One of the most analyzed works of the radical Urdu writer Rashid Jahan is her 1937 short story “Woh [That One].” The story consists of a series of encounters in late colonial India between a young, idealistic female teacher named Safiya, and a prostitute whose face is severely deformed by an unnamed venereal disease. In the story, the prostitute is referred to simply as “woh,” or “that one.” The few brief pages of “Woh,” narrated from the perspective of Safiya, tell of the prostitute’s attempt to cultivate a relationship with the young teacher. These attempts at forging a cross-class relationship, however, are ultimately made impracticable by other members of the ascending middle class among whom the teacher circulates, who revile woh, and her disfigured face.
Most of the scholarship that has addressed “Woh” has focused on its depiction of the female body (specifically, the body of woh) as it relates to the progressive political movements of the time. This paper, however, will propose that woh’s body is not only meaningful in political terms, but that analyzing the depiction of one element of her body in particular–her face–can lend additional ethical and homoerotic valences to the text.
Drawing chiefly from the work of Namwali Serpell on the ethics, aesthetics, and erotic potential of the face, this essay will enact a close reading of Jahan’s “Woh,” seeking to answer the question: What can we learn from understanding woh less as a body, and more as a person with a face?
What work does the face do?
In Stranger Faces, Namwali Serpell posits that there is an “ideal face,” an abstract version or image of the face upon which theories of “identity, truth, feeling, beauty, authenticity, [and] humanity” rest. That “Ideal Face,” Serpell writes, is “recognizable, categorizable,” and is ultimately made legible in terms of ontology, affect, aesthetics, and ethics because it is “visible, close enough to see, uncovered, recognizable as a face, and impenetrable.” The “Ideal Face,” in other words, is “human, in front of us, undamaged, whole, visible, beautiful.” In its supposed neutrality or universality, it provokes sympathy, promotes ethics, and invokes a sense of “our profound responsibility for one another.”
Serpell identifies an engagement with the “Ideal Face” in the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas maintains that the “face to face encounter” is the foundation of ethical action, in that the meeting of two faces stands as the very “locus of the ethical.” Levinas assumes that the encounter of one face with another will result in feelings of obligation, sympathy, and mutual responsibility for the other’s face. But, if the ethical response triggered by an interaction with the Ideal Face (a face that is compliant with facial norms; symmetrical, expressive, proportionate) is one of sympathy, or a shared sense of responsibility, then, Serpell asks, what happens when one is confronted with a “strange face”? What happens when one refuses to look into the face of another, to recognize it as a human face worthy of ethical engagement?
Throughout the essays collected in Stranger Faces, Serpell chooses to look at such “failed faces,” or faces that deviate and break from the abstract Ideal Face. She considers faces that are “recalcitrant or unruly,” such as “the disabled face, the racially ambiguous face, the dead face, the faces we see in objects, the animal face, the blank face, [and] the digital face,” seeking to understand why these nonconformist faces both “attract and repel” the observer, compelling that observer to try to “read [strange faces] even though we know we are doomed to fail.” The overarching argument that Serpell makes in Stranger Faces is that “we love to play with [failed] faces, to make them into art.” In other words, Serpell claims that it is in the (borderline sacrilegious) act of “playing” with faces (considering faces that are deviant from the Ideal Face) that the face can be pleasurably transformed into a site of aesthetic creation. We are drawn to the non-Ideal Face, Serpell suggests, not only because we are ethically drawn to the “inadequate, ambiguous, opaque”-ness of that “stranger” face because we recognize artistic possibility in its deviance. In “Woh,” one such “stranger face” comes to the forefront–that of a prostitute known as woh.
Jahan’s short story “Woh” was originally published in the collection of stories Aurat aur Digar Afsane (Woman and Other Stories) in 1937. In the story, the face of the titular character emerges as a distinctly “strange” one, in line with Serpell’s conception of the term; “Her nose had completely disappeared; in its place were two large, red gaping holes. An eye was missing, and with the other, she could barely see without craning her neck;” and “[s]limy mucous constantly dripped from the gaping red holes that were her nostrils.”
The story’s characters are singularly obsessed with describing woh’s appearance and face. They call her “a vile creature;” “a filthy, vile creature;” “repulsive;” “nauseating;” and “frightening;” a “wicked whore.” The staff at the hospital and at the girls’ school where the narrator, Safiya, works are thrown into utter disarray when “confronted with the polar opposite to The Ideal Face,” incarnated in the face of the prostitute. They grumble and complain about woh, “get up and leave as soon as she appeared in [their] room,” suggest “observ[ing] parda from that vile creature,” and they tease, mock, and ridicule Safiya for meeting with woh each day. “Look at the wretch’s face” Safiya’s fellow teachers say in English, before leaving the room to avoid looking at the face of the prostitute. Unlike Saifya, a “new teacher” at the school, who “managed to look at [woh] and smile,” the staff of the hospital and the school are resolute in their collective decision to not meet woh’s face with their own (“The doctor, too, expressed her disgust by closing her eyes”).
The uniformly harsh comments of the doctor, the pharmacist, the teachers, the principal, the cleaning woman, the students, and the narrator herself about woh’s appearance build upon each other as the narrative progresses, fusing into a collective hiss of condemnation that is about the woman’s “grotesque physical appearance…on the one hand, and her social moral depravity as a “whore” on the other.” The staff at these institutions are disgusted by woh’s “strange” face, a revulsion that serves to rupture the myth of the “modern and egalitarian foundations” of the girls’ school or the hospital. In accordance with such a progressive, reformist rhetoric, all people identified as women should have been able to seamlessly enter into these educational and medical public domains, engaging in “putatively egalitarian relationships” within those spaces. But the basis of these utopic relationships assumed that all women would have an Ideal Face, as Serpell has theorized it. That is, to fit into the theater of public institutional space in late-colonial India as a woman, the assumption was that one would have a face that is “human, in front of us, undamaged, whole, visible, beautiful.” An ‘unruly’ face such as woh’s poses a particular sort of danger to this social order, an order that is constructed upon equality among equally Ideal Faces. Indeed, Rashid Jahan herself, as a member of the feminist reform movement in late colonial India, would have been very familiar with these “modern and egalitarian” discourses, given that she was active in advocating for the “good education” of girls, and worked for access to medical care for women of all classes. That Jahan’s story “Woh” ends up unsettling this easy progressive rhetoric with woh’s “failed face” further solidifies Jahan as a radical writer for her time and place.
As Khanna rightly notes in her analysis of the story, “the disgust directed at the nameless woman’s physicality…comes to stand in for a moral disgust directed toward her life of prostitution.” Although the story begins with the premise of sameness between the narrator and woh (“I met her in the hospital. She had come to get some medicine as I had”), the story ends with Safiya escorting a bleeding and crying woh out of the space of the school (“I held her by the arm and took her towards the main gate…And then she went away”). The trajectory of the relationship between Safiya and woh could be read, as Khanna has argued, as the “failed project of recuperating the subaltern.” That woh is forced out of the girls’ school serves to question the school’s “egalitarian pretensions” that are rooted in a concept of “shared womanhood.” A woman cannot have a “failed face,” and still expect to openly partake in the “sisterhood…of [progressive] nation-building.”
Safiya slowly comes to realize this fact as the story develops. At first, Safiya enacts the mores of middle-class respectability and courtesy by entering into a seemingly egalitarian relationship with woh, despite her ongoing repulsion at the woman’s face. Safiya looks at woh, smiles at her, allows her into the school, offers her a seat, and accepts the flower that woh extends to her each day, thus allowing both women to experiment with a new type of cross-class relationship opened to them by the feminist progressive discourse of modernity.
In entering into a face-to-face experience with woh, Safiya is drawn into a sense of ethical obligation to woh as the Other. Safiya becomes subject to woh in this ethical relationship; she gives her address to woh, she must offer the chair to the woman, she must put the flower in her hair: “every time she places a flower in front of me, I put it in my hair.” Safiya finds herself unable to say no to woh: “I saw her enter the office in my College. Surprised, I shot to my feet and, out of force of habit, without thinking, I said, ‘Please take a seat;’” and “Every day I would tell myself that I must ask her not to come here…But when she would show up the next day, I would once again offer her the chair and say ‘Please take a seat.’” By opening up a face-to-face encounter with woh, Safiya is “summoned” by woh in the sense invoked by Casey, and is made to feel an ethical imperative to be responsible for her. This activation of Safiya’s ethical impulse occurs without any type of speech: “We never talked to each other”– the ethical imperative comes simply from the fact that Safiya meets woh’s face with her own. Woh’s face, in its state of “destitution and distress” makes a call to Safiya and a “demand” upon her. This demand is never explicitly articulated, nor does woh physically coerce Safiya into extending courtesies to her. Rather, the looks that Safiya and woh share in their “face to face encounters” “vibrate with a sense of what [they] owe [one another], that is, with a sense of ethics.”
Meanwhile, the other people in the story are not engaged in a similar dance of politeness engendered by the “face to face encounter.” The doctor and pharmacist at the hospital, and the other teachers, the principal, and the cleaner at the school all avoid reciprocating woh’s gaze. Instead, they respond solely to woh via strict ontological categories evidenced by her body (she is a “woman,” “prostitute,” or a “common whore” to them, no more than that), or through expressions of revulsion at the visceral textures that her body exudes, as Khanna has incisively shown. Nasiban, the school’s cleaning woman refuses to touch the chair in which woh sits each day, the other school staff leave when her body enters their space, and the teachers also “go about vomiting all over the place” whenever woh comes into the school. At one point, a teacher in the school even goes so far as to say, “we should observe parda from that vile creature,” again drawing attention to the fact that everyone (except for Safiya) is unwilling to meet woh’s gaze, or allow her “strange face” to come within proximity to theirs.
In fact, Safiya’s fellow teachers at the school quickly jump to reprimand the recent college graduate for her naivete in becoming ethically embroiled with woh, and to warn her of the potential consequences of accepting a deviant, “failed face” into their midst. “My colleagues began to tease me about her,” Safiya says, a teasing that gradually turns into a more vicious, yet unarticulated threat: that woh’s “failed face” may spread to Safiya’s own Ideal Face, necessitating that both women be expelled from the “egalitarian” sisterhood of the girls’ school. “I have turned into a strange sort of joke in my College,” she says, “and not merely a butt of jokes but, increasingly, of ridicule.” The more that the staff at the school link Safiya to woh (“This new teacher is an odd one; why does she meet such a filthy, vile creature?;” “Why do you call her here?”; “Safiya’s ‘that one,’” the more that Safiya becomes aware that she too can be subsumed into the realm of the “repulsive,” and that the world may no longer “lay at [her] feet.”
This tension between Safiya’s belief in an egalitarian feminist future and the reality of the strict moral and physical policing of the limits of the school’s ‘egalitarianism’ causes Safiya to become “restless,” to ask herself the horrifying question: “Was she once like me? My hair stood on end at the thought.” It is no coincidence that Safiya’s bodily response to the thought of turning into woh (her hair standing on end) is a reaction that occurs around the edges of her face, given that “the human head is like an electrified sensing organ.” Safiya is coming to understand that the tingling possibility of having her own Ideal Face transformed into a “repulsive, noseless face” would be akin to experiencing a sort of social death, a form of extreme social ostracization that woh herself has suffered.
Indeed, throughout the story, woh is not only excluded from the categories of healthy (she is “ill,”), whole (her face is “crooked”, incomplete) woman (one older teacher separates woh from the category of woman by wanting to “observe parda” from her), or human (“she is a pebble from the drain,”), but she is also presented as barely being alive (“She is rotting away…she is dying of disease;” “her flesh is rotting and falling away”). Even Safiya herself thinks of woh as existing in a sort of post-life state: “Does she not know that she is paying for her sins?” Safiya asks, representing woh’s life as a fait accompli, by placing her in a purgatorial or hellish state in which she is “paying for her sins.” In its deformity, its incompleteness, its non-femaleness, its sub-humanity, and its undead state, woh’s face is marked as a “strange” one, and is thus a “threat” to the moral and social order.
Ultimately, it is only when woh wipes the snot from her nose on the wall (transferring, as she does so, an element of her deviant face directly onto her surroundings), that the performance of “good manners” meets its limit. Nasiban, the cleaning woman, whacks, kicks, and punches woh, while verbally reprimanding Safiya for introducing the woman into the College: “You are the one who has given her these airs. She is a pebble from the drain, you have picked her up and brought her inside.” At the story’s end, woh goes away, solving Safiya’s growing problem of contagion-via-association, and preserving Safiya’s Ideal Face as well as her position in the school sisterhood, even as her own utopic, feminist, egalitarian ideals for the world are shattered. “Now you know,” woh says darkly at the text’s finale, referring, perhaps, to the illusory promises of the progressive discourse of modernity.
Why is it so crucial to stress the face as the site of social, moral, or political danger in the story, instead of the female body more generally, as Khanna does? It is significant that Khanna chooses to emphasize woh as a body, instead of as a face, in her analysis of the story. In her readings of the text, Khanna even goes so far as to say that woh is a “nameless, faceless woman,” displacing the site of her “sticky and viscous textures and fluids,” from her face to her body: “the woman’s bodily fluids run and fill and ooze, untethered.” But to call woh “faceless” is to erase a significant portion of her character. It is not that the woh’s body oozes in general, but rather that her eyes that fill, her nose that drips with mucus, her temple that bleeds–her face is the principal place from which grotesque texture emerges.
While Khanna’s analysis of woh’s “leaking and oozing body” correctly illuminates it as a “site of political critique,” an avoidance of woh’s face in her reading allows Khanna to miss, and indeed disavow, the “erotic conclusions” nestled within Jahan’s text. It is necessary to read woh first and foremost as a face instead of a body, because it is primarily through her face (its glances and smiles) that not only the previously analyzed ethical implications, but also the homoerotic overtones of the relationship between Safiya and woh are enacted.
The relationship between Safiya and woh is one that is initiated and inflamed through the face. While all of the other women in the hospital “moved away” from woh, refusing to even be near her, let alone meet her (one remaining) eye with their own, Safiya says: “I managed to look at her and smile. She smiled too.” Safiya allows herself to fall into the hold of woh’s gaze, to exchange smiles and share her address with the woman, and eventually to let woh go “behind the curtain,” into the homosocial space of the girls’ school. In that office, woh and the narrator daily engage in a sort of courtship reminiscent of the “high sentimental rhetoric of the ‘afsana’ romantic short story” genre popular among female Urdu readerships at the time of the story’s composition. Each day, woh sets down a twig of motiya jasmine on the table in front of the narrator, a flower which Safiya then dutifully places in her hair. After this arguably romantic series of gestures is complete, woh smiles, and often stays in Safiya’s office to gaze at her. But while Gopal reads this intertextuality to the afsana genre as a way of setting up a “contrast between…the privileged world of the narrator and the wretchedness of That One,” this essay reads the interaction between the Safiya and woh as an explicitly homoerotic form of courtship, enabled by the intimacy created by the face to face encounter of the two at the story’s opening. Had Safiya not forced herself to look at woh’s face in the hospital, the relationship between the two never would have developed. Safiya’s initial “look” opens up a succession of looks between the two.
It might be because of the homoerotic overtones of Safiya’s relationship with woh that the condemnations of the school and hospital staff reach the fever pitch that they do. Beneath the explicitly articulated concerns that the staff have about woh’s ghastly appearance, her lack of familiarity with “good manners,” and her presumed background in sex work, lurks another (unspoken) anxiety: a concern that woh and Safiya might be replicating homoerotic practices in the public institutional sphere, thus hindering the heteronormative progress of the nation.
The other teachers effectively label Safiya and woh as a couple, calling to one another, “Come, let’s go, Safiya’s ‘that one’ has come”, when woh raises the curtain and enters Safiya’s office. The use of the possessive here (“Safiya’s ‘that one’”) implies not just Safiya’s feeling of sisterly “social responsibility” towards woh, but also hints at a high level of semi-romantic intimacy with her. Indeed, the very language invoked by the narrator to describe woh in the story is oddly similar to how one would try to describe a beloved. Safiya grasps at a way to make woh’s strange face legible through metaphors in her narration (she is “a pebble from the drain”) or through exaggerated comparisons to decaying, organic material (“She is rotting away”; “her flesh is rotting and falling away”).
The “failed face” and the ideal, beautiful face of the beloved, then, provoke similar types of metaphoric, aesthetically pleasurable language in the text. By adorning the “repulsive” woh with metaphoric language, the story firmly places woh (as a diseased, subaltern, sex-working woman) within the realm of art, and in a relationship that holds homoerotic intimations.
Reading Rashid Jahan’s “Woh” with a special attention to how faces are represented in the text, rather than bodies, allows for an increased appreciation of the story beyond its politically progressive meanings. Attempts to order and categorize woh in political terms, then, (as “prostitute;” as the “common aesthetic object of Marxist social realism”) are inevitably bound to fall short of capturing the particularity of woh’s existence, and the texture of her relationship with Safiya. While the staff at the hospital and the school refuse to engage with woh in a “face to face encounter,” and do not acknowledge her outside of the category of prostitute, the repeated gestures of pseudo-courtship enacted daily by Safiya and woh can be read as an encounter mediated by Safiya’s troubled ethics, and charged with homoerotic possibilities.
While understanding woh’s body through categories such as “prostitute,” “woman,” or “subaltern,” makes the story legible in political terms, these categories do little to illuminate the full range of the encounter between Safiya and woh in ethical, or homoerotic terms. Rather, it is through the “face to face encounter” that such elements of the story are brought to the fore.
Anna Learn is a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Near and Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Washington. She studies Persian, Hispanic, and South Asian literature.
- Rashid Jahan. “That One [Woh],” in A Rebel and Her Cause: The Life and Work of Rashid Jahan by Rakhshanda Jalil, trans. Rakhshanda Jalil. Women Unlimited, 2014. pp. 117-121.
- See: Gopal (2005); Sunder Rajan (2013); Khanna (2018, 2020).
- Namwali Serpell. Stranger Faces. Transit Books (2020), 12.
- Ibid., 11, 10.
- Ibid., 14.
- Ibid., 12.
- Edward S. Casey, “The Ethics of the Face to Face Encounter: Schroeder, Levinas, and the Glance.” The Pluralist, Vol. 1, No. 1. (2006): 89.
- Serpell, 12.
- Ibid., 12, 14, 14.
- Ibid., 157.
- Ibid., 141.
- Jahan, 117, 119.
- Ibid., 117, 118, 118, 119, 119, 118.
- Serpell, 33.
- Parda (or purdah) is the custom of veiling and seclusion of women (Minault, 313). Observing purdah contributed to an overall “aura of respectability” among women of upper to middle classes in colonial India (215). For the staff at the hospital and girls’ school in this story, “observing parda” from woh implies that they would maintain their aura of respectability by not associating with her, and being physically separate from her.
- Jahan, 119.
- Ibid., 119 (italics added).
- Ibid., 118, 117, 117.
- Khanna, 91.
- Priyamvada Gopal, Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, nation, and the transition to independence. (Routledge, 2005): 45.
- Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. “An Ethics of Postcolonial Citizenship: Lessons from Reading Women Writing in India.” Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 26, No. 1. (2013): 71.
- Serpell, 14.
- Jahan, 120.
- Gail Minault. Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India. (Oxford University Press, 1998), 275, 278.
- Neetu Khanna. “Compulsion,” in The Visceral Logics of Decolonization. pp. 85-108. (Duke University Press, 2020), 91.
- Jahan, 117, 120.
- Khanna, 90.
- Gopal, 47, 46.
- Serpell, 12; Sunder Rajan, 72.
- Jahan, 119.
- Ibid., 118, 119.
- Casey, 88.
- Jahan, 118.
- Casey, 89.
- Serpell, 10.
- Casey, 89.
- Jahan, 117, 117, 120.
- Ibid., 119.
- Ibid., 119.
- Ibid., 118.
- Ibid., 119.
- Ibid., 118, 118, 119, 118, 117.
- Ibid., 119.
- Serpell, 115.
- Jahan, 118.
- Ibid., 119, 118, 119, 120, 117, 120.
- Ibid., 119.
- Khanna, 91.
- Jahan, 120.
- Ibid., 120.
- Ibid., 120.
- Khanna, 88, 85, 90.
- Ibid., 91, 92.
- Jahan, 117.
- Ibid., 118.
- Gopal, 44.
- Ibid., 44.
- Jahan, 119.
- Sunder Rajan, 72.
- Jahan, 120, 118, 120.
- Khanna, 88.