I was somewhat nervous as I climbed up the wooden stairs of Adelphi Chambers. I felt like one does just before stepping inside an examination hall. I was anyway rather ill at ease when meeting unfamiliar people, and as if that was not enough, the “unfamiliar” in this case was Manto – whom I was going to meet for the first time. My nervousness slowly increased and reached the fringes of terror. I was panic-stricken and told Shahid, “Let’s go back. Manto may not be home.”
But Shahid poured cold water over my plans. “He never goes out in the evenings because that is his time to drink.”
Now just imagine. This was like routing the vanquished! Was it not bad enough that, to begin with, this was Manto. And now to make it worse, this was going to be a Manto who would be drinking! But I strengthened my resolve. What was the big deal, anyway? He certainly couldn’t gobble me up! Let his tongue be thorny if it was. I was not some fragile bubble that would deflate with a mere puff. We climbed up the dusty and creaking staircase. The door of the flat was half-open. There was a sofa-set in the corner of what appeared to be the drawing room. On the other side was a clean, white bed. Near the window was a long overladen table with a large chair in front of it. On the chair, sitting on his haunches, was a thin, wiry man, with an ant-like emaciated face.
“Do come, come in,” Manto said pleasantly, and stood up. He was wearing a khaddar kurta pajama and a Jawahar-cut jacket.
Manto always sat on the chair with his knees folded, which made him look small in size. But when he stretched himself out, he looked rather tall. And whenever Manto slithered out of his sitting position and stood up on his feet, he gave the impression of being full of venom.
“Oh! I had imagined you would be someone terribly dark, thin and feeble. Half-dead, in fact,” he said with a toothy smile.
“And I had imagined you would be a roaring Punjabi with a loud voice,” I responded. I had decided that he should be paid back with his own coin. He must not be allowed to dominate. And the very next moment we started arguing with all our might. It seemed as though we had done grievous damage to ourselves by not being acquainted with each other earlier and now needed to compensate for the loss. At times, the exchange of words became somewhat tangled and knotted but since there was still some reserve between us, I left it for the next meeting. For many hours after that, our jaws continuously chopped and sliced hordes of words and sentences about many different issues. I soon discovered that like me, Manto too was in the habit of not waiting for the other person to finish. He would start his retort without listening to the full response. And with this, whatever little formality remained disappeared. In quick succession, dialogue transformed into argument, argument into proper dispute and, on the strength of having known each other only for a few hours, we called each other – in rather literary language – stupid, crazy, and the architects of flawed arguments.
The combat went on, but I also detached myself a little and looked closely. Behind those thick glasses were eyes with large and dark pupils that seemed to be leaping out. Quite spontaneously, the image of a peacock feather floated through my mind. Now, what have eyes got to do with a peacock feather? I could never solve the puzzle but whenever I looked at those eyes, the image of a peacock feather would flash through my mind. It was perhaps the arrogance and the impertinence, along with congeniality, in those eyes which brought the image to my mind. My heart would miss a beat whenever I would look into them! I felt I had surely seen those eyes somewhere, seen them at close quarters. Guffawing, smiling solemnly, and showering barbs of sarcasm. Frail limbs stiffening as if they were approaching death.
Manto had a headful of hair, sunken, pale cheeks, and yellowed, crooked teeth. Suddenly, Manto broke into a choking cough. I was alarmed. It was a cough I was familiar with; I had heard it in my childhood and was deeply vexed.
I have forgotten what it was exactly but, in response to something, I said, “This is completely incorrect.”
And we broke into a proper fight. “You are just arguing for the sake of argument.”
“This is foolishness.”
“It’s cheating, Ismat-bahen.’”
“Why are you calling me your sister?” I asked in a tetchy voice.
“Just by the way. I usually don’t address women as sisters. In fact, I don’t even address my own sister as sister.”
“Then, are you saying it just to tease me?’”
“Not at all! How did you arrive at this conclusion?”
“Because my brothers always taunted me, teased me, beat me up, or got me beaten up.’”
Manto laughed loudly. “Then rest assured that I will always call you my sister.”
“In that case, you must also always remember that my brothers don’t have a very favourable opinion about me...this cough that you have, why don’t you get treated?”
“Treated! The doctors are asses. Three years ago, they had declared that I would die within a year. That I have TB. It’s obvious that I have proven their prediction false by not dying. And now I consider doctors nothing but fools. Magic healers and hypnotists are much more intelligent than these doctors.”
“Before you, there was another elderly gentleman who used to claim the same thing.”
“Which elderly person?’”
“My brother Azeem Baig. He is now resting under the earth.”
Soon we were arguing about Azeem Baig’s art. Shahid and I had come for a short visit, but we got so engrossed in conversation that before we realised it was eleven o’clock in the night. Shahid, who had been observing our skirmishes from the sidelines, was wretched with hunger. It would be one by the time we reached Malad and so we decided to eat at Manto’s. Manto asked me to fetch spoons and plates from the cupboard and went out to get rotis from a hotel.
“Just take the pickle from that jar.”
Manto hurriedly put the food on the table and sat on his haunches on the chair. The table, which till some time ago was an arena of literary activity, quickly transformed itself to serve as a dining table. Ignoring all etiquettes of serving others before beginning, we started right away, as though we had been eating together for years.
Heated discussion accompanied the food. After meandering a little, Manto kept coming back to “Lihaaf”, tearing it to pieces. That short story had become a real pain for me at the time. I tried my best to ignore him but he stubbornly refused to give in and shredded it completely. He felt really let down when I told him that I regretted writing “Lihaaf”. He harangued me and called me myopic and a coward. I was not willing to accept the story as my masterpiece but Manto insisted that I do. Soon, all restraint was thrown to the winds and we went beyond “Lihaaf” to argue frankly about many other things. And I was surprised to see the ease with which Manto could say the most rude and vulgar things. He said them with such bravado, spontaneity and innocence that one did not feel odd at hearing them. Or perhaps he did not allow the space for others to ponder over what he said. One felt amused rather than disgusted or angry with his words.
He mentioned Safia once again, just before we were to leave. Manto had remembered Safia many times through the evening.
“Safia is a really good girl.”
“Safia a cooks saalan really well.’”
“You will be really happy to meet her.”
“Why don’t you call her if you miss her so much?” I asked him.
“So, you think that I can’t sleep without her?” He was beginning to show his true colours.
“One can fall asleep even with a noose around one’s neck.” I evaded the issue.
“You really love Safia, don’t you?” I asked him in a confidential tone.
“Love!” He shrieked as though I had abused him. “I don’t love her at all.” He made a bitter face and rolled his big, black pupils. “I am not a believer in love.”
“Oh! So, haven’t you fallen in love with anyone?” I asked, faking wonder.
“Have you also never had mumps? Or pox? Surely you must have had whooping cough.”
He laughed. “What do you mean by love? Love is something that is really immeasurable and limitless. We have love for our mother, sister and daughter...and also for our wife. We love our shoes and chappals too. One of my friends deeply loves the bitch he owns. Yes, I loved my son.” He jerked himself up higher in the chair at the mention of his son. “Khuda ki kasam, he was this tiny but moved about. He had a big body. When he crawled around on his knees, he used to scratch out mud from cracks in the floor and eat it. He really listened to me, he obeyed me.”
Like many other fathers, Manto too had begun to convince us about the distinctiveness of his son.
“Believe me, he was barely about six or seven days old when I began making him sleep in my bed. I massaged his body and bathed him myself. He was not even three months old when he started giggling loudly. Safia needed to do nothing at all. All she did was feed him. She would sleep like a log through the night. I used to quietly give him milk from the feeding-bottle and she would not even find out about it. One should disinfect the feeding-bottle with eau-de-cologne or spirit before feeding children, otherwise they break out into a rash.”
He was speaking very seriously, and I kept looking at him and wondered, “What kind of a man is he, this specialist in bringing up children?”
“But he died,” Manto said, faking an expression of joy on his face. “It’s good that he died. He had made me his ayah. I would have been washing his nappies had he been alive today. I would have become completely worthless. It would not have been possible for me to have done anything else. It’s true, Ismat-bahen, I loved him.”
Just as we were leaving, he said again, “Safia is going to come soon. You will be really happy to meet her.”
Excerpted with permission from “My Friend, My Foe” by Ismat Chugtai from Manto Saheb: Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick, translated by Vibha Chauhan and Khalid Alvi, Speaking Tiger.