Ismat Chugtai : A Voice That Sounds Fresh Even After A Hundred Years

(2015 marks the birth centenary year of Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai. Malavika Sharad reflects on what Ismat Chugtai’s legacy means to us today.)

We live in times when opinion and creativity are forced through a filter of ‘national pride’ and ‘honour’, defined in the narrowest and most dishonest of ways. We live in times when people are being killed for what they write or eat, and self-appointed custodians of culture decide what music we can hear and what books we can read.

Reading and remembering Ismat Chughtai in such times gives one a special sense of satisfaction. She was born in 1915 in Badayun,Uttar Pradesh but spent most of her childhood in Jodhpur. She had arguments with her parents – arguments that are familiar ground to many women even today – to allow her to study in a hostel away from home. She studied in the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University. She refused an arranged marriage, and was the first Indian Muslim woman to have secured two degrees - a B.A. and B.Ed. She joined the Progressive Writers’ Association quite early in life, and was influenced by another Urdu doctor and writer, Dr Rashid Jahan, who was a communist and a feminist.

Ismat’s style of writing was just like her - bold, fearless and in-your-face. Her stories are straight forward, written with sheer honesty and frankness. And her stories have strong women characters, characters who are free spirited and who believe in living life according to their own rules, just like Ismat herself. The women in her stories are uninhibited and cock a snook at existing social norms, giving jitters to the so-called socially higher classes.

Fellow Progressive writer Krishan Chander said her writing “makes us think of … a horse race … [there is] swiftness, movement, speed, alacrity … the sentences, symbols and metaphors, voices and characters and emotions and feelings … springing and moving forward with the speed of a storm…”

Sadat Hassan Manto, who wrote in the same period and who was a great friend of Ismat’s, once said for her, “Ismat’s pen and tongue, both run fast.”

Ismat did not come from a very liberal household nor was she brought up in an ultra modern fashion. But she knew her way with words and how to tackle her family members. Following a complaint by her mother that she did not help in the kitchen, her father asked Ismat what would she feed her in-laws when she is married as she didn’t know how to make rotis. Ismat retorted- “If we will be poor, we will eat khichdi and if we will be rich we will hire a cook who will cook for us.” Ismat’s father realized that his daughter was a terror. He then asked her what she wanted to do and Ismat said, “All my brothers study. I also want to study.” Ismat believed “I want to be free and without an education a woman cannot have freedom.”

Ismat married the man of her choice, Shahid Lateeef, a successful script-writer who actively encouraged her in her desire of becoming a professional writer. Of her marriage she wrote, “I told Shahid before we got married that I’m a very troublesome woman, later on you’ll regret marrying me. I have been breaking chains all my life. I won’t be bound in any chain now. It doesn’t suit me to be an obedient, virtuous woman, but Shahid didn’t listen to me… the day before our wedding I warned him again. ‘There’s still time, listen to me, all our lives we’ll be friends, I’m saying this as a friend’ … Shahid treated me as an equal and that is why we led a pleasant married life.”

Chughtai valued her freedom so much that she chose to be cremated instead of being buried; probably, she could not stand being cloistered in a grave even after death.

Ismat Chughtai wrote about lives of women – about stifling marriages and women’s desire. Her short story Lihaaf or The Quilt written in 1941 was one such story, for which she had to face a trial on obscenity charges.

Lihaaf tells the story of Begum Jan, married to a Nawab who “installed (her) in his house along with the furniture ...tethered to her canopied bed,” and then neglected her in favour of young boys. The Begum and her maid develop a lesbian relationship, sensed and described in a story through the eyes of a child.

Ismat told one of her husband’s friends, who criticized her for the story, that no one ever told her that writing about the subject she was dealing with in ‘Lihaaf’ was a sin: “Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.”

Ismat Chugtai recalls in her memoirs Kagazi hai Pairahan (Of Paper My Apparel) what a hilarious time her husband and she had in Lahore where the obscenity trial was going on. She describes the trial:

“The witnesses who were called in to prove that Lihaf was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of search a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ashiqs’ (lovers) is obscene.’’ “Which word is obscene”, the lawyer said. “Collecting”, or “ashiqs”?” And after this the case against her became weak.

Ismat Chughtai’s other stories too openly talk about taboo subjects. The women in her writings rebel against a society governed by patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. Her novel Terhi Lakeer (A Crooked Line) describe the rebellious childhood of a tomboyish girl.

Ismat’s stories - Chui-mui, Gharwaali, and Mughal Bachcha intrigue you, challenge the status quo, make you laugh and make you question the bizarre standards of the society.

Ismat Chughtai also tried her hand at films. She directed ‘Jawab Ayega’, ‘Faraib’ and a documentary called ‘My Dreams’; wrote the dialogues for ‘Arzoo’ and ‘Junoon’, the screenplay for ‘Sone ki Chidia’ and the story for ‘Ziddi’ and the masterpiece ‘Garam Hawa’ which portrays the agony of Partition.

She died on October24,1991. Ismat Chughtai was a rebel at heart and a path breaker who took the road less travelled. Her literary voice is one that resonates with us – even a century later.

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