It is peculiar, but whenever a girl writes to me, she addresses me as “bhai” or brother before she continues, in rather curious and charged emotional prose, to inform me that she is seriously unwell.
The account of her ill health is followed by endless praise of my writing. I cannot understand why all women who write to me suffer from some sickness, perhaps because they know that I, too, do not keep good health. Perhaps they want my sympathy. I cannot think of any other reason. Invariably, I do not respond to such letters, but occasionally I do. After all, it is part of my duty as a human being to respond to a heartfelt note.
‘A few days ago, I received a longish letter, yet again from a woman whose name I do not wish to disclose. She wrote to say that she admired my writing and informed me that she had been unwell for some time, adding that her husband also suffered from some ailment. She thought he was the cause of her sickness. I did not respond to this letter and received another in which she chastised me for my silence. Compelled, I put pen to paper and expressed my sympathy for her. She wrote back to say that her health had deteriorated, and she was about to die. I composed a very sympathetic response, in which I told her, “…to give up on life means spiritual death. Build your resolve; your sickness will disappear without a trace. Not that long ago, I too was at death’s door — doctors had given up, but I did not contemplate death. As a result, my doctors released me from the hospital.” I added, “Belief in yourself will make the impossible possible. Convince yourself that you are healthy.”
‘Her five-page response made it amply clear that my sermon had not affected her in the least. She informed me that she had arrived at a logical philosophical conclusion that God did not wish her to live in this world for long. She also asked me to send her my latest books, which I did. I received an acknowledgement with thanks and another burst of praise, which infuriated me. In my opinion, the books I had sent had little merit since I had put them together merely to earn a living. I wrote back, “…your praise is unmerited; these books are drivel; read my earlier work, where you will discover the real me.”
‘In the letter, I discussed my views on the art of short-story writing at some length and later asked myself why I did not write such a long and considered exposition for a literary journal. Yet, now that it was written, I had to post the epistle. Her response arrived three days later, and in it, she addressed me as, “Dear Bhaijan.” She managed to find my earlier work and was reading it, but her illness was getting worse by the day. She asked if she should consult a hakim because she had lost faith in her doctors. I wrote another long sermon and advised her to consult either. Importantly, I reminded her, “Remember, you are your own best messiah. If you confront your anxiety, you will recover in no time.”
‘She wrote back to me after a month to say that she had taken my advice but did not see the desired outcome. She informed me that she was on her way from Hyderabad to meet me and would be in Bombay within three days, hoping to spend some time at my place. Astounded and worried, I wondered what I would do if the lady were to turn up. An inveterate loner, I lived in a two-room flat. I gave the matter some thought and concluded the lady could spend a few days in one of the rooms, and I could fix a consultation for her with a very respected hakim who was very considerate towards me.
‘For the next six days, I remained on edge. If the newspaper boy knocked on the door, I jumped, thinking the lady had arrived. When the houseboy in the kitchen scrubbed dirty utensils with ash, I mistook it for the sound of her sandals. By the seventh day, convinced that there was no chance of her turning up, I was sitting and reading accounts of Hindu-Muslim riots in the Hindustan Times when there was a loud knock on the door. I thought it must be the milkman and hollered for the servant, “Rahim, check who’s there.”
‘Rahim, who was making tea, left the kettle to boil over on the stove and stepped out to open the door. He returned shortly and said, “A woman is here.”
‘Stunned, I asked, “A woman?”
“Yes. A woman. She is standing outside and wants to see you.”
‘I realised this must be the same sick woman who had been writing to me and said to Rahim, “Make her comfortable in the living room; tell her Sahib will be with you shortly.”
“Very well,” said Rahim and went off.
‘I put the newspaper aside and went to the bathroom. I gave some thought to the woman and imagined her suffering from tuberculosis or some form of paralysis. I asked myself why she had come to see me and recalled she had to consult a doctor. I took my time to bathe and wondered if she was good looking. Several faces flashed before my eyes, and I concluded she was physically disabled and in need of financial assistance. As it happened, it was the third of the month; I had disbursed several sundry bills from my salary and had a balance of three hundred rupees in my pocket. Not stretched on the financial front, if the woman needed help, I would give her a hundred rupees. It crossed my mind that if she had some vile contagious disease, I should get her admitted to a hospital. I had several doctor friends at J. J. Hospital, who would never refuse if I were to ask them to help an impoverished woman.
‘I am not comfortable in the company of women, to the extent that I had agreed to a nikah about a year and a half ago but had not made any arrangements to bring my bride home. I had never been close to a woman and had no idea how to behave with my wife. I poured jug after jug of water on my body to prepare myself to meet this unknown woman, waiting for me in the living room of my tiny flat. I took my time to get dressed; I oiled and combed my hair and lay down on my bed to think. More time elapsed before Rahim came in and said, “The woman wants to know how long you will be.”
‘I said, “Tell her he says he’ll be with you in five minutes; he’s getting dressed.”
“Very well,” said Rahim and left.
‘After our prolonged correspondence, it was pointless to ponder further over this matter. Besides, the woman had travelled a long distance, and human decency demanded that I meet her and look after her.
‘I got up from my bed, put on my slippers, and entered the living room. The woman was in a burqah. I greeted her and sat down in a corner. All I could figure out through the black niqab was her sharp nose. I felt uncomfortable but taxed my mind to start a conversation, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long. It’s my habit…”
‘The woman interrupted me, “It doesn’t matter. There is no need to stand on ceremony. I am accustomed to waiting.”
‘I was not sure how to respond, and the first thing that came to my mind was a question, “Have you been waiting for someone?” ‘She lifted her niqab ever so slightly to wipe away her tears with a tiny hanky and said, “I beg your pardon?”
‘A glimpse of her chin, as lovely as the tip of a Banarsi mango, left me mesmerized and speechless.
‘Eventually, she broke the silence, “You asked me if I was waiting for someone. Do you want to know?”
“Yes…do tell me, but let it not smack of despair.”
‘The woman threw back her niqab; I felt the moon had emerged from behind a dark cloud. She lowered her eyes and said, “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I said.
“I am your wife…. Remember, you had a nikah a year and a half ago? I have been writing to you to tell you that I am sick, but if you keep me waiting in this manner, I know I will die.”
‘The following day, I brought her home with great fanfare, and now I am most content.’
A friend who is a short-story writer and a poet shared this story with me, and I wrote it down in my way.
Excerpted from The Collected Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto: Volume I, Bombay and Poona (Rs 999, pp.560), translated by Nasreen Rehman, with permission from Aleph Book Company