Manto, who died in 1955, explores the seamy underside of Bombay in 14 stories of economic exploitation with little personal redemption.
“Khushiya,” the first story in the collection, introduces us to the eponymous title character and simultaneously plunges us into Bombay’s insalubrious atmosphere. Khushiya is a pimp who, at the beginning of the story, calls on Kanta Kumari, one of his prostitutes. Perhaps not unexpectedly, she greets him at the door wrapped only in a towel. At first embarrassed when Kanta thinks it’s no big deal, Khushiya next believes he should take her casualness as an insult. In the following story, “Ten Rupees,” we meet Sarita, a good-time girl of about 15, whose mother is prostituting her. Although Sarita is a carefree spirit, it’s sobering to hear her mother’s advice: “Look, my little girl, remember to talk like a grown-up, and do whatever he says.” So much for childhood innocence. “Barren” recounts a love story between Naim, a servant, and Zahra, the daughter of his master. Eventually, they marry and are happy despite the anger of Zahra’s father, but then tragedy strikes. Naim narrates this story to a character named Manto—perhaps the author himself, who appears as an interlocutor in several other stories. At the end, however, Naim reveals his story is not what he originally claimed it to be. In “The Insult,” we meet Ram Lal, who pimps 120 prostitutes all over Bombay, the most notable being Saugandhi. At least by the end of this story, we have a character who is able to find her own voice and become self-assertive.
Presented in a realistic, almost reportorial style, these stories are both unremittingly bleak and exceptionally powerful.