Manto and Shyam: A partitioned friendship

Hai dhoop ka bhi saaya, shola hai kabhi shabanam
Lagta hai mujhe tum sa dil ka to her eik mausam
Beetay huaye lamhon ki khushboo hai meray ghar mein
Book rack pay rakhein hain yaadon kay kayee album

(Zubair Rizvi)

One was born a Muslim in Ludhiana and grew up in Amritsar, both places that became Hindustan. The other was born in Sialkot and grew up in Rawalpindi, both places that became Pakistan. One was bespectacled and geeky, the other young and incredibly good looking. Still the writer Sadat Hassan Manto (born 1912) and actor Sundar Shyam Chadha (born 1920) lived, worked and became inseparable in the melting pot of Bombay where they spent the happiest years of their short lives.

The two literally bumped into each other on the staircase of the High Nest building on Lady Jamshedji Road sometime in 1940s and thus started a friendship that never ended but like many others was torn apart by the events of 1947.

Manto spent 10 years in Bombay, which was the most productive and successful part of his life. Here he found acceptance, recognition and made a lot of money, though he spent it without any care in the world. He was very fond of the dashing and devastatingly handsome Shyam who was always falling in love with beautiful women, sometimes several of them simultaneously. Although he did make odd movies, Shyam did not become really popular till after Partition, and although he had countless affairs the constant variable of his life was his relationship with a Muslim actress from Lahore, Mumtaz Qureshi known as Tajie who bore him two children.

As the events of Partition unfolded the carefree lives of Manto and Shyam became turbulent and cloudy. Bombay became part of India, and though riots and killings were few, the terrible stories of such mayhem were widespread and the atmosphere was tense. Manto was torn between his love for Bombay and his friends and the concern about his future as a Muslim in Hindustan. His wife Safia had gone to Pakistan with their daughters, though it was only till things settle down. Manto could not decide to stay or leave. He was afraid, confused and suffered from feelings of being shunned by the film industry for being a Muslim. However, his friendship with Shyam was solid as a rock.

At that time Shyam, who had been kicked out by Tajie for another indiscretion, was living with Manto whose family was in Pakistan, and it was then that something happened which forced Manto’s hand.

Manto and Shyam visited a family who had migrated from Rawalpindi and they narrated harrowing tales of what they had seen and endured.  Manto noted that Shyam was deeply moved and on the way back he asked Shyam, ”I am a Muslim, do you want to kill me?” and Shyam replied, ”Not now, but at that time when I was listening to their story I could have killed you.” And Manto realised the cause behind the violence, where friends had become foes, and decided it is best if he relocates to Pakistan.

Shyam tried his best to convince Manto to stay but a crack had appeared and Manto was unable to ignore this.

Manto spent his last evening with Shyam downing shots of whiskey as both said ”hiptullha” each time. This meaningless word was like many Manto had coined. This one was born on a train journey to work and became a part of Bombay film industries language. Its origin was only known to these two like many others of each other’s secrets.

Next morning Shyam accompanied Manto to Bombay port, and when it was time for him to board, the two bear hugged while Shyam shouted, ”Pakistan Zindabad” and Manto replied with ”Hindustan Zindabad”. ‘Hiptullha!’ shouted Shyam as he turned and walked down the gangway, taking long, resolute strides never once looking back.

While Manto struggled to make ends meet in Lahore, Shyam’s career as an actor really took off. The two kept in contact through letters and in 1950 Shyam visited Lahore and they met. But it was nothing like the old times, as Manto recalled: “Shyam was in a strange mental state. He was intensely conscious of his presence in Lahore, the same Lahore whose streets were once witness to his numerous romances. This Lahore was now thousands of miles from Amritsar. And how far was his beloved Rawalpindi where he spent his boyhood? Lahore, Amritsar and Rawalpindi were all where they used to be, but those days were no longer there, nor those nights which Shyam had left behind. The undertaker of politics had buried them deep, only he knew where.”

Shyam also felt coldness from Manto, perhaps because Manto was weary of the difference between their financial positions and afraid that Shyam may offer him money.

Not long after that, in 1951, Shyam who many believe would have given Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand a run for their money, tragically died after falling from a horse during a shoot. Manto at that time was battling his own demons, and was a patient at a mental hospital in Lahore. When he heard of Shyam’s death, Manto writes:

“I distinctly remember that when I read about Shyam, I said to the inmate in the room, next to mine, ‘Do you know that a very dear friend of mine has died?’ ‘Who?’ he asked.

‘Shyam.’ I replied in a tearful voice. ‘Here? In the lunatic asylum?’

I did not answer his question. Suddenly, one after another, several images sprang to life in my fevered brain: Shyam smiling, Shyam laughing, Shyam screaming, Shyam full of life, utterly unaware of death and its terrors. So I said to myself that whatever I had read in the newspaper was untrue… even the newspaper I held in my hand was only a figment of my imagination.”

Shyam’s wife relocated to Pakistan with their two children and remarried. Their daughter, Saira Kazmi, is a beautiful and talented woman had a successful career as an actress and is now a leading producer. Incidentally her husband, also an actor, studied at Gordon College Rawalpindi where Shyam also studied.

Manto did not live for long either, drinking himself to death in 1955.

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