding interest in life’.
At his grave in Miyan Sahab cemetery in Lahore is the following epitaph which he chose himself:
Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto. In his breast are buried all the secrets and nuances of the art of short-story writing. Even now weighed down by earth, he is wondering if he is the great story writer or God!
Ismat Chugtai too had her own peculiarities. She kept an old pack of playing cards near her with its greasy smell tickling her. She would always sit on a mattress on the floor of her study-cum- visitors’ room where a bolster was used as back support and a munim’s (accountant’s) desk as her writing table. She would keep on playing cards with her left hand and writing with her right one. Punjabi prose writer Gurbaksh Singh inhaled fresh jasmine buds, which lay on his writing table. While poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi wrote in a state of high excitement or frustration, Mulk Raj Anand (an author known for his realistic works) had a special chair – like a baby’s high chair – on which he climbed to write.
Khushwant Singh was a star writer – the only one who was recognized on the streets of most cities and towns in India and stopped for photographs or autographs or both. He may have been a simple man going by his attire, but he had some of the most expensive writing habits. While for writing his columns he used any pen that came his way, he started every new book of his with the most expensive pen in the market – a luxury he could afford and enjoyed. I often asked him what he did with the pens once the project was over. He never took the hint! (Finally, I think, just to shut me up he gifted me a Cartier gold oval ballpoint pen.)
He wrote only on yellow, ruled pads, always imported from a particular shop in Paris. He had a very small, in fact tiny, handwriting resembling ants crawling on paper. He never used a writing table – instead would sit in his living room, on an easy sofa-chair, next to the fireplace. He would put his feet on the spine of a cane stool and place his writing pad on his knees to write every day for hours together.
When he worked at The Illustrated Weekly of India and later at the National Herald, New Delhi, and Hindustan Times offices, he would half pull out a drawer of his office table, put his feet on it and write with the pad on his knees. A man of strict habits and a slave of self-imposed timings, he had a very tight writing schedule and was exceptionally rigid with his deadlines. Few know that while writing he would always have paan (betel leaf) and chew tobacco.
Amrita, Balwant, Shobhaa
Poet Amrita Pritam would lie in her bed for hours before she would spring up with the energy of a tigress and start writing either a sad poem or a happy love story.
Playwright Balwant Gargi could never work without a study table, though he would never write or type himself. He would always dictate directly to his secretary who would sit opposite him at the typewriter, with endless cups of boiling tea, though hardly consumed, being quietly placed and removed, at regular intervals by his cook. A telephone instrument, with its receiver off, was also a must next to him. In fact, it was the ticking sound of the electric typewriter, which he had imported from America, which set his thinking powers in motion making the words flow out. On the table had to be a dozen-odd imported ballpoint pens, in various colours, and reams of expensive typing paper. Mostly the page took just about six to eight typed lines. ‘Rest of the space is for editing and corrections’, he would say.
Shobhaa Dé is professional to the core who never interferes in the working of her editors. Like many authors I know, she too writes longhand and is very generous with her handwriting – long and big letters, with just about five lines or so fitting a page. Her handwriting reminds me of a cockroach, which, after a dip in a bottle of ink, is let loose on a sheet of paper.
Full of contradictions, writers are, mostly, ruthless and sensitive, emotional and uncaring, charming and unpleasant, who are in love with their own images. They have crazy habits and different ways to kick-start their imaginations and some of them have built up mnemonic devices to set them off on each day’s writing task.
Excerpted with permission from A Scrapbook of Memories, Ashok Chopra, Harper-Collins India.