‘By the Roadside’ is another story on prostitution written by Manto. The story is about a litany of a woman who has had a heated affair with a handsome man and is now lamenting the fact that she is pregnant with his child. Manto’s excellent descriptions enhance the poetical litany tale of the whole sorrowful affair, which culminates in the prostitute, or unmarried woman, giving birth out of wedlock to a child who has the father’s beautiful mild blue eyes. This woman describes how the young man deserts her using a skewed philosophy about relationships and sexual satisfaction. Most probably a prostitute, the woman is left burning with passion for the man. The prostitute is in a tight spot because she is unmarried, coupled with the fact that as a prostitute in Mumbai in the 1950s, it was not advisable for her to have a baby. Therefore, the child is unwanted, but for the man’s love, the woman bears his love in her heart and his baby in her womb. Manto is one of the greatest Urdu short story writers of twentieth-century India. He was a controversial writer of prose and is famous for writing some of the best Partition short stories and prostitution-themed tales of women who sold their bodies for money in 1950s Bombay, now known as Mumbai. In this story, Manto highlights the stigma of having a relationship with a man outside of marriage. He narrates the plight of a prostitute who falls in love with a client, which is against all that she stands for in the sex trade. He shows how cruel Indian society was in attempting to rid the newborn baby of his mother by exposing him wrapped in cold linen in the middle of a deserted road in Lahore.
Manto uses several sensory imageries to bring out the true feelings of a woman in love. The man involved in her life, after satisfying his sexual ardor, ceases to have any relationship with her. He uses a nihilistic and almost half-hedonistic philosophy to indicate why he does so. He mentions that just one woman cannot satisfy his thirst for coupling and sex; he needs several different women to cure him of his emptiness and depression in the form of sexual amour. He does not want to feel incomplete, yet he leaves the woman unfinished or incomplete, deserting her when she needs him most. The man seems to be romantic but dissatisfied with life. He is handsome, contemplative, but frank about his feelings. He is insensitive to the wants of his lover and seeks only his own satisfaction proving his selfish and self-centered nature. Most of Manto’s stories depict the patriarchy and men as insensitive to the needs of women, especially prostitutes. Manto, in his stories, portrayed prostitutes as having human feelings and indicates that they too can fall in love passionately with men, sometimes to the extent of their own degradation and doom. In this story titled ‘By the Roadside’, the prostitute, or an unwed single woman, is deprived of her only link to her self-centered lover, that is, his child. Manto portrays the man to be self-centered but the woman to be full of contradictory emotions and love for this man who would and has deserted her completely.
Manto, using excellent visual, auditory, olfactory, and other imagery, showcases how the unwed single woman pines after the stranger she is truly in love with. With each passing moment, she yearns for him and laments over the fact that she has lost him because of his philosophy of life. The handsome man uses philosophical thoughts to justify why he and the single woman can never be a couple. This indicates Manto’s own philosophy and his nihilistic theories regarding human relationships. The following are some of the philosophical views voiced by the handsome blue-eyed man:
- He states that being a man, he has the upper hand or is more important and of a higher status than a single woman or prostitute. He is like a god while she is a mere worshipper. She can never take his place while he can never take hers. Here indicated is the sexual element where a man’s sexual organ is ‘worshipped’ by the woman, especially to please the male lover. The effect, however, is one of dominance where we see the handsome man wants to indicate that men dominate women where sex is concerned and that he is more important in this relationship than the single woman. This is worsened if we consider that the handsome man probably looked down upon the woman because she was a prostitute, one of the most abused women in Indian society.
- The man talks of the ‘void,’ a common theme in nihilism and existentialism. The man brazenly states that he is a ‘being’ who links sexually with ‘non-being’ that is the prostitute, thus eliminating the void in both their souls for a while. The idea of the void is sexist and highly paradoxical.
- The man tries to make the sorrow of his female lover bearable by giving her a reason to live. He tells her to remember their love for the rest of her life while he goes on to conquer more women in love. It is selfish of him to forget that the prostitute was in love with him and that he should have considered her feelings on the matter. We tend to see that the man with washed blue eyes tends to try to dominate not only in sex but also in the thoughts and aspirations of the woman. He wants to make her think like him, which is not possible.
- The man then shifts to existential analysis. He says that since all human beings are incomplete, that should be the reason for her to live and revel in her individuality. He states that the prostitute should admire the fact that she is incomplete and different, giving her independence and a reason to live and forget him.
However, the prostitute is sorrowful, lamenting with tears and sadness despite all his talk. He, however, leaves her, never to look back. She watches the world and reflects over the passing moments remembering their old love and what they were doing in the past, which seems so familiar to the atmosphere of the present. She repeats the phrase: ‘Yes, it was this time of the year,’ to indicate the year gone by. Last year he was with her, but now his child is in her womb. At first, she feels surprise, but the very next moment she rebels against the little life in her womb. Through moving and emotive descriptions, Manto indicates the yearnings of a woman, which shows us how much he was empathetic to the fairer sex. The baby in her womb grows while her body changes the way a pregnant woman’s body does:
- Her breasts grow fuller, hard, and dome-shaped
- Her belly increases in size and girth
- Her skin becomes golden and swollen due to water retention
- Milk is forming in her breasts
- She gets hot flushes with the heavy coursing of blood in her veins and womb
- Her mind grows affectionate toward the infant in her womb
Throughout this whole cycle, she still thinks of her lover. She calls herself an oyster who has received her lover’s sperm in her shell and now had formed a beautiful pearl in the hollow which was coming into the world. Not only is this an indication of pregnancy and birthing but of the fact that where reproduction was concerned, the male just satisfies his sexual desire. At the same time, the woman is the crucible to nourish not only a child but the whole culmination of a loving relationship. Manto, in this context, calls the prostitute a cloud heavy with rain, while the handsome blue-eyed man is likened to a cloud with lightning, indicating the lightning flash as the man’s penis and the heavy rain, cloud the uterus of the woman. Manto is empathetic toward the woman and respects the desire in her heart to be a mother and look after the child of her true love.
Manto also highlights the need for Indian society to understand that women and their desires are important in a relationship. The decision of a woman to remember her lover for the rest of her life and to bear the child of her lover is hers and hers alone, and no one can contradict that fact. Straight forward feminism is indicated in this aspect and the fact that the woman is wary of society’s opinion towards her decision to have her lover’s child. She tends to be brave but not wise enough to realize that the Mumbai of her time would not be able to accept the burden of an unwed mother with a child, let alone an unwed prostitute with a child. When the child is born, the woman, without prudence or practical thinking, gives in to her emotions and wishes to suckle the child and care for it, but is thwarted from doing so by the people in her culture. They stifle her feminist sexual and reproductive rights and separate her from her newborn baby. The idea we get is that the child was a truth that Indian society wanted to stifle and hide that even a prostitute can yearn in her heart to be a mother. This is a fact and must be comprehended and respected.
The mother’s yearning for her newborn child and her anxiousness towards their fates creates suspense in our minds as we read the birthing scene. Note how beautifully and poetically Manto describes the birth of the child, the heat of the mother’s body, the tension in her thoughts, the milk in her breasts as it were, boiling like her blood and skin in the form of molten lava. The heat and perseverance of true love are highlighted in the way the child is born into the world and through the descriptions of the mother’s blood flowing hot from her womb. We tend to wonder what would become of the child until we realize the horrific truth of the story’s title. Indeed, the child is taken from the mother and wrapped in wet clothes to leave it in the cold open air on the road and let it freeze to death. The roadside indicates that the values of India and Indian feminism were at a crossroads. A lot of work would be required to make women, especially prostitutes get their rights. Notice, however, that the child is left on the road in Lahore in Pakistan, which was earlier a part of India. This is indicative of Manto’s fixation and love for that city.
The child is saved from the cold by the authorities but the story titled ‘By the Roadside’ ends in a cliffhanger. We wonder what will become of the child since it has been saved. Notice also that in the text, the gender of the child has not been indicated, which indicates that the child was probably a girl and was therefore abandoned more readily in such a cruel manner by the people looking after the mother. There is a strong sense in the reader’s mind that either the child will survive and be in charge of her own destiny or become too emotional like the mother and ruin her life. Since the child has the father’s blue eyes, it will probably be as depressed and listless as the father. The reader is left with many thoughts regarding the child’s end. But what is more evident is that the mother would never be able to regain her child again because she could not break the chains of her own bonds to the father, the past, and her decadent society. India still has a long way to go to give single women, prostitutes, and children of prostitutes their rights. Pakistan is way back in guaranteeing women’s social and human rights.
The story ends with the theme that love never dies, especially the true love of a woman. Before I end my analysis, I wish to highlight a few more points:
- The eiderdowns spoken of in this text are the feathers of an elder duck used to make quilts. The pregnant prostitute wants to lead a settled life as a mother to make comfort quilts for her child.
- When with her lover, the mother’s breasts were sexual organs of pleasure, but when she was pregnant, the breasts were compared to the domes of sacred mosques. This indicates Manto’s sacredness and respect for a pregnant woman’s body. The symbology of the mosques adds a tone of great reverence to motherhood.
- The single mother’s womb is compared to a clay pot that the woman wishes to break. This indicates that she probably wanted to abort the child brutally but decides not to do so because of her love for her baby.
- The mother indicates that the baby in her womb is like a festering boil or wound, which is paradoxical because it hurts her and yet acts like a balm to her soul.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing Indian writer Manto’s short story titled ‘By the Roadside.’ I hope to read and analyze more of Manto’s works in the coming weeks. I have reviewed Manto’s short stories titled Manto: Fifteen Stories, which you can check out here. If you are interested in reading a feminist novel or novella based on Indian women abused by society, you can check out my books titled Amina: The Silent One and Nirmala: The Mud Blossom. I hope to read and review more Indian works soon.
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©2022 Fiza Pathan