The lafz of the week is Hatak which means Insult or Humiliation.

Hatak is also the name of a short story by the prolific Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, who celebrates his birth centenary this month.

Below is an extract from “Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, nation and the transition to independence” by Priyamvada Gopal which uses Manto’s literature, specifically prostitute stories such as ‘Hatak’, to comment on social structures of the time.

Manto makes the case for his brand of realism as one that boldly refers to the female body in all its physical actuality rather than mystifying it through metaphor. But, in his several stories dealing with the lives of women, Manto’s understanding of his role shifts from that of poet of sensuous experience to representative of the marginalized, a move that is signified precisely by a gap between woman as subject and woman as metaphor. In stories ranging from ‘Babu Gopinath’, ‘Sharda’ and ‘Mummy’ to ‘Kali Shalwar’ (The Black Salwar) and ‘Hatak’ (The Insult), all of which engage with the lives of prostitutes, the female body comes to represent social stratification and exploitation.

Hatak (1940, The Insult), a personal favorite of the author, provides an instructive comparison to another short story ‘The Black Salwar’. Here, Manto stays with the theme of the good-hearted prostitute who is exploited both materially and emotionally by the men in her life. Sugandhi is a prostitute who craves love and approbation from men for being a good person. Consequently, she too spends her earnings on her lover, Madho, who, while benefitting fully from it, is given to sanctimonious and husbandly speeches on how she needs to give up her trade. The narrative unfolds around a single incident that takes place when Sugandhi’s pimp, Ramlal, wakes her up in the middle of the night to take her to a customer waiting in a motor car. When she reaches the car, the customer shines a flashlight in her face, makes a dissatisfied grunt and drives off. The pimp tells her that she has failed to make the grade with this gentleman. The insult which Sugandhi experiences from this rejection precipitates a crisis that has been simmering inside her for a while. In the hours that follow, she experiences a breakdown of sorts and, in the process, finally breaks free of her own oppressive need for approbation. Her life-defining final act in the story is to get rid of Madho once and for all.

That ‘The Insult’ was never actually targeted for legal action suggests that it was, in fact, those of Manto’s stories that specifically foregrounded male sexuality and sexual behavior that found themselves in the dock of the law. While ‘The Insult’ is at least as sexually explicit as those stories that did find themselves in legal trouble – and certainly more so than ‘Black Salwar’ – its focus is really on the body and psyche of the prostitute.

After a shocked and scared Madho finally makes his exit, Sugandhi sits down and feels a growing void within and without – ‘and all around her there was a frightening silence – a silence that she had never felt experienced before’. It is with this void that the story leaves her, ‘a zero that she tried to fill, but in vain’, and her brain a sieve through which thoughts enter and leave. In the closing simile, Sugandhi likens herself to a ‘train filled with passengers that, after off-loading the, now stands alone in an iron shed’.

Urduwallahs celebrate One Hundred Years of Saadat Hasan Manto!