Chronicling Safia Manto, my grandmother would be no mean feat. A woman who lived in the shadow of her beloved husband and renowned short story writer, Saadat Hassan Manto, her story went largely untold till the recent release of Manto: The Film. She has only lived in the folklore of my dreams, I being born 6 years after her untimely demise in November 1977. As much I have heard from familial sources about her magnanimity, humility as a human being besotted with a kindred heart and soul I cannot even fathom what I missed out on. Sometimes fate and destiny are so closely intertwined, that we seem powerless to change the impact it can leave. Missing her out was somewhat destined to happen, her absence being filled in by her youngest sister Zakia Hamid Jalal who has been equally affectionate, loving and caring towards all her grandchildren till date. Safia Manto, had an impact on the lives of many, ranging from her husband, daughters to all the family members that have nothing but fond memories of a lady who showered nothing but love and affection towards them.
*Safia with her sister Zakia Hamid Jalal*
Chartering through the life of Safia Manto, is like a woven fabric broken from one end but repaired from the other. Her struggles, compassion and challenges she faced throughout her life were immense. Immersed in a period of happiness to downright abject pain, she lived through life smiling and spreading only love all around her peers. Her personality didn’t have many facets besides it was interwoven with simplicity, innocence and forbearance to the core. All throughout her life she bore a hallmark of patience and sustenance, and her large heartedness was particularly striking. Even her proclivity in the light of abject financial stress didn’t hamper her hospitality in any given manner. Safia’s relationship with Manto, was an emotional bond that transcended everything else. In the immediate aftermath after their marriage, Manto documented the commonalities that they shared which included a Kashmiri origin, both wore spectacles, the first letter in their names started from S, and their birthdays were on the 11th of May. Manto’s vicissitudes must have been a tough proposition for Safia to handle. The ingenuity at play with Manto, coupled with streaks of intellectual arrogance and his tenuous relationships with his co-workers must have made things difficult for her. Although his alcoholism wasn’t limited to social circles during his days in Bombay and Delhi, but that period also corresponded to some of his best days in financial terms. As her middle daughter Nuzhat shared, she rarely mentioned about the first 16 years spent in Kenya, but her fond remembrance for Bombay remained etched within her memories for ever.
*Safia with her husband Saadat Hassan Manto & her sister Zakia Hamid Jalal*
The period Manto spent working after his marriage to Safia in Delhi and Bombay had its share of highs and lows. In 1940, they both were blessed with a son they named Arif. It was a period of elation for the couple, especially Manto who showered all his love towards his newborn and tenderly took care of all his needs. But that happiness proved to be short-lived as Arif died prematurely within a year a few days shy of his first birthday. That was a rudimentary shock to the couple, left Manto devastated and broke him down completely. The worsening alcoholism of Manto, tempered with bouts of depression during those dark days must have tested Safia’s resolve deeply. Her pain threshold must have been alarmingly high, and the patience a testimony of the nerves she possessed. Safia’s loss as a mother must have been unbearable and unimaginable to the extent that her daughter Nuzhat recently disclosed that she never made even a scant mention about the loss of her first born, Arif. Probably the reason for not disclosing this was to reduce the pain she may have suffered as a mother, and in hindsight Manto’s depressiveness must have forced to act as a calming and strengthening force during that period.
Safia’s influence and significance in Manto’s life cannot be underestimated in any regard. She was the love of Manto’s life in absolute terms of the word. His dedication and loyalty he owed to his beloved life was beyond any description. The extent to which Safia’s hold on Manto can be gauged from the fact that he published short stories like Hameed aur Hameeda which were penned in her name. Manto’s pinnacle as a writer financially reached its zenith in Bombay while he was working in the film industry in the mid 1940’s. Manto’s literary circle evolved and expanded in those days, giving Safia a glimpse of the present and future stars in the Hindi film industry of those days. For example, as mentioned in Ayesha Jalal’s book Pity of Partition, Safia became good friends with Ashok Kumar’s wife and went shopping with her on a few occasions where the shopkeepers went out of the way to favour them both. Safia also shared a very close relationship with Nargis, the renowned film actress who was making her way up the ladder in the film industry during those days. After migrating to Pakistan in the aftermath of Partition, Manto’s financial woes only increased, persecution and a lack of work opportunities took its toll on him. That had obvious ramifications, he became a chronic alcoholic affecting his relationship with Safia who was upset at him being unable to provide financial support for her and their 3 daughters, two of whom were born after Partition. There came a time when Safia contemplated leaving Manto due to a variety of issues at play, unimaginable even for a serene woman like her. The duress associated with Manto’s dwindling earning power turning nil, must have also influenced Safia to take this gigantic step. Thanks to a response penned by her beloved elder brother, Bashir Deen to the letter she sent, he advised Safia that since Manto was a sick man it wasn’t feasible to consider leaving in this situation. So she reconsidered her options and decided against it.
*Safia with her husband Saadat Hassan Manto*
Safia used to accompany Manto to all the mushaira’s or public readings of his stories. This stands as a testing ground for her immeasurable support for a man who courted controversy and persecution within his wake to wherever he went. She had the tenacity and courage to face the wrath or applause of the public at large in context of the controversy Manto normally generated. This also highlights the immense love and affection that accompanied their relationship which may have had its share of acrimonious moments but never stalled in any given manner. The support and resilience of Safia is worth commending considering the frailties of her husband which she embraced with great courage. In Bombay, Safia’s simplicity augured Manto to act as her stylist and took it upon himself to ensure that his wife would indulge in the latest of fashions. From getting the most precious of Sari’s made; he ironed them and then stylishly photographed her. The close proximity and intimacy in their relationship, was a culmination of the understanding between the two and they complemented each other. Manto’s delusions in the last few years of his life, his fading health must have taken an emotional toll on Safia, who couldn’t see the misery of her beloved husband.
After the death of Manto, the financial situation obviously didn’t improve in any regard. Thanks to the unending support of her mother, Mama Jee a towering personality in her own right, and also Hamid Jalal who helped her to raise their daughters up. Interestingly, as shared with me by Shahid Jalal, my maternal uncle, Safia due to her financial distress, she used to buy fruit at night time take the backdoor exit from her home and go to Beadon road to procure it. At her home in Lakshmi Mansion at any given moment of time it was a standard for 10-15 people to dine at her place inspite of all the financial hardships. As her daughters recall, she was a doting but protective mother a disciplinarian yet a bastion of truth and encouragement for them. She hardly ever received any financial aid from the government after the death of Manto in order to help bring up her daughters, royalty payments were scant to say the least. People kept commoditizing Manto knowing well that Safia was alive and kept publishing his works without paying any heed to the copyright laws. Financial compensation was hard to come by and a lack of adequate resources, guidance hardly ever came to her mind. Safia was a contented woman, by standing all the adversities she may have come across her iron resolve kept weeding it out till her dying breath. She had no materialistic aspirations, never got married after the death of Manto, considering she was almost 39 when she became a widow. Safia’s lifestyle was simplistic a reflection of her persona and practices she cherished the most. She hardly ever complained about her problems, confined them to herself totally. Safia Manto breathed her last in Karachi after suffering a cardiac arrest of the heart on November 23rd 1977.
Image Credits: Ayesha Jalal is the legal copyright holder of all these photographs and they must not be used in any way without her express permission.
Books used for research: Uncle Manto by Hamid Jalal from Black Milk, A Pity of Partition by Ayesha Jalal, Princeton Press 2013.