‘The Insult’ or ‘Hatak’ is a realistic feminist short story written by one of India’s greatest short-story writers, Saadat Hasan Manto. ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’ is a story about the life of a prostitute during the last phase of India’s struggle for Independence and in the first decade of Independent India. We know this because Ram Lal, the pimp of the main protagonist Saugandhi, talks about the prohibition that the Congress Government had introduced. There was also a war going on that was why the whole city of Mumbai had dimmed lights. In this feminist story, Manto paints the life of Saugandhi, who is too sentimental to be a perfect prostitute. She works as hard as possible for her living and is in good books with her pimp Ram Lal. She is generally a person who is calm and gentle but tends to get too attached to the men who are her regular customers. She is unable to refuse anyone who verbally offers her love which is missing in her life as she works in Mumbai as a prostitute. The highlight of this story is when Saugandhi breaks her ties with her male lovers, realizing the sham behind their declarations of love for her. She realizes that along with the police sergeant Madhu, every man she has ever known has always made use of her good nature and loving heart. Therefore, she decides to literally and metaphorically ‘throw them out’ of her life. Indeed, this story brings out the humanity of Mumbai’s prostitutes of the 1940s and 1950s, to whom Manto dedicated most of his short stories. In most of his prostitution short stories, Manto portrays the prostitutes as real women with feelings and desires just like ordinary women. Manto turns out to be a leading figure in women’s emancipation and feminism in literature through stories like ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’.
The story gets its title from the rejection of Saugandhi by a rich Seth who wanted to have sex with a prostitute. Saugandhi though tired, listened to the pleadings of her greedy alcoholic pimp Ram Lal and agreed to meet this Seth at 2:00 am in his car. Seth rejects her with the exclamation of ‘ugh’, indicating disgust as he takes a good look at Saugandhi with the aid of his flashlight. He immediately, without a word, drives away. This episode sets aflame the anger in Saugandhi concerning the fact that:
- Men were only using her, especially for sex and her money.
- That Madhu was using her by brainwashing her with the idea that she would be ‘his woman’ one day, indicating that she wished him to make her his wife.
- That though she was good-looking, something was disgusting about her that had made Seth say ‘ugh’, without considering that he had woken her up at 2:00 am for his own purposes.
- She was only an object to people like Madhu and Seth, who would use, abuse, and discard her after fulfilling their needs. The fact that Seth did not even bother to explain why he had rejected Saugandhi infuriated her and then set a cycle of anger in motion, ultimately leading her to sleep with an eczematous pet dog.
Saugandhi is rejected by Seth, which gives rise to the title ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’. Saugandhi vents the conflagration of pent-up emotions upon Madhu, the policeman from Pune, and the photographs of the four customers who regularly came to sleep with Saugandhi. After Seth’s insult, Saugandhi realizes the lies behind their fake declarations of love and false promises. Notice that when one reads the text, one understands that Saugandhi must have lived in deplorable conditions and was quite unkempt. True, that she had a high opinion of herself and her vital statistics but, note how it is mentioned in the text that she shared her room with a dog suffering from eczema, that she drinks water from a slimy filthy pot which she does not wash, that her hair is always matted, that she roamed about with dirty rags, that her clothes and her hair needed washing. So, one generally believes that for all her hard work and dedication to her job, that fateful night of the ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’, Saugandhi must not have been looking her very best. This indicates her dire poverty and that Madhu used to take away all her earnings with fake promises that he would soon start paying for the rent of the kholi or hut where she lived. Also, the filthiness of Saugandhi is indicative of the sad and unhygienic lives of most of the poorer prostitutes of Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s. Their conditions, according to Manto was pitiable. Yet, they dedicated their lives to their job, endearing them to the writer, making him write about their lives. In this story titled ‘Hatak’, Manto brings out the feminist theme regarding Saugandhi’s liberation from the shackles binding her down to men who did not love her nor respect her as a human being. Manto reveals that society made young women like Saugandhi live in subhuman conditions, symbolized by the terrible eczemas dog she shared her home with. Sagandhi’s dog represents her very being, being polluted by the grime of the men to whom she had attachments rather than by the sex they had with her. Their false promises infuriated her, which prompted her to fling them out of her life once and for all. They were not allowing her to be truly free and an individual in her own right.
This is one of the few stories of Manto where we see the actuality of a prostitute’s life. Manto in describing Saugandhi’s meager possessions in her hut; the parrot in the cage with raw guava, orange peels, and mosquitoes and moths hovering over them; the descriptions of her dog; the three filthy sandals under her bed; the niche where she housed her God Ganesha and the four photographs of her customers; all these descriptions bring out the very being of Saugandhi where we can use all our senses to be in her world and even in her skin, as a woman neglected but not defeated.
Ram Lal, her pimp, seems to be the sadistic comedian in the story. He appears to be highly distressed that the Prohibition Act has been passed against alcohol. He has a wry sense of humor and is very respectful towards Saugandhi though he knows that she is spending her share of her hard-earned money on Madhu. Ram Lal gives Saugandhi good advice on hiding her cash and lying to Madhu. This tells us the following about Ram Lal:
- He is a kind and understanding individual to treat Saugandhi as a real human being.
- He realizes that Saugandhi has feelings towards Madhu and does not scorn or belittle her affection. But he does question the practicality of her affections.
- He is also the voice of reason in this short story titled ‘The Insult’ or ‘Hatak’. He advises useful things to Saugandhi.
- He does not interfere much in Saugandhi’s hygiene or life because he is a pimp with values and etiquette, unlike Madhu, who interferes without permission in Saugandhi’s life, primarily where money, her job as a prostitute, and her home décor was concerned.
- Ram Lal always wants all his prostitutes to earn a decent sum and is very patient. Notice how he remained for a long time, probably an hour, at Saugandhi’s door at night to awaken her to meet the Seth. Never once did he complain viciously about his time, nor did he abuse Saugandhi in any way.
- Ram Lal never degraded or blamed Saugandhi when Seth rejected her. He took the rejection as a regular part of their work and went off on his business. It is Saugandhi, because of the doubts in her own heart regarding her individuality and self-worth, who took ‘The Insult’ to heart. However, this insult did knock out the nonsense in her mind about love and relationships with men like Madhu.
Saugandhi is a person who though herself in need of counseling and good advice tends to give other young prostitutes advice. She claims that the silent and timid young men who visit prostitutes are those the girls should be wary of. She, therefore, has a good understanding of human psychology but is unable to put her excellent advice into practice, which is tragic. Saugandhi’s emotions always tend to take the better of her, making her one of the most highly emotive prostitute characters in Manto’s body of work. Notice that though she is in a poor financial condition because of Madhu she volunteers to pay the train fare of a Madrasi woman and her daughter. This shows the impracticality of Saugandhi and that she was generous with her money.
The feminist angle to this short story is the emancipation of Saugandhi from her own emotional and sentimental thoughts about men. She disentangles herself from them and the memories they have shared by thrusting their photographs and feelings towards them out of her life. Madhu is taken aback by her violence to his photograph but tries to command her with his overbearing nature, which she mocks and ridicules along with disgracing him and threatening to call the police. Madhu frightened leaves Saugandhi’s kholi. He had entered the kholi of a bonded woman but left the place in which now resided the true owner of the home. Note how peaceful Saugandhi is after cutting her ties with the men who were her customers. She was happy enough to carry her eczematous dog onto her bed and sleep beside him on the bed. Note that the dog is representative of Saugandhi’s new mindset, her pride in her being though it may be sullied with dirt and that she always had it in her to make herself happy. Note also that Saugandhi, after the insult of Seth, is a bit deranged and so thinks if she was rejected when there was nothing wrong with her, then why not now dirty herself further by keeping her diseased dog on her bed. Note that eczema does not spread and is not contagious at all. However, a dog suffering from this skin disease is highly tormented and loses a lot of fur. By the symbol of the dog with eczema, Manto wants to bring out that:
- Saugandhi was a tender-hearted and generous soul to house this poor tormented dog.
- The dog is tormented and sick, as is the soul and womanhood of Saugandhi. However, she decides at last to embrace her femininity.
- The dog means more to Saugandhi than all the men in frames on her wall because he never uses her and her money.
- The dog only comes to life in the story titled ‘Hatak’ when Saugandhi orders Madhu to once for all get out of her kholi. That is when the dog awakens and barks at Madhu like a protector.
Thus, Madhu, who came to loot poor Saugandhi gets the taste of his own medicine. The woman who, as a child, hid in her chest, wanting attention in the form of love, at last realized that love and happiness depend on one’s attitude towards life and not on another individual. Saugandhi spent her life either searching for love or seeking sex, as mentioned in the text. Her search for love was probably over with her self-emancipation. Every person should thus undertake to liberate themselves from lies, deceit, and betrayal.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Hatak’ or ‘The Insult’ by Saadat Hasan Manto. If you want to read my review of the book Manto: Fifteen Stories published by Rajkamal Prakashan, you can check it out here. If you are interested in reading some award-winning LGBTQIA short stories with a social message, you can check out my book titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to read and review more of Manto’s short stories soon.
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