|The hundred watt bulb - 2|
Saadat Hasan Manto
He wondered about the woman. Who is she and why is she doing this? And who is this pimp? Why is he hurting her? And why do they live in this tiny room, lit by such a harsh light?
The piercing light of the room had blinded his eyes, his very mind. How can anyone sleep in the light of a hundred-watt bulb?
Still lost in thought, he did not notice two shadowy figures loom up. The pimp and the whore.
"Take a good look," the pimp said, keeping to the shadows.
"I have," he replied.
"Will she do?"
"It’ll be forty rupees."
"The money first."
He could not comprehend anything that was happening. He reached into his pocket, took out some notes and gave them to the pimp. "Count it."
A rustle of notes, then the pimp said, "There’s fifty here."
"Keep it," he said, wishing he had a huge stone with which he could crush the head of this honest broker.
The pimp said, "Take her, then… but listen, don’t trouble her too much. And please bring her back here after a few hours."
They came out of the building. In the tonga, he sat in front, and the woman sat at the back. The pimp salaamed. Once again, he felt like picking up a rock and smashing his face in.
He took the woman to a deserted hotel.
He looked closely at her. She seemed to be completely wasted. Her swollen eyes were downcast. Her shoulders were slumped, as though she was a ruined building on the brink of collapse.
"Lift up your face," he said.
"What?" She was startled.
"Nothing. I just said… why don’t you say something?"
Her eyes were turning red, and hard, as though someone had sprinkled red pepper on them. But she was silent.
"Your name?" he asked.
"Nothing at all," she snapped back.
"Where are you from?"
"Wherever you want me to be from."
"Why are you so sarcastic?"
She suddenly came to life. Turning her stony red eyes towards him, she said, "Do your thing. I have to go."
"Where to?" he asked.
"Where you brought me from," she said indifferently.
"You can leave now, if you want."
"Why don’t you do what you have to… Why are you harassing me?"
"I don’t want to harass you… I sympathise with you." His voice betrayed emotion.
"I don’t need your sympathy." Her voice was sharp. Then she almost screamed, "Do what you want to do, and let me go!"
He tried to pat her head gently. But she pushed his hand away and said, "Don’t trouble me. I haven’t slept for many nights… I just want to go back and sleep."
"You can sleep right here," he said gently.
"I did not come here to sleep. This is not my home." Her voice was even sharper than before.
"Is that your home?’
"Don’t talk rubbish! I don’t have a home. Just finish your thing and let me go… or take your money back from that… that…" She checked herself.
In her present condition, it was pointless to ask her anything, or even sympathise with her. "Come, I’ll take you back," he said.
The next day he narrated the whole story to his friend in another derelict hotel of Kaiser Park. The friend turned maudlin: "Was she young?"
"I don’t know. I never really saw her properly because all the while I was thinking, why didn’t I just pick up a stone and bash the pimp’s head in?"
"That would have been the right thing to do."
The evening’s incident still bothered him, and he felt restless. As soon as they had finished their tea, he left.
His friend looked around at the tonga rank, but could not spot the pimp. It was past seven o’clock. He stood in front of the same large building. A few steps ahead and he was inside. It was very dark beyond the threshold but when he reached the staircase, he saw a very bright glow at the top. Stealthily, he began to climb. On the last step, he hesitated. The light glared in the room. But there were no voices, no sound at all. He stepped forward.
Hiding behind the wall, he peered into the room, and the first thing he saw was the hundred-watt bulb. Blinded by the glare in the tiny room, he turned his face to the darkness. Then he looked in again, but this time at the floor, to avoid the glare. A woman lay on a reed mat on the floor. He looked at her carefully. She was fast asleep, her face covered with a dupatta. Her chest heaved gently to the rhythm of her breathing, but as he crept in further, he had to stifle a scream. Just a few feet from the woman, a man lay on the bare floor, his head smashed in. A brick, covered in blood, lay beside him.
He took a quick look, then ran down the stairs. He slipped and fell in his hurry to get away, but he didn’t feel the pain as he ran home.
All night that sight stayed with him, in his nightmares.
Translated from the Urdu story ‘Sau Candle Power ka Bulb’
by Kishwar Ahluwalia with TLM
p. 1 p. 2
Saadat Hasan Manto was a cult figure in Udu literature. He moved from India to Pakistan
at the time of Partition. The author of hundreds of short stories, radio plays and articles,
he died in penury in Lahore in 1955