“Khushia” is a short story written in 1940 by Indian novelist Saadat Hansan Manto. The story revolves around a pimp, Khushia, who finds himself destabilized after a brief exchange with one of his prostitutes. Behind the relatively common theme of prostitution, it is masculinity, its foundation and its doubts that Manto critically addresses in this short story. In the present essay, we shall try to briefly present and analyze the important moments of “Khushia,” in order to offer a reflection on the possible intentions of the writer, and the success of his undertaking.
“Khushia” opens up on the night scene of a lonely pimp sitting on the platform of a car repair station. Khushia reflects upon his encounter with Kanta, one of “his girls,” which happened that very morning. After recognizing his voice, she opened the door to him, remaining half-naked. Khushia was horrified: he was shocked to see a woman who did not mind to appear nude in front of him. Her response is what struck him the most: “It’s only Khushia; I’ll let him in” (Manto 1996, 58). Through the day, he meditates on the scene and can only come to think that his position, as her pimp, has rendered him almost asexual. Paradoxically, he is the man who sells her sexual life, but he does not seem to deserve the decency that a woman is expected to maintain in front of a man. Later, Khushia ponders whether he really is a man for her, or rather just “a tom cat, like the one that is always yawning on Kanta’s bed… yes, what else?” (Manto 1996, 60).
By setting this resistance to the powerful gaze of the male in a story of prostitution, that is, in what is generally considered as the incarnation of the male’s dominance over women, Manto indicates that this patriarchal politics of the senses is not unbreakable, that a breach can open and leave the male, otherwise unperturbed, in a profound discomfort.
What troubles Khushia, undoubtedly, is that Kanta was not uncomfortable when she faced his stare. This resistance, which could have been seen in other cases as an affront, here, makes Khushia feel a profound lack of confidence. In Literary Radicalism (2005), Priyamvada Gopal formulates the problem: “What happens when the male gaze is rendered neutral by the refusal of the female figure to recognize it as such?” (92). In “Khushia,” Manto does not only show that even sight, otherwise considered as a mere sense, used mostly to receive external information, has become an active tool in gender dynamics. Indeed, by setting this resistance to the powerful gaze of the male in a story of prostitution, that is, in what is generally considered as the incarnation of the male’s dominance over women, Manto indicates that this patriarchal politics of the senses is not unbreakable, that a breach can open and leave the male, otherwise unperturbed, in a profound discomfort.
In her analysis of the short story, Priyamvada Gopal goes on to consider the symbolic of the car repair station as an inherent part of the more general meaning. This place reminds of modern and masculine activities: the car repair, the technology, the commerce and perhaps the nearby prostitution district, which is also generally related to masculine power. In his description of the station, Manto mentions a place “littered with motor-tires and other spare parts” (Manto 1996, 57). Gopal’s interpretation may be far-fetched when she asserts that these spare parts are metaphors for Khushia, who also finds himself as a “spare part,” excluded from a social norm that expects him to have an unquestioned masculine authority.
However, Gopal is certainly right to point that the pimp does not fit the categories generally attributed to genders: public versus private, labor versus desire, day versus night. His very job is to sell “out there,” in the public sphere, desire, which is generally considered as a private matter. It is also in the daylight that the male is meant to proudly express his authority over the female, but his happens at night, when almost no one can recognize it. Similarly, his private identity as a male and potential sexual partner is undermined by Kanta’s encounter. The categories are even more confused when Khushia suddenly develops a certain compassion, an ethical feeling, and perhaps even a sense of attraction towards Kanta: a feeling starting at the core of his supposedly emotion-less job. Her resistance challenges (to some extent) the dynamic of the relation and he starts seeing Kanta with a different eye: “Her body was beautiful. For the first time, Khushia realized that even those who hired their bodies could retain attractive figures. He was surprised at this” (Manto 1996, 59). Just like the possibility of turning a woman into a sexual partner is the very basis, in prostitution, for her reduction to a less-than-human stage, here, through the asexual concern of Kanta for him, Khushia wonders how much of humanity is left in him: “For Manto… to deny sexuality was to deny humanity” (Gopal 2005, 93).
The story ends on a rather ambiguous line: Khushia kidnaps Kanta, and he would never be seen around again. While he may have simply gone to kill her out of frustration, or become her client, it is also possible that he left the job and became her lover. This would confirm the general message that Manto seems to be sharing through this story: that some men, in spite of their highly authoritative, aggressive and patriarchal role, can realize the extent of the situation, come to feel remorse and decide to adopt a new lifestyle, in accordance with their growing ethical awareness.
Image courtesy: Leah Nash