Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-55) is perhaps the best-known Modernist fiction writer in South Asia. He was born in undivided India and post-partition, he moved to Pakistan in 1948.
Manto’s female characters stand in contrast to Tagore’s women in fiction. Women in Tagore’s world had issues with love, affection, jealousy, and patriarchy to deal with. In Manto’s world, they deal with basic survival issues. At the end of Manto’s storytelling, you know that you just went past a few pages in the life of a character, it is never that they lived happily ever after. Life is a constant struggle and to depict the lives of women from certain unsaid, unwritten milieu without weaving a fairytale is the charm of Manto’s stories.
One such story by Saadat Hasan Manto is ‘Dus Rupay’ translated as ‘Ten Rupees’
This is the story of a girl called Sarita pushed into prostitution at an early age by her mother.
The story begins with Sarita’s mother trying to find her in the chawl, as she heedlessly plays with other girls in the alley. It is a dirty place with trash heaps and public toilets somewhere in Bombay. Kishori is the middleman who brings customers for Sarita. On this said day, he has brought three men who were waiting outside in the car.
Sarita’s mother is a widow. And, she gambled away the Five Hundred Rupees that she received as compensation from the court. Her husband was brutally killed by his employer, with whom he had a brawl. Now her income was through 4-5 such outings by her daughter. In public, as pretense she reiterated her daughter’s innocence. She even picks up a fight when a neighbor’s husband tries to flirt with her daughter.
“Whatever happened to her must happen to everyone, right?” Sarita imagines other girls of age too go out on car rides, dark hotels, and the beaches. She even suggests her friend to join her during such outings and is thrilled to share stories.
Manto describes Sarita as not beautiful or fair-skinned, her skin being glossy due to humid Bombay weather but as stout. When the wind blew up her dress in the wind, the passing men would look at her calves. So, clearly putting across the ‘young girl’ as an object of gratification for men, while she is unaware and wishes to spend her time playing with other children. Her mother finally finds her and directs her to dress up for the rich men waiting for her in the car.
“Sarita was very happy to hear that a rich man with a car had come. She didn’t care about the man but she really liked car rides.”
Three men – Shahab and Anwar and their driver Kifayat from Hyderabad are waiting in a car for Sarita outside the settlement. Manto put the reader on the edge on what might happen to a teenage aged girl of about 13-14-years-old.
On the contrary in an ironical manner, it is an evening when Sarita relishes the car ride, singing to movie songs and enjoys the beach. She manages to lull the two men to sleep. The two men Shahab and Anwar drink beer and doze off in the car after being on the beach.
The story ends when Sarita, exhilarated at the end of a day spent with these three men, returns the Rs.10 one of them had given to her.
“Kifayat stared at it in amazement. ‘Sarita, what’s this?’ ‘This…why should I take this money?’ she replied and ran off, leaving Kifayat still staring at the limp note.”
Now, as a reader, it may be imperative to think that Sarita’s innocence is preserved because she has learned the trick to avoid physical encounters. Maybe her exuberance and charm have by far lulled everyone. Or, the truth is much darker.