One look at Rafiq’s room was enough to tell me that he was down on his luck these days. There was one thing about him. Whenever he was going through a bad patch – or what in Bombay is known as karki – he would dress with the greatest care and in the most expensive clothes. Once he was over the hump, he would revert to ordinary clothes.
He was one of those people who not only know how to dress but also look good in whatever they wear.
We sat in his room for some time and then walked out into the hotel’s small garden. I had brought a bottle of whisky with me which we shared. While there, we were joined by a woman. She smiled at Rafiq and took a chair next to him without any formality. Rafiq introduced her to me.
She was a Sikh and had plenty of money of her own, but the film bug had bitten her and she had a crush on Ashok Kumar, which was why she came to Bombay every now and then, just to catch a glimpse of her idol. She was a big woman and Rafiq said to me in her presence, “I have told this sali several times that she should cure herself of this Ashok Kumar obsession. Just think about it. Were Ashok to lie on top of her, he would look like a parrot trying to fire a cannon.”
Rafiq kept laughing at his own joke for a long time. She did not react. That was another thing about him. He would laugh so much at his own stories that in the end those present had to join in. The Sikh woman had average looks and was slightly masculine in appearance. Although Rafiq kept conversing with her, it was clear that he had no interest in her. But that notwithstanding he continued to drop broad hints about wanting to take her to bed.
She, of course, had eyes only for Ashok Kumar. Finally, she told him in a characteristic Punjabi rustic way, “Now listen, Rafiq, I would rather couple with a dog than…” But Rafiq did not let her finish. “Say no more. You have no idea what a pedigreed dog I am!” Pedigree I do not know about, but what I would say is that Rafiq was indeed a dog though only courtesans and prostitutes could make him wag his tail. Housewives and straight women meant nothing to him.
This was our first real meeting and it led to many more. Rafiq was mean, selfish and low.
He only cared about himself. He believed in accepting hospitality, but never offered any. However, if he had an axe to grind, he would throw a big party for you. But he would then scout the table and eat the best pieces of meat himself! He hardly ever offered anyone a cigarette. During the war it was difficult to buy good cigarettes except in the black market.
One day, Rafiq walked into a studio I was working in holding a tin of Craven A cigarettes, my favourite brand. When I tried to take one, he moved his hand so that the tin was outside my reach. “Let me have one,” I said. Rafiq stepped back, shoved the tin in his pocket and said, “No, Manto. To begin with, I never offer anyone a cigarette; secondly, I do not want to spoil you. Go on smoking your Gold Flakes.” There were a couple of people around and I felt deeply humiliated.
Rafiq was utterly without a sense of honour, although as a Pathan it was one quality he should have had. It was said that before his affair with Zohra, he had an affair with her mother. He had next seduced Mushtri, Zohra’s elder sister, followed by Zohra and finally, Sheedan, the youngest sister.
Rafiq used to live in Bombay’s Mahim Road. In fact, he lived in the same building as my sister. I was already married and living in Adelphi Chambers, Claire Road, where Rafiq used to visit me. We would also run into each other at the All India Radio’s Bombay Station. One day I asked him, “So what keeps you busy these days?” “Lovemaking, but it is beginning to affect my health.”
A few days later, I heard that Sheedan had tried to commit suicide by taking a large dose of opium.
She must have pinched it from Zohra, who, like her mother, had a taste for the drug. It turned out that there had been a fight between the two sisters over Rafiq. Zohra had told Sheedan that she was stealing her husband from her. Sheedan was too young and too infatuated with her Pheeko bhaijan to know what was good for her. Anyway, she survived and was spared the dubious honour of becoming love’s martyr. As a result of this incident, Rafiq left Zohra and set himself up with Sheedan.
When Rafiq’s love life was at its most active, it so happened that a Hindu gentleman from Lahore came to Bombay with a young woman companion by the name of Zebunnisa. He rented a flat in Gulshan Mahal on Lady Jamshedji Road in Mahim. He was a strange character. Obviously rich, he did not really care what his Zeb did as long as he did not know. He was quite happy with the way things were.
Rafiq had somehow got to know him and had been over to his flat a couple of times, which was enough to have got Zeb interested in him. She was so taken with Rafiq that she would spend all her money on him and even bring him anything of value she found in her flat. The affair did not last as Rafiq got tired of her. When I asked why, he replied, “She is too straight. Not the sort of woman I enjoy.”
He had no interest in women who were nice and homely, because the ones he had known all his life were from the bazaar, women who swore and drank and told dirty stories. He felt no sexual excitement if a women showed “wifely” qualities. He was husband to every prostitute and dancing girl who entered his semi- Byronic life. He was a very special client of these women, a client who gave nothing, but took what he could.
He considered life itself to be some kind of a prostitute, a bazaar woman.
He would sleep with it every night, get up in the morning and start exchanging dirty stories with it. Then he would ask it to perform, and return the favour by performing himself. He believed that was how life should be lived.
I never found Rafiq depressed. He was always shamelessly happy, which was perhaps the secret of his good health. His advancing years had done nothing to him; in fact the older he grew, the more attractive he became to women. I used to say that when Rafiq reached the age of hundred, he would be transformed into a baby sucking his thumb.
Excerpted with permission from The Armchair Revolutionary and Other Sketches, Saadat Hasan Manto, translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan, edited by Ali Mir and Sadia Toor, LeftWord Books.