Kusum by Khushwant Singh
In Kusum by Khushwant Singh we have the theme of appearance, sadness, confidence and change. Taken from his Collected Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story it would appear as though Singh is exploring the theme of appearance. Singh details Kusum’s physical appearance and it is unflattering to say the least. That is if one is to view Kusum’s attractiveness through the modern lens of appearance used by western society. Very little is given to the fact that Kusum is exceptionally bright. This is seen as more of a benefit to her task as a house wife, should she marry. There is no indication that Kusum will continue her studies and excel in them. Rather she feels and may possibly know that she is to be alone for the rest of her life. Based again solely on her physical appearance.
There is also a degree of sadness in Kusum’s life. Knowing that she is not pretty she is resigned to becoming no more than a servant to a potential husband. This may be significant as Singh could be suggesting that men in the majority marry a woman based primarily on their appearance. Something that Kusum does not have much luck in. However if a person where to consider Kusum’s personality. She could be deemed to be attractive. She is knowledgeable in many topics and is not prone to argument. Apart from the argument she has with the hawker. Who acts as a foil to Kusum’s character. It is through the hawker that Kusum begins to feel as though she may be physically attractive. Going as far as using the rouge and lipstick she received from a friend as a present. It is as though when Kusum uses the beauty products she changes. She becomes in her eyes the most beautiful (and fairest) woman of all. This too may be significant as the beauty products help to boost Kusum’s confidence. No longer is she accepting of the fact that she might not marry. Instead she sees a world of possibility.
What is disappointing about the story is the fact that men in general appear to be portrayed as shallow. For example the reader is left to assume that Kusum will be alone because she is not physically appealing to the eye. However there are many men in the world who would find intelligence far more appealing than physical beauty. A person may be pretty but looks will fade. Whereas a person’s intelligence is like a small fire with the possibility of growth. Intelligence burns instead a person and forces them to grow intellectually. The hawker himself is an ideal foil for Kusum as she cannot use her obvious intelligence to be his master. The hawker jokes in a manner that Kusum is not used to but rather than forget about him. The hawker acts as the trigger for change. It is through her engagement with the hawker that Kusum starts to believe more in herself or at least more in the possibility that she could be attractive to someone else.
The end of the story is interesting as Kusum goes from the depths of despair to the heights of delight in a matter of minutes. By using the beauty products Kusum feels more physically confident in herself. A simple thing like rubbing some rouge on her cheeks and adding some lipstick to her lips causes an immense boost in Kusum’s confidence. She feels the world is full of opportunity and no longer is she fixated with the notion that the highest point she can reach in life is that of a housewife. The story really is inspiring in many ways and one can see how it might be used as a tool to help others who might lack confidence in their physical appearance. Beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder and the hawker does appear to find Kusum attractive. Something that boosts Kusum’s confidence immensely. She too can have the world that her friends dream of. She no longer has to submit to the notion that she is not as pretty (physically) as she once thought herself to be.