There was only one bathroom in the chawl and its door was broken.
The women of the building— Jewish, Marathi, Gujarati, and Christian— would gather there in the early morning to fill their buckets with water. The women would get together first thing in the morning and go to the bathroom where they would form a wall in front of the door and then one by one, they would bathe.
One day I got up late. I went to the bathroom and started bathing when the door suddenly opened. It was the woman who lived in the room next to mine, and she had a water pitcher under her arm. I don’t know why, but she stood there staring at me for moment. Then she abruptly turned around, and the pitcher slipped to the ground and began to roll down the hall. She ran away as though a lion was chasing her. I laughed a lot and then rose, closed the door, and continued bathing.
But soon the door opened again. It was Brij Mohan. I had already finished bathing and was putting on my clothes. He said, ‘Hey, Manto. Today’s Sunday.’
Then I remembered that Brij Mohan had to go to Bandra to meet his friend Peerun, whom he met every Sunday. She was a Parsi girl that Brij Mohan had been in love with for about three years.
Brij Mohan asked me for eight annas every Sunday for the train ride.
Once he got to Peerun’s house, the two of them would talk for half an hour, Brij Mohan would give her the answers for the Illustrated Weekly’s crossword, and then he would come back. It was pointless. All day he would labour to solve the crossword for Peerun, and though he had won some small prizes, they all went to her, each and every one.
Brij Mohan had countless photos of Peerun— Peerun in a shalwar kameez, in tight- fitting pyjamas, in a sari, in a sundress, in an outfit she wore to weddings, in an evening gown. He must have had over a hundred photos. Peerun wasn’t pretty at all, and in my opinion she was just the opposite, and yet I never told Brij Mohan what I thought. I never asked about her – who she was, what she did, how he met her, how he fell in love, or whether he planned to marry her – and Brij Mohan never talked to me about her. But every Sunday after breakfast, he would ask me for eight annas, go to meet Peerun in Bandra, and then come back in the afternoon.
I went back to my room, and after I gave him the money he left. When he returned that afternoon, for once he had something to say, ‘It’s over.’
‘I broke up with Peerun today,’ he said, as though relieved.
‘I told her, “Since I met you, I haven’t worked at all. You’re bad luck.” And she said, “Then stop seeing me, and we’ll see if you get a job or not. I might be bad luck, but you’re a real slacker— no one’s lazier than you.” So now it’s over, and, God willing, I bet I’ll get a job tomorrow. Tomorrow morning if you give me four annas, I’ll go meet Seth Nanu Bhai and I’m sure he’ll give me a job as his assistant.’
Seth Nanu Bhai was a film director, and he had already turned Brij Mohan away countless times since he thought Brij Mohan was lazy. But the next day when Brij Mohan returned, he shared with me the good news that Seth Nanu Bhai had very happily given him a job at 250 rupees a month. The contract was for a year, and it was all signed and sealed. He reached into his pocket and took out a hundred-rupee note and told me, ‘This is an advance. I really want to take the contract and money to Bandra and say to Peerun, “Hey, look here! I got a job.” But I’m scared that Nanu Bhai will fire me immediately. That’s happened to me many times. I get a job, go see Peerun, and everything’s wrecked. I get fired on one pretext or another. God knows why this girl is such bad luck. I’ve made up my mind not to see her for at least a year. I hardly have any clothes left. Over the next year I can get some made, and then I’ll go see her.’
Six months passed.
It seemed as though Brij Mohan’s work was going well. He had got some new clothes made and had bought a dozen handkerchiefs, and now he had everything that a bachelor needed. One day after he had left for the studio, a letter came for him. I forgot to give it to him that night, and it was only the next morning over breakfast when I remembered it. As soon as he got his hands on it, he cried out, ‘Ah, hell!’
‘What’s wrong?’ ‘It’s Peerun – and just when everything was going well,’ he said, opening the envelope with his spoon. ‘It’s her, all right. I’ll never forget her handwriting.’
‘What does she want?’
‘Shit – she says that she wants to see me this Sunday, that she has something to tell me,’ he said and then put the envelope in his pocket. ‘Look here, Manto. Just wait and see if tomorrow I don’t get fired.’
‘Come off it – what’re you talking about?’
‘No, Manto, just you watch,’ he said, sure of himself. ‘Tomorrow’s Sunday. Seth Nanu Bhai will come up with some excuse and fire me before you know it.’
‘If you’re so sure, then don’t go.’ ‘Impossible. If she wants me, I have to go.’
‘Well, anyway, I’m kind of fed up with working. It’s been more than six months now.’ Then he smiled and left.
The next morning after breakfast he left for Bandra. When he returned, he didn’t say anything, and so I asked him, ‘Did you meet your unlucky star?’
‘Yeah, I told her I’m sure to get fired soon.’ Then he got up from the cot. ‘Anyway, let’s go eat.’
We ate at the Haji Hotel and didn’t talk at all about Peerun during the meal. Then that night before going to bed, he said, ‘We’ll just see what tomorrow brings.’
I thought that nothing was bound to happen, but the next day Brij Mohan came back early. He laughed loudly when we met. ‘I’m jobless!’
‘Stop it,’ I said, thinking he was joking.
‘What had to be stopped has been stopped! What’s left for me to stop? Nanu Bhai’s up to his neck in it. He sold the studio, and all because of me!’ Then he laughed again.
‘This is quite a turn of events.’
‘Well, the obvious needs no explanation!’ Brij Mohan lit a cigarette, picked up a camera, and went out for a walk.
Things turned bad for Brij Mohan.
After he spent all the money he had saved, he began asking me again for eight annas for Sunday trips to Bandra. I still didn’t know what they talked about for those thirty or forty minutes. He was a great conversationalist, and yet what could he find to talk about with that girl— that girl who he was convinced brought him only bad luck? One day I asked him, ‘Brij, does Peerun love you?’
‘No, she loves someone else.’
‘Why does she want to see you?’
‘Because I’m clever. I can take her ugly face and think of a way to make it beautiful. I solve the crosswords for her and sometimes win her prizes. Manto, you don’t know girls like that, but I do. Whatever her lover lacks, I make up for it. That way she gets a complete man.’ He smiled. ‘It’s high fraud!’
‘So why do you see her?’ I asked, confused.
Brij Mohan laughed and then wrinkled his brow. ‘I like it.’
‘What about it?’
‘The way she’s bad luck. I’ve been testing it – how she’s bad luck – and now I know it’s definitely true. Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve been fired from each and every job. Now I just want to find a way to beat this.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I want to quit before I’m fired,’ Brij Mohan said very seriously. ‘I mean, I want to fire my boss. I’ll say, “Sir, I know you’re about to fire me, and so I’m not going to let you go to the trouble. I’ll leave on my own. Anyway, it wasn’t really you firing me but my friend Peerun, whose nose is so big it punctures cameras like an arrow!” Brij Mohan smiled. ‘This is my little wish. We’ll see if it comes true or not.’
‘That’s an unusual desire.’
‘Everything about me is strange,’ he said. ‘Last Sunday I photographed Peerun’s lover. Just watch him submit it to some competition and win!’ He smiled again.
One Sunday, Brij returned from Bandra and said, ‘Manto, it’s over.’
‘You mean you and Peerun?’
‘Yeah. My clothes are running out, and so I thought I’d better stop going. God willing, I’ll get a job in a couple days. I think I’ll go see Seth Nayaz Ali. He’s supposed to be making a film. I’ll go tomorrow, but could you find out where his office is?’
I asked a friend what Ali’s new telephone number was and relayed this information to Brij Mohan. The next day he went there, and when he returned in the evening, he was smiling contentedly. ‘Hey, Manto,’ he said, then reached into his pocket to pull out a piece of typed paper. ‘A contract for one film – 200 rupees a month. It’s not much, but Seth Nayaz Ali said he’ll give me a raise. Not bad, eh?’
‘When will you see Peerun?’
Brij Mohan smiled. ‘When? I was wondering that too— when should I see her? But, Manto, remember how I told you that I have one little wish that I want to see through? I want to see that through. I think I shouldn’t act too rashly but earn a little money first. I got fifty rupees as an advance. Here, you take twenty-five.’
I took the money and paid off an outstanding bill at a restaurant. Everything started going very well. I was making a hundred rupees a month, Brij Mohan was getting 200, and we were very comfortable. Then after five months, suddenly a letter arrived from Peerun.
‘Look, Manto, the Angel of Death!’
In fact as soon as I saw the letter, I got scared. Brij Mohan was smiling while he opened the envelope, and he took out the letter and read it. It was very short.
‘She says she wants to see me on Sunday. There’s some very important business.’ Then Brij Mohan put the letter back in its envelope and shoved it into his pocket.
‘I’ve no choice.’ Then he began to sing the film song, ‘Don’t forget, traveller, one day you’ll have to go.’
But I told him, ‘Don’t go and see her. We’ve been living real well. You won’t remember, but I recall how I used to lend you eight annas every Sunday.’
Brij Mohan smiled. ‘I remember everything, so it’s too bad that those days are coming back again.’
On Sunday Brij left to see Peerun in Bandra. When he came back, he said, ‘I told her that this will be the twelfth time that I’ve been fired because of her. Have mercy upon me!’
‘What did she say to that?’
‘Her words were, “You’re a silly idiot.”’
‘One hundred per cent!’ Then he laughed. ‘I’m going to tender my resignation tomorrow as soon as I get to the office. I already wrote it at Peerun’s.’
He showed me the paperwork. The next day he rushed through breakfast and left quickly for work, and when he came back that evening, he had a long face. He said nothing to me, and so I was forced to ask, ‘What, Brij? What happened?’
He shook his head without emotion. ‘Nothing, it’s all over.’
‘I gave my resignation notice to Seth Nayaz Ali, but then he smiled and gave me an official letter stating that my salary had been increased from 200 to 300 rupees, effective from last month!’
Brij Mohan lost interest in Peerun, and one day he told me, ‘As soon as her bad luck wore out, I got bored of her. My game evaporated! Now who’s going to screw things up for me?’
Excerpted with permission from Bombay Stories, Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Maat Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, Random House India.
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