Defying Gender Roles: Manto’s “Mozelle” in Our Times
By Ragini Mishra
Trapped in the debris of despair, loneliness, and isolation, I felt I did not belong to this part of the globe. It was the first phase of complete lockdown in India, and all of us were inside our homes. On one such gloomy evening, I came across a radio show on Radio Mirchi titled “Ek Purani Kahani”, a rendition of Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories by RJ Sayema. The first story I listened to was “Baarish”, which instantly gave me goosebumps. I felt an innate desire to know this man, who had defied conventions through his stories, that remain relevant even today. Manto was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and controversial writers of Urdu literature. His critically acclaimed short stories, “Toba Tek Singh”, “Thanda Gosht” and “Kali Shalwar”, made him one of the pioneers of partition literature. This article reflects on a different aspect of Manto’s writing, not just as a writer of partition literature but also as a liberal feminist.
Salman Rushdie has described Manto as “the undisputed master of the Indian short story” and a writer of ‘low-life’ fiction. Nothing could prohibit Manto from writing about the social outcasts whom society had excommunicated. Manto never missed an opportunity to attack the superficiality of society: “Prostitutes are really the products of society. Then why do we raise the demand for putting an end to them, when they form a legitimate part of our culture?” Manto considered them as victims of the pharisaical spirit of the society and took it upon himself to pen down their plight. These so-called ‘fallen women’ had to sell their bodies to earn their daily bread. Manto empathised with them and stated that “[t]he circumstance of such a woman is surely not deserving of hatred or contempt.”
Manto lived in Bombay and carried those memories and experiences within his heart even after migrating to Pakistan after the partition. In the metropolitan city of Bombay, he came in touch with people of diverse cultures and religions. The women in Manto’s stories are bold and righteous, inspired by his time in the city. “Mozelle” is one story by Manto in which the eponymous heroine is a lively, independent and daring Jewish woman who lives in Bombay. The story is set against the backdrop of the communal violence between the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities. A Sikh man named Trilochan Singh falls in love with Mozelle, but she refuses his advances since she considers him staunchly religious and conservative.
The character of Mozelle is quite complex to analyse as she remains a mystery. Trilochan, who is head over heels in love with her, bears all her insults targeted at his religion and even cuts off his hair and beard to marry her, but she ditches him on their wedding day. Mozelle is a free bird who refuses to be caged or remain tied to the shackles of any overriding emotion, not even love. Maybe, for her, “Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable.” Perhaps she believed in the notion of free love and expected the same from Trilochan. When Trilochan criticises her for going out with other men on trips, she furiously calls him out and says, “You really are a Sikh! …! Who told you we were together? If you’re so concerned about having a lover, go back to wherever you’re from and marry some Sikh girl. I don’t care what you say, I’m not changing.” She is obstinate in not changing herself or her lifestyle for anyone. She is not just a distressed, fragile, and voiceless woman who can’t defend herself. She acts as the mouthpiece of those women who reclaim their agency despite being scorned in a judgemental society. The women in Manto’s fiction are rebellious, strong-headed, and one of their kind. They challenge the social taboos thrust upon them in a patriarchal society. Manto calls out the hypocrisy of society for discriminating on the basis of gender: “A woman, even if she were to deviate for one instance from the role given to her by men, is branded a whore. She is viewed with lust and contempt. Society closes on her doors. It leaves ajar for a man stained by the same ink. If both are equal, why are our barbs reserved for the woman?”
Mozelle acts like a guardian angel when she hugs Trilochan’s fiancée, Kripal Kaur, and disguises her in her Jewish robe to save her from the violent mob. Mozelle does not feel shy about standing naked in front of people. According to her, one can be covered from head to toe and still be naked. When Trilochan asks her to dress appropriately, she says, “If you get offended, close your eyes. Tell me, you’re naked underneath your clothes, and so where are the clothes to cover that up? Where are the clothes that can prevent you from imagining what’s underneath?” Instead of valuing her worth based on society’s judgement, Mozelle challenges the people who judge a woman’s character from the hem of her skirt.
Mozelle does have a soft corner for Trilochan, but it doesn’t bar her from calling him out for his religious fanaticism. When Mozelle asks him to remove his turban before entering his fianceé’s neighbourhood to rescue her from communal violence, Trilochan refuses to do so. Mozelle thinks logically as she was well aware of the forthcoming danger. She had asked Trilochan to remove his turban so that he could pass as a Muslim in that area, thereby ensuring his safety. She is not a meek heroine who waits for someone to rescue her but a knight in shining armour who sacrifices her life to unite two lovers. In the era in which Manto was writing, people justified women’s second-class status. And even today, in some parts of the world, women are treated as second-class citizens. If a character like Mozelle makes an appearance in contemporary times, she will either be lauded as a feminist or severely criticised for her licentious ways.
Manto didn’t discriminate against his characters based on their gender or class in society. According to noted Urdu poet, Fahmida Riaz, Manto “saw women the way he saw men.” Unfortunately, the conservative hypocrites of Manto’s times tried every means to suppress his voice. They failed to look beyond the sensuality depicted in his works and the realistic portrayal of life itself. He often commented on his writing and said, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.” But the truth doesn’t go down well with everyone; some like to camouflage it and turn a blind eye towards it. This is one of the significant reasons why Manto’s works invited such severe criticism. He tried his best to show a realistic mirror to a society which was high on nationalistic jingoism and religious extremism. He described society as it was without passing a judgment of any sort: “By narrating stories of evil, he desires to highlight the good, not the evil. He is not narrating lust for lust, coercion for coercion, oppression for oppression, sin for sin; but to evoke a deeper understanding of the hidden agenda of a hypocritical society.”
We know Manto as a great chronicler of the partition. We know him as a scandalous writer of Urdu literature whose works caused havoc amongst the religious radicals. Manto is often hailed as the D.H. Lawrence of the Indian subcontinent for his writings. Unfortunately, people back then saw only the sensuality in his works and not his proper calibre of mirroring society as it was. Even now, Manto is categorised amongst the most prominent voices of the partition. There’s no objection to it, but it’s significant to view Manto’s works in a different light. Manto didn’t just narrate the ordeal of the social outcasts, but he gave them a strong voice to speak for themselves: “Whether he was writing about prostitutes, pimps or criminals, Manto wanted to impress upon his readers that these disreputable people were also human, much more than those who cloaked their failings in a thick veil of hypocrisy.”
Manto’s Mozelle is a braveheart who shows extreme courage during adversity. Even when harassed by a man on her way to Kripal Kaur’s house, she keeps calm and doesn’t break down. Mozelle isn’t the kind of woman who will silence her voice easily. She is aware of the danger and her precarious situation. Mozelle was an immigrant, and her culture differed from the natives. Mozelle used her beauty to divert the guard’s attention by winking at him and offering a cigarette. Her beauty is her strength as well as her weakness, and she uses it accordingly. The story proceeds to an unsettling conclusion to reveal what a woman’s beauty is used for in society.
Mozelle acts as Manto’s mouthpiece when she utters her last words before dying as she removes Trilochan’s turban, which covers her body; Mozel shrugs it off and dies saying: “Take it away—this religion of yours.”
Trilochan’s turban may be the religious cap that Manto had talked about: “In earlier riots, when we left home, we would carry two caps. A Hindu topi and a Rumi topi. When passing through a Muslim mohalla, we would put on the Rumi topi, and when walking through a Hindu mohalla, the Hindu topi. In this riot, we also bought Gandhi topis. These we kept in our pockets to be pulled out wherever needed. Religion used to be felt in the heart, but now, in the new Bombay, it must be worn on the head.”
Mozelle shunned the religious cap that had become a person’s sole identity in Bombay during riots. This cap symbolised a particular religion and community, and eventually led to communal riots, killing thousands of people and displacing many from their lands. This cap deprived human beings of their humanity. Times have passed, but we still carry the religious baggage in our minds. Our faith in religion still engulfs and strangles our faith in humanity; the world stands divided by borders, ethnicity, race, and religion. In this way, a fictional character of a Jewish woman sketched by a Muslim writer stands as the pinnacle of a secular humanitarian worldview.
 Manṭo, Saadat Ḥasan. Why I Write. (India, Westland, 2014), 114.
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 Riaz, Fahmida. “Manto saw women the way he saw men.” Interview by Wusatullah Khan. Dawn, 6 May. 2012, https://www.dawn.com/news/716120/manto-centenary-manto-sawwomen-the-way-he-saw-men.
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 Jalal, Ayesha. The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide. (United States, Princeton University Press, 2013), 26.
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Ragini Mishra is a final year student of M.A. in English Literature at Banaras Hindu University. Her areas of interest are gender studies, popular culture, folklore, and mythology. She has a bookstagram account @booksandsilvertongues, where she regularly publishes book reviews. She has recently published a book review of ‘The Reckless Kind’ in the Journal of International Women’s Studies.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.