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The Politics of Sexuality: Through Manto’s License

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Sexuality is about emotions, ideas and choices. It is about intimate bodily relationships. Sexuality defines one’s relationship to the self and to others. Sexuality is about exploring one’s relationship with one’s own body and also about experimenting with sexual and romantic relationships. It is affected by the power structures of sex, religion, region, race, caste and class. In this manner, sexuality is political. How and when a person can explore their sexuality is a text provided in advance by society. In a patriarchal society, this text is often ‘of cisgender men, by cisgender men and for cisgender men’.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories deal with multiple layers of sexuality. Manto’s writings reflected both his own context and more. His stories dealt with eternal issues like love, deceit, pain, friendship and materialism. They also dealt with the specificity of national liberation movements, partition and the class-caste-religion matrix influencing human relationships in the particular context of South Asia. Here, we are going to focus on the short story named ‘License’ to highlight how gender, age and class influence sexuality.

‘License’ portrays the life of a coachman named Abu and his partner Nesti. Manto introduces Abu was fascinated by style and fashion; he spent his earnings on decorating his coach, his clothes and his turban rather than on alcohol as did the other coachmen in his locality. His horse Chinni and his coach were his life. Abu had a selective loyal clientele, and he was happy with his earnings. Abu’s style and confidence was cause for jealousy among the other coachmen, as they could not match his elegance. Then one afternoon, a beautiful girl came to Abu for a coach-ride. Abu, who was very particular about taking new clients and often stuck to his regular clientele, readily agreed to consider this unknown girl’s requeston seeing her beauty. Manto describes the girl as beingsixteen or seventeen, slim but sturdy, dark-skinned and radiant; her hair was parted in the middle and she had a pointed nose. At first sight itself, Abu was attracted to the girl.

In patriarchal societies, it is the man who initiates, decides and defines the contours of intimacy and love. Here in this story, Abu initiates his relationship with the girl on the basis of her physical beauty. In the first meeting itself, Abu flirts and finally expresses his attraction to the girl. He is ready to forego his horse, coach and even his life to win the heart of the girl. Again, the active player is Abu, the man. However, as Abu holds the hand of the girl, the girl tells him that now he has to honour the ‘mistake’ of touching her. In this incident, Manto is addressing the ideas of chastity that are endorsed by a patriarchal society. Mere hand holding is seen as a gesture that indicates a relationship. Without care for age, caste, class or religion, Abu and the girl (Nesti) become one. Both of the mare happy and promise fidelity to each other for life.

However, this togetherness is short-lived, as Abu is arrested and jailed for two years under the charge of kidnapping Nesti. Abu gives his horse and coach to his friend Dino for hire so Nesti’s financial needs can be taken care of. Nesti refuses to go back to her parents. But before Abu can complete his jail term, he diesof tuberculosis (TB) which was hereditary in his family. Abu’s death shatters Nesti. Dino, Abu’s friend, expresses his desire to marry Nesti, and when Nesti refuses his proposal, Dino becomes irregular with paying the hire charges.Ultimately, Nesti takes away the horse and coach from Dino and gives them to another of Abu’s friends, named Maja. Maja also follows Dino’s path. Then Nesti hands over the business to another coachman, and he also turns out to be the same.

Portraying the men in the story as either trying to marry, rape, or rob her, Manto highlights how in a patriarchal society a single young woman is perceived as ‘easy prey’ to satisfy male sexual desires. The young woman’s desire, consent and agency are immaterial. When Nesti turns away from the sexual advances of these men, not only does she challenge their male ego but also patriarchal notions of submissive female sexuality. Nesti herself is trying to fulfil her promise of fidelity made to Abu even after his death. She is a symbol of eternal love to a single man,her body and mind given to only her husband Abu. Her sexuality is reserved and preserved under the frame of heterosexual monogamous marriage. Later, fed up of the sexual advances, Nesti herself becomes a coach woman. She becomes extremely successful in getting loyal clients and earning money.

However, one morning, the municipal committee men call Nesti to their office and cancel her license on the grounds that women cannot be coach women. Here, Manto comments on the gendered division of labour in a patriarchal society wherein a woman is only pushed towards caring/cleaning/cooking roles (nurturing roles) both within and outside the home. Running a coach is seen as a ‘masculine’ endeavour and Nesti has to be ‘punished’ for breaking social norms. Nesti argues with the officer that if women can work in mills, mines and construction sites involving heavy physical labour, why can’t she drive a coach? Through Nesti’s questions, Manto is highlighting the futility of gendered division of labour in a patriarchal society that is couched under the garb of physical strength.

When Nesti asks the officer what else she should do for her livelihood, if not drive a coach,the officer replies that she should turn to sex work. The story ends with Nesti finally giving away her horse and coach and beginning sex work. Through this story, Manto shows the paradox that exists in a patriarchal society. A young beautiful woman wants to live a dignified life through her own hard work, but the state agencies and society at large refuse to see her as anything more than a sexual object. In the story, not only her physical beauty but her poverty too has been exploited by the state agencies and society at large. A woman’s emotions, ideas and choices have no place in a patriarchal society. Hence, Manto successfully portrays the interlinkages between gender, age and class in defining sexuality.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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