Kuldip Kaur: A Sketch by Manto

Here’s an extract from our edition of sketches by Saadat Hasan Manto, The Armchair Revolutionary and Other Sketches. About the translation, as noted in the book, Kalid Hasan, who translated it from Urdu, takes significant liberties with the original. He often loosely paraphrases Manto, leaves out entire portions of the sketches, and even adds the occasional sentence of his own. In many cases, the titles of the sketches are not Manto’s own. We chose not to alter or edit Hasan’s translations nor have we pointed out every instance where the English translation deviates from the original. Instead, we limited our intervention to footnoting only the instances where Hasan’s translation either distorts Manto’s intent or produces confusion.

Kuldip Kaur: Too Hot to Handle1

KK they called her, short for Kuldip Kaur. She appeared in countless films. Whenever I saw her name flashed across a billboard, I would always think of her nose because she had the pertest2 nose I have ever seen on anyone.

When Punjab was engulfed by communal rioting at the time of Partition, Kuldip Kaur was in Lahore making movies. She left for Bombay with the actor Pran who was like her male mistress. He had already made a name for himself through his roles in films produced by the Pancholi studio. He was a handsome man and a popular figure in Lahore because of his impeccable clothes and the most elegant tonga in the city which the rich of those days used for joyrides in the evening. I am not sure when the affair between Pran and Kuldip began because I was not living in Lahore at the time, but such liaisons between people in the movie world are not uncommon. During the making of a film, an actress could be carrying on with more than one man associated with the production. While the affair between Pran and Kuldip was on full blast, Shyam returned to Lahore, a city he loved to distraction, after having tried his luck in Bombay. A ladies’ man by nature, it was only a matter of time before Shyam would turn his attention towards Kuldip. They would certainly have had a fling had another woman, Mumtaz, later popularly known as Taji, not entered Shyam’s life just at that point.

Kuldip was offended by Shyam’s sudden change of course and never forgave him. She was not the kind of woman who changes her mind once it is made up. One day in Bombay, the three of us — Shyam, Kuldip and I — were going home by train and it so happened that we were the only occupants of our first-class carriage. Shyam was boisterous by nature and when he realised that he was practically alone with Kuldip, he began to flirt with her, hoping, of course, to pick up the thread from where he had let it drop in Lahore. He had just had a fight with Taji. Of his other friends, the actress Ramola was in Calcutta and Nigar Sultana was currently the mistress of lyricist Dina Nath Madhuk. So, in his own words, he was “empty handed.” He was teasing Kuldip, “Sweetheart, why are you always trying to slip away from me? Why don’t you sit next to me?” Kuldip’s nose looked even more pert as she replied sharply, “Shyam sahib, don’t try these tricks on me.” I recall the rest of the conversation but, on second thought, I would rather leave it out because it was quite risqué. Shyam was incapable of speaking in a serious manner, so in his characteristic style, he said to Kuldip, “Darling, dump that owl’s offspring you call Pran and come to me. He is a friend of mine; I will explain it to him.”

Kuldip with her pert nose and big eyes which she used to full effect, replied even more sharply, “Keep your paws off me.” This kind of rebuff from women never had an effect on Shyam. He laughed, “Sweetheart, you used to be mad about me in Lahore, or have you forgotten?” Kuldip now laughed sardonically, “You fool yourself.” “That is not true. You were mad about me,” Shyam insisted. I looked at Kuldip and I could feel that she still had a crush on Shyam but her obstinate temperament was in the way, so she batted her eyes a few more times and replied, “I was, but no longer.” Shyam’s response was typical of him, “Look, if not today, then tomorrow, you are fated to come to me.” Kuldip was angry. “Look here Shyam, let me tell you for the last time that there can never be anything between us. You just stop preening yourself the way you do. It is possible that I might have fancied you once in Lahore but since you showed indifference then, I am determined to have nothing to do with you now. You better forget that Lahore business here and now.” There the matter ended, but for the time being as Shyam did not have the patience for long discussions.

Kuldip came from a rich Sikh family of Attari in Punjab, one of whose members had a long relationship with a Muslim woman from Lahore. It was said to have continued after Partition. He was also believed to have spent millions on her. After 1947, he continued to come to Lahore, stay at the Faletti’s Hotel, spend a few days with his friend and return home.

During the division of the country, Pran and Kuldip had left Lahore in such a hurry that Pran’s car — which Kuldip had probably paid for — had to be abandoned. Kuldip, not one to be afraid of anything, including men, whom she could wrap around her little finger, came to Lahore while the communal rioting was in full fury and drove the car all the way back to Bombay. I only came to know the story when I once asked Pran about his car. Kuldip had driven back without incident, he told me, except for a “minor problem” in Delhi, but he did not say what it was. She told me once about the atrocities the Muslims had committed against Sikhs. The way she narrated those stories almost convinced me that she was about to pick up a butter knife from the table and plunge it in my belly. But she had just become emotional. She was not the kind of person who would have borne the Muslims any grudge for being Muslims. She was not religious in that sense but a woman who believed in pure animal instincts.

Kuldip’s nose made her face look highly expensive. She had finely chiseled features and she talked with great intensity. When I left Filmistan and joined my friends Ashok Kumar and Savak Vacha in Bombay Talkies, it was clear to everyone that we were living through unsettled times and there was not much work to be had. One day Kuldip and Pran came to Bombay Talkies to see if there was something going. I had met Pran earlier through Shyam and we had become friends immediately, as he was a man without malice for anyone. My relationship with Kuldip was on the formal side. But it so happened that three films were about to go into production at Bombay Talkies and Vacha, after taking one look at Kuldip, asked our German cameraman Josef Wasching to do her screen test. Wasching had come to Bombay from Germany with Himanshu Rai and had been placed under detention at Devlali during the war. He was only released after it ended when he returned to Bombay Talkies. He was a good friend of Vacha, head of the sound recording laboratory at the studio.

The lights came on while Kuldip Kaur went to the make-up room. Wasching stood waiting behind a new camera, his cigar in his mouth. Kuldip appeared after some time and stood facing the camera without any self-consciousness. She was ready for action but I noticed that the German felt somewhat overawed by her presence. When he saw her through the lens, he was bewildered because from whichever angle he framed her, all he could see was her pert nose. He began to sweat, then turned to me, “Let’s have a cup of tea in the canteen.” I could guess what his problem was. As we sat down with our cups, he wiped his brow and said, “Mr Manto, what can I do with her nose? It practically plunges into the lens. Her face merely follows.” Then he brought his lips close to my ear and whispered, “And she is not quite right there, but how can I tell her?” He was referring to the fact that she was less than well-endowed.3 Nose, he said, he could somehow manage but “the other thing,” well, some way would have to be found to deal with it. I assured him that I would get “the other thing” worked out, and I did. When Kuldip was leaving the studio, I told her in plain words what Wasching had said. I also told her that for thirty-five rupees, she could purchase at the Whiteway & Laidlaw department store something that would do the trick. The test in the meanwhile had been put off for a day.

Kuldip was not in the least bashful. She said it was no big deal and she would do the necessary, which she did right away. The next day when she came to the studio, she was a different woman. I silently saluted the inventors of these most ingenious devices. Wasching took one look at her and was satisfied. He was still bothered about her nose but “the other thing” being the way he wanted it, he took her screen test and when we saw it in the projection room later, everyone agreed that she was fine, especially in roles depicting “the other woman.”

Off and on, Kuldip would come with Pran to one of our evenings. She lived in a hotel not far from the beach. Pran lived close by with his wife and child but most of his time was spent with Kuldip. One day Shyam, Taji and I were on our way to a hotel for a glass of beer when we were waylaid by D.N. Madhuk, the famous lyricist, who insisted that we go with him to the bar of the Eros Cinema. Madhuk was Bombay’s king of taxis. For instance, the big jalopy waiting for him in the parking lot he had in tow for the last three days. After we came out of the bar, Madhuk said he was going to visit his current girlfriend Nigar Sultana who once used to be Shyam’s girlfriend. She lived not far from Kuldip’s place. Shyam suggested that we should go and look up Pran, so we all filed into Madhuk’s taxi and while he got dropped at Nigar Sultana’s, the driver took us to Kuldip’s hotel. Pran was there. He had had a couple because he looked sleepy. Shyam proposed that we should play cards, which might wake up Pran. Kuldip agreed right away but said it would have to be flush and with stakes. Kuldip sat behind Pran, her conical chin on his shoulder. Every time he won a hand, she would pick up the money. I had often played before, but I had never been in a game like this. Of the money I had, Rs 75 was gone in fifteen minutes flat. “The cards are stacked against me today,” I consoled myself. Shyam said to me, “That’s enough.” Pran smiled and asked Kuldip to return my money.

I said there could be no question because he had won the money. Pran replied that I should know that he was the best card-sharper in town and since I was a friend, he could not cheat me. My first thought was that he wanted to return the money to me out of sympathy but when he picked up the pack and dealt it four times in a row, he holding the highest cards each time, I was convinced that he was right. Pran asked Kuldip to return my money but she refused. Shyam was furious and Pran was not too happy either because he walked out in a huff. He also had to take his wife somewhere. Shyam and I sat for some more time. “Let’s go out,” I suggested. Kuldip was game. We sent for a taxi and took it towards Byculla. I lived by myself on Claire Road but had Shyam staying with me. I took them home. As soon as we entered, Shyam began to flirt with Kuldip. She kept warding him off, but with good humour, because she was not the kind of woman who was easily offended by such things. She knew what she wanted and she had a lot of self-confidence.

I forgot to mention that before we arrived at my place, Kuldip asked the driver to stop at a store as she wanted to buy a perfume. Shyam was furious because she was going to buy the perfume with my money of which I had been cheated. I told him to forget the whole thing as it was of no consequence. I went into the store with Kuldip. She picked up a bottle for twenty-two rupees eight annas, slipped it in her handbag and told me to pay. I did not want to but the storeowner knew me, and the way she had asked me to pay ensured that I would do so out of male vanity. I paid. When Shyam learnt what had happened, he was even angrier. He abused both Kuldip and me but cooled down after some time. He still had hopes of Kuldip. I put in a word for him as well and she appeared to soften. I offered to leave them alone so they could work out the details of their new “agreement,” but Shyam said it would have to be finalised at her hotel. The taxi was still down there, waiting, so they took it. I was pleased that at least something had worked out.

Shyam was back within thirty minutes and he looked angry. I poured him a brandy and noticed that he had an injured hand. “What happened?” I asked. It turned out that Kuldip had taken him to the hotel where she lived but contrary to what he thought she wanted, she had asked him to leave. In frustration, he had tried to hit her, but she had moved and he had hit the wall instead. She had burst out laughing and left the room, leaving Shyam with an injured male pride and a bleeding hand.

Some years after independence, there was a story in the papers that Kuldip had been charged with spying for Pakistan. I have no idea if there was any truth in that report but I felt that a woman like Kuldip Kaur who was utterly straightforward could never be a Mata Hari.

* * *

1. Manto’s title for this sketch was “K.K.”—Eds.

2. Manto writes that Kuldip Kaur had a sharp nose, not a pert one.—Eds.

3. This sentence is Khalid Hasan’s own addition.—Eds.

Featured image: Still from Nau Bahar (1952).