Sahay: Saadat Hasan Manto
“Don’t say that a hundred thousand Hindus and a hundred thousand Muslims died. Say two hundred thousand people died. Muslims might have thought that by killing a hundred thousand Hindus, the Hindu faith would be wiped out. But it’s alive and will continue to live. Similarly, after killing a hundred thousand Muslims, Hindus might have gloated over the extinction of Islam. But the reality is before you. Islam did not suffer the faintest scratch.
Only fools think that religions can be hunted down with guns. Religion, the sacred, faith, dharma, conviction, belief – all the things which exist not in our body but in our soul: how can they be destroyed with daggers, knives and bullets?”
Mumtaz was in very high spirits that day. There were just the three of us, we had come to drop him to the ship. He was leaving us and going to Pakistan. To Pakistan – about whose existence none of us had any delusions or pride. The three of us were Hindu. Our relatives in western Punjab had suffered loss of property and lives. That was probably the reason why Mumtaz was leaving us. When Jugal received a letter from Lahore saying that his uncle was killed in the riots, he had been deeply pained. Consequently, as a result of this shock, in the course of conversation one day he’d said to Mumtaz, “I wonder what I’d do if riots broke out in our locality?” Mumtaz asked him, “What would you do?” Jugal replied in a very grave tone, “I think it’s very likely that I’ll kill you.” Hearing this, Mumtaz had turned completely silent, and his silence continued for about eight days, ending only when he suddenly informed us that he was going to Karachi on a ship, at a quarter to three that afternoon. No one among the three of us discussed this decision of his. Jugal was certain that the reason for Mumtaz’s departure was his remark, “I think it’s very likely that I’ll kill you.”
Perhaps he was still thinking about whether or not he really had it in him to kill Mumtaz without any compunction.
Mumtaz, who was his bosom friend. That’s why he was the most silent among the three of us. But the strange thing was that Mumtaz had become unusually talkative. Especially a few hours before his departure.
He started drinking as soon as he woke up in the morning. He organized the packing of the luggage and so on, as if he was merely going on a short trip. He talked to himself and laughed all by himself. If anyone observed him, they would have concluded that he was speechless with joy to be leaving Bombay. But the three of us knew well that he was merely hiding his emotions, trying to fool us as well as himself.
I really wanted to talk about his sudden departure. I signaled to Jugal too, to broach the subject. But Mumtaz did not provide us the slightest opportunity. After three or four drinks, Jugal became even more silent and went and lay down in the other room. Brijmohan and I remained with Mumtaz. He had several bills to pay, there were doctors’ fees to be paid and clothes to be fetched from the laundry. He completed all these chores cheerfully. But when he took a paan from the shop in the market beside Banke’s hotel, tears welled up in his eyes. As he walked away from there, his hand on Brijmohan’s shoulder, he said softly, “Do you remember Brij, ten years ago, when my circumstances were so fragile, Govind had lent me a rupee?”
On the way, Mumtaz was silent but as soon as he reached home he resumed his unending chatter. Although this made no sense whatsoever, nevertheless, it was so interesting that Brijmohan and I frequently joined in that, and when it was almost time to go, Jugal too joined us. But when the taxi headed towards the harbor, everyone fell silent.
Mumtaz bade farewell to the sprawling markets of Bombay. And so the taxi reached its destination. It was terribly crowded, thousands of refugees were leaving. Very few were well off, and very many were poor. The place was bursting with people, but I felt as if Mumtaz was the only one travelling. He was leaving us and going to a place that he had never seen and knew nothing about. Which would be alien to him. But this was just my personal notion. I can’t say what Mumtaz thought. When all the luggage had been taken to the cabin, Mumtaz took us to the deck. Jugal remained silent. Perhaps what he’d said was still playing on his mind and heart, “I think it’s very likely that I’ll kill you.”
Mumtaz ordered brandy from the ship’s bar. He had been drinking this from morning. The four of us stood along the window, glasses in hand. The refugees were hurriedly boarding the ship, and nearby, gulls hovered over the almost still sea.
Jugal suddenly emptied his glass in a single draft and said to Mumtaz with great sadness, “Forgive me Mumtaz. I think I hurt you that day.”
Mumtaz paused a while and asked Jugal, “When you said, ‘I think it’s very likely that I’ll kill you,’ had you really thought so at that moment? Had you arrived at that conclusion conscientiously?”
Jugal nodded and said, “But I regret it.”
“If you’d killed me, then you would have regretted that even more,” Mumtaz said. He continued in an extremely philosophical vein, “But only if you had declared in that state that it was not Mumtaz, not a Muslim, not a friend, but a human that you killed. If he was a bastard, it was not his bastardry but just him that you had killed. If he was a Muslim, then it was not his Muslimness but his life that you wiped out. If his corpse fell into the hands of Muslims, then there would have been one more grave in the graveyard, but there would actually have been one less human in the world.” After a spell of silent reflection he began talking again. “Maybe my co-religionists would have called me a martyr. But by God, if it were possible I would leap out from my grave and scream aloud – I don’t want this mantle of martyrdom! It’s like getting a degree without even taking an exam! A Muslim killed your uncle in Lahore. You hear this news in Bombay, and then you kill me? Tell me, what on earth could we fight about? What reward can the one who kills you and your uncle in Lahore claim? I would say that those who were killed died like dogs, and the ones who killed, pointlessly soiled their hands with blood, it was completely pointless.”
Mumtaz became extremely emotional as he spoke. What struck me in particular was his comment that things like religion, the sacred, faith, conviction, dharma and so on, exist not in our bodies, but in our souls. Something that couldn’t be destroyed by daggers, knives and bullets. So I said to him, “You’re absolutely right.” Mumtaz heard that and took stock of his views before he said, somewhat impatiently, “No, absolutely not! I mean, yes, that’s right, but perhaps I wasn’t able to convey properly what I want to say. When I referred to religion I did not mean this religion or dharma, in which ninety-nine per cent of us are trapped. I meant that special thing, which somehow blesses a person with a stature that’s different from other people. The thing that’s proof of a person’s humanity. But what’s that thing? Unfortunately I can’t hold it in my hands and show it to you!” His eyes sparked suddenly as he said this, and it seemed he had begun asking himself something, “… but what was so special about him? He was a devout Hindu, his profession absolutely base, and yet, despite that, his spirit was so luminous!”
I asked him, “Whose?”
The three of us were startled. There was no formality of any kind with Mumtaz, and so I asked him gravely, “A pimp’s?”
Mumtaz nodded in confirmation. “I’m amazed at the kind of person he was, and even more amazed by the fact that for most people he was just a pimp, a middleman for prostitutes. But his conscience was very clean.” Mumtaz paused for a while. As if he was refreshing his memory of past incidents. After some moments he began talking again. “I don’t remember his full name, something Sahay. He was from Benares. Everything about him was very clean and orderly. Although the place he lived in was very small, he had artfully divided it into separate rooms. There was also an arrangement for purdah. There were no cots or beds. But there were mattresses and pillows. The sheets and covers etc. were always sparkling. There was a servant, but he himself did all the cleaning, with his own hands. Not just the cleaning, but all the work, and he never shirked any task. He never cheated or defrauded anyone. If it was very late at night, and the only booze available nearby was diluted with water, he would clearly say, don’t waste your money sir. If he had any doubts about a girl, he didn’t conceal that and, what’s more, he had even told me that in the space of three years he had earned twenty thousand rupees. Taking a commission of two and a half on every ten, he needed to make only ten thousand more. I don’t know why it was only another ten thousand and why not more. He told me that once he’d saved thirty thousand rupees he’d return to Benares and open a cloth shop. I can’t tell you why it was specifically a cloth shop that he was keen to start.”
After I’d heard all this, I couldn’t help remarking, “A strange and peculiar fellow!”
Mumtaz continued his narrative. “I thought he was a sham from head to toe, a big fraud. Who would believe that he considered all the girls engaged in his enterprise to be his daughters? What I also could not understand then was the fact that he had opened savings accounts in the post office in the names of each girl, and went every month and deposited their total earnings. And it was entirely beyond my credulity that he provided for the sustenance of ten to twelve girls out of his own pocket. Everything about him seemed excessively contrived.
“When I’d gone to his place one day, he said to me, ‘Amina and Sakeela are both on leave. I give the two of them a day off every week so that they can go out and eat meat and so on from some restaurant. You know everything is strictly vegetarian here, according to Vaishnav custom.’ When I heard that, I smiled inwardly, thinking that he was spinning this yarn. One day he told me that the Hindu girl from Ahmedabad, whose marriage he’d arranged with a Muslim customer, had written him a letter from Lahore saying that she had prayed for something in the shrine of Daata Sahib, and that this had been granted. So she had then prayed for Sahay, that he got his thirty thousand as soon as possible and that he could go to Benares and open his cloth shop. I laughed when I heard that. I thought, because I’m Muslim he’s trying to please me.”
I said to Mumtaz, “You thought wrong. There was no difference between his words and his actions. It’s possible he had his limitations. It’s likely he made some mistakes in his life. But he was a very fine man.”
Jugal asked, “How do you know that?”
“From his death,” Mumtaz replied, and became silent for a while. He then gazed at the point where the sky and the sea were wrapped in a cloak of mist. “The riots had started. I had woken up very early and was passing through Bhindi Bazar. The market was almost desolate because of the curfew. Trams were not running either, and so in search of a taxi I reached the vicinity of J.J. Hospital, when I saw a man lying huddled on the pavement beside a large basket. I thought it was some street-vendor sleeping there. But when I saw blood stains on stones there, I stopped. It was murder! I thought I should move on, but there was some movement from the body. I stopped once again. There was no one else around. I bent down and looked at him. I saw Sahay’s familiar face, but it was full of blotches of blood. I sat down beside him on the pavement and looked closely. His white shirt, which was always spotless, was drenched in blood. It looked like a fatal wound. When he muttered softly, I clutched his shoulder firmly and shook him, the way one awakens someone sleeping. I called him by his half-name a couple of times. I was about to get up and go when he opened his eyes. He gazed at me intently for a while with his half-open eyes. A spasm suddenly seized his whole frame. He recognized me and said, ‘You…? You?’ I began asking him lots of things. How was he here? Who had attacked him? How long had he been lying on the pavement? The hospital’s right in front, should I inform them?
“He didn’t have the strength to speak. After my volley of questions, he muttered with great difficulty, ‘My days are over. It’s God’s will.’
“Who knows what God willed, but I was not at all comfortable with the fact that I, a Muslim, in a Muslim neighborhood, was witness to a man dying, aware that he was Hindu, knowing that the one who killed him was Muslim, and that at the last moment, at the time of his death, the man standing beside him was Muslim. I’m not a coward, but at that moment my plight was worse than that of a coward. On the one hand was the fear that I might be apprehended, and on the other the fear that even if I wasn’t apprehended, I’d surely be taken in for questioning. It even occurred to me that if I took him to the hospital then, who knows, he might frame me to exact revenge. That he’d think, I’m going to die, why not take him along as well. Thinking along these lines, I was about to go when … or rather, I should say that I was about to run away when Sahay called me. I stopped.
“Though I didn’t want to stay, my legs froze. I looked at him as if to say, ‘Hurry up mister, I have to go!’ Doubled up in pain, he undid the buttons on his shirt with great difficulty and put his hand inside. But when he could not do any more he said to me, ‘There’s a bundle in the inner pocket. Some jewelry and twelve hundred rupees. That’s… that’s Sultana’s. I had… I had kept it with a friend… Today I was… about to send it… because… because, as you know sir, it has become very dangerous… Please give this to her, and tell her to leave at once… But… please take care of yourself.’”
Mumtaz fell silent after saying this.
But I felt as if, far away, where the sky and the sea met in a cloak of mist, his voice was becoming one with the voice of Sahay that emanated from the pavement in front of J.J. Hospital.
When the ship’s whistle blew, Mumtaz said, “I met Sultana. When I gave her the jewelry and money, there were tears in her eyes.”
When we descended after bidding Mumtaz farewell, he stood on the deck, along the window. I hailed Jugal, “Don’t you think Mumtaz is calling out to Sahay’s spirit, to be his travel companion?”
Jugal merely said, “If only I were Sahay’s spirit!”
(Translated from the Urdu by V. Ramaswamy.)