About the Author
Ismat Chughtai is the author of several s, three novellas, a novel, the crooked line, a collection of reminiscences and essays, my friend, my enemy, and a memoir, kaghazi hai peraban (The paper thin garment). With her husband, shahid latif, a film director, she produced and co directed six films, and produced a further six independently.
One of Urdu's boldest and most outspoken women writers, Ismat Chughtai played an important role in the development of the modern Urdu short story as we know it today. Not only did she make strides in the areas of style and technique, she also led her female contemporaries on a remarkable journey of self-awareness and undaunted creative expression. One must not forget that in the India of the Thirties and Forties, writing by and about women was tentative; it was generally held that literature had no place in women's lives. Making a break with tradition, Ismat proved that this was a fallacy.
In 1944 she stepped into the realm of Urdu fiction with her story Lihaaf (The Quilt) with such force that she confounded her readers as well as her male counterparts. Since boldness and unconventionality were not characteristics generally associated with women in those days, many of her critics went so far as to suggest that these new stories came from a man's pen, that 'Ismat Chughtai' was a pseudonym for a male writer. In the introduction to Choten (wounds) Krishan Chander says that "as soon as Ismat's name is mentioned, male short -story writers get hysterical, they are embarrassed, they experience mortification. When face to face with the Ismat who blushed at the mention of the mysteriously suggestive ending to her story Lihaaf, Manto, her contemporary and later her friend and harshest critic, was disappointed. "She's a woman after all," he thought in dismay. But when he got to know her better and became familiar with her work, he was compelled to change his opinion. He states in Ganje Farishte (Bald Angels), that Ismat was indeed a woman first and foremost, but that in order to fully develop one's art one must remain true to one's basic nature. "If she were not a woman," he continues, "one would never have seen such smooth, sensitive stories like Bhul Bhulaiyan (Mazes), Til (The Mole), Lihaafand Gainda (The Marigold), in her collections.
Ismat Chughtai was born on August 15, 1915, into a middle-class family in Badayun. She was the youngest of six brothers and four sisters. Her father, Mirza Qaseem Beg, was an honest civil servant who rose to the position of deputy collector through his own merit and hard work. Ismat attended the local municipal school, the Cantonement School having been disregarded owing to its policy that girls wear frocks, a practice contrary to the Chughtai family tradition. Since her sisters got married when Ismat was very young, the better part of her childhood was spent in the company of her brothers, a factor she has admitted contributed greatly to the frankness in her nature and subsequently her writing. As she describes it: We are all frank, my father, my brother, all of us. We never used to sit in separate groups my father was very progressive and broadminded. He believed in education and gave me equal chances with my brothers. I never had the feeling that I should be shy and nervous. Because of that upbringing, I'm this way. Her brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai, already an established writer while Ismat was still a young girl, was her first teacher and mentor. At his bidding, Thomas Hardy was the first novelist she "consumed"; others followed, as did lessons in translation, both from Urdu to English and vice versa. Later, after she had read her brother's short stories, she began experimenting with fiction herself. The romantic works of Hajab Ismail, Majnun Gorakhpuri and Niaz Fatehpuri filled her head with adventurous ideas and she imagined herself a heroine in a story. Writing in secret, she produced melodramatic stories that would have been regarded as "dirty" and she knew she would be severely reprimanded if they were discovered. She soon realised that what she had written so far was below par and ineffective, so she tore everything up and embarked on a course of serious study. The works of Dostoyevsky and Somerset Maugham had a great impact on her and she also developed a special fondness for Chekhov. And it was O'Henry, she claims, from whom she learnt the conventions of storytelling. Of the serious Urdu writers, Prem Chand was her favourite and understandably so. Having been influenced by Dickens, Tolstoy and later Gandhi, Munshi Prem Chand was the first Indian to write cohesive European style Urdu fiction.
With college came the beginning of a new life for Ismat, and writing took a back seat to education. The world changes after B.A.,she says in the introduction to Guftagu (The Conversation), a collection of her short stories. One grows so much in four years. Beginning with Greek drama, continuing with Shakespeare down to Ibsen and Bernard Shaw, she read voraciously. Finally, when she was twenty- three, Ismat decided she was ready to write seriously; she was certainly old enough, she told herself, and had read the best there was in fiction, Urdu as well as English. Her first story, Fasadi (The Troublemaker), was published in Saqi, a literary journal of considerable repute. Its readers were perplexed; they wondered why Azim Beg Chughtai had "changed" his name. The man himself was not aware that his little sister, "Munce", had become a writer and had published a short story.
In 1936, while she was completing her B.A., she attended the first meeting of the Progressive Writers Movement in Luck now, at which Munshi Prem Chand was also present. Here she met Rashid Iahan for the first time. A doctor by profession and "a woman of a particularly strong-willed, liberated sort," Rashid Iahan also wrote stories and radio plays, which appear in the collection titled Aurat aur Digar Afsane (Woman and Other stories), and was the only woman who left a lasting impression on Ismat." Explaining her fascination with Rashid Iahan and the extent to which she was influenced by ber, Ismat says: "She spoiled me because she was very bold and used to speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her. She influenced me a lot; her open-mindedness and free thinking.
After completing her B.A. Ismat went on to obtain a B.T. and became the first Muslim woman to have both B.A. and B.T. degrees. For some time she held the post of principal at the girls' College in Bareilly and, while she was here, her father passed away. The next few years were spent in Jodhpur from where she went on to Bombay as Inspectress of Schools. In Aligarh Ismat met Shahid Latif, her future husband. He was completing his Masters degree at the time and the two developed a close friendship. Later he became a film director and it wasn't until Ismat was twenty-nine that she married him. "It was just friendship," she says, "and love or romance didn't have any part in it." Because they were often seen in each other's company, people presumed they were going to be married. And then we don't know what happened, maybe there was such a scandal, but we found ourselves married.
Her brother, Azim Beg Chughtai, vehemently opposed the match, perhaps because he disapproved of Shahid Latifs association with films. In 1942, two months before she got married, Ismat wrote Lihaaf, which proved to be a breakthrough in Urdu short story writing. A frustrated housewife, whose nawab husband has no time for her, finds sexual and emotional solace in the companionship of a female servant. The narrator of the story is a woman remembering a childhood experience. Because of this we get a viewpoint which is utterly refreshing since a child may naively and artlessly say things an adult may not. The lesbian relationship between the begum and her maidservant is vividly drawn, but since we are looking at it from a nine-year-old's eyes, there is none of the awkwardness that would have accompanied an adult's perception of what went on between the two women. When Lihaafwas published two months later, a storm of controversy broke out. Readers and critics alike openly and unequivocally condemned Ismat and her story. Charged with obscenity, she was submitted to a trial in Lahore. Here she had occasion to spend a great deal of time with Manto who was among the few who supported her and who was being similarly charged for his story, Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat). The trial lasted for two years; the court could not find any four-letter word in the story and finally the case against Ismat was dismissed. According to her own accounts the story is based on fact. As a child she had heard the women in her household giggle and whisper tales about a begum and her female servant. "My brother and I hid under a takht while the women gossiped and as soon as someone caught a glimpse of us, we were told to make ourselves scarce. This led us to believe that the women were talking about forbidden subjects, and although in the beginning what they were saying didn't make sense to us, gradually we began to understand. Ismat's recollection explains the viewpoint in the story and also throws light on the enigmatic last sentence: «What I saw when the corner of the quilt was lifted I will never tell anyone, not even if someone gives me a lakh of rupees. At the time she wrote the story her knowledge regarding the subject of lesbianism was meager; what she couldn't tell was actually what she didn't know.
Although Lihaaf set the tone for all of Ismat's later work and established her not only as a mature writer but as someone who was of the same standing as Manto, Krishan Chander, Ahmed Ali, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and others, it also became a focal point of recognition for Ismat's work in popular terms. However, readers of Urdu fiction have a tendency to ignore the fact that Ismat is more than Lihaaf, much more. She is also Kallu, Chauthi ka Jora (The Wedding Shroud), Hindustan Chor Do (Leave Hindustan), Do Haath (A Pair of Hands), Terhi Lakir (The Crooked Line one of her best novels) and so many others. Ismat, like her contemporaries, was influenced a great deal by European fiction, especially the works of late- nineteenth century Russian writers. She and others in her class became involved with a new kind of writing which, although it was linked with social themes, was neither didactic nor entirely political in its overtones. A socialist outlook, accompanied by the use of non-traditional techniques to tell a story, gained strength. Having been greatly influenced by Freud's theories of psychosexual development, the new writers also wrote freely and openly about certain aspects of human sexuality, but, as in the case of Ismat, with sincerity and intelligence. In addition to changes in subject matter and tone, a new language evolved, a style that did not waste time mincing words or tip-toeing around the real issues. This was a style that was bold, innovative, rebellious and explicitly realistic in its representation and analysis of character and the human condition.
Ismat began writing at a time when the voices of women writers were still muffled. Tradition and ethical mores held a tight grip on society and any attempt on the part of women to write poetry and fiction was viewed as "intellectual vagrancy?" However, despite this taboo, certain women succeeded in making themselves heard; Begum Yaldram, Hajab Ismail and Begum Nazar Sajjad, for example. Although their fiction had gained considerable popularity, these early works by women were largely romances or were instructional and reformist in nature, the characters and subject matter remaining stilted and unbelievable. Ismat herself was affected initially by Hajab Ismail's overly-romanticised and larger than life characters, but she soon broke free from this influence.
Motivated by the initiative that Ismat's dramatic entry into the world of literature provided, other women writers also came forward valiantly, and many more voices arose to join hers. Qurratulain Hyder, Mumtaz Shireen, Hajira Masroor, Khadija Mastoor, Razia Sahhad Zaheer, Tasneem Salim, Sarla Devi, Sadiqa Begum and Shakila Akhtar were some of the most notable among them. In her writing Ismat concentrated on what she was most familiar with. Having lived in a family where there was no dearth of mothers-in-law, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants and a whole network of neighbours (muhalle wale), she was able to portray these characters vividly and realistically when she used them in her stories. That she frequently drew her fiction from actual events she had been a part of, either directly or indirectly, explains the intense realism we meet with in her work. Many of her stories are clearly autobiographical Bichu Phupi (Aunt Bichu) and Kunwari (The Virgin), for instance, but the story loses nothing in terms of fictive value or drama on account of that fact. In her best novel, Terhi Lakir, the period spanning the narrator's childhood comes very close to Ismat's own childhood. Several of the characters appearing later in the book are fashioned after people she knew in real life, many of these women being close friends who were not at all happy at finding themselves in Ismat's novel.
Many of Ismat's critics have accused her of being limited in her choice of subject matter. Perhaps that is true. She wrote only of what she knew well. But within these limits she perfected her art. The bulk of her work reflects a deep and abiding preoccupation with themes directly related to women and their cultural status and role in Indian society. Stressing the struggles of women against the oppressive social institutions of her time, she brings to her fiction an understanding and perception of the female psyche that is unique to her alone; no other writer approaches the subject of women in the same sympathetically probing, sharply cognizant and readable way that she does. One cannot discredit anything she offers, whether it be the behaviour of a sexually-frustrated housewife in Lihaaf, or the futility and despondency experienced by Madan, the film star in Kunwari, who seeks but cannot find respectability.
The world of Ismat's fiction is inhabited by people who come from the middle class, much as she did. Their circles of familiarity include, as hers did, not only relatives, close and distant, but also the entire servant class (Kallu), sweepers and sweeperesses (Do Haath), not forgetting an assortment of neighbours. Perceived as a social network, this world teems with stories that can be told from diverging viewpoints, offering unlimited variety, colourful and strikingly interesting, to say the least. Ismat depicts her characters realistically, using language that is so direct, colloquial and down to earth that her characters remain characters no longer, becoming instead people, real people we see every day and know well. Kubra's mother in Chauthi ka [ora, struggling to find a suitable husband for her older daughter, is no stranger to us; Bichu Phupi, on the warpath with her brother and his family, but undeniably woman and sister in the end, could be anyone's estranged aunt, and Gori, the dark, sultry temptress in Do Haath, and Rani in Til we have frequently encountered among the cleaning women in our households when we were children, And the fact of their familiarity doesn't bore us, doesn't render them banal; no, we read on avidly to find out how they fare and what fate awaits them.
In large part it is Ismat's diction, her unique and rich idiom that pulls us along, especially those of us who view Urdu not only as a language, but as an institution. And operating in conjunction with the linguistic patterns characteristic of Muslim U.P. families, which form the centre of much of her work, there is the colorful, robust and completely unrestrained vernacular employed by the servant class and women who worked at menial jobs and were not begums. Dialects and idioms explode on every page so that each paragraph becomes more than just a collection of sentences conveying an idea; it shapes itself into a representation of a way of life, traditions, a philosophy. A thorough study of Ismat's fiction will reveal valuable facts about the social and cultural aspects of life in Muslim D.P. families. Class consciousness, styles in clothing, cooking habits, foods, elements of social exchange, customs regarding such important events as birth, marriage and death are presented to us. For example, in The Wedding Shroud, we observe the tradition of matchmaking at work. It would be incorrect to say that the tradition is outdated; in India and Pakistan there are still households where the process of marriage continues to take a somewhat similar, if not the same, route. Kubra, the young woman who is to be married, stays in hiding while her younger sister is sent out by her mother and her old friend to "play jokes" on the cousin who is, without his knowledge, being viewed by all the women in that household as a prospective groom. The idea is to engage his attention indirectly in this manner and prod him into delivering a proposal for the woman he has never seen, and will never see unless he marries her. One may also learn in the same story how the Muslim shroud is prepared, how the cloth is squared and measured and ripped by hand, without the use of scissors. In Nawala (The Morsel), we come across more matchmaking, this time of a different nature. We're also offered a rare glimpse of life in a Bomaby chawl. Somewhat like an apartment building, although the comparison can be misleading, the chawl is a place where the tenants are more than neighbours; they are members of a large communal family with shared concerns and cares. Mugaddas Farz (Sacred Duty), brings us face to face with secularism as a way of life in present day India. The young no longer care whether they are Muslims or Hindus. Representative of a new age, they are content just to be Indians. And in Ghunghat (The Veil), we are confronted with a woman whose loyalty to the institution of marriage tragically consumes her entire life, a phenomenon deeply ingrained in the very fibre of our culture.
From the point of view of richness of metaphor and simile, the power of idiom, and the ease with which images fall into place, soundlessly and with absolute clarity, the quality of Ismat's language surpasses that of any of her contemporaries. "Not only does her story appear to be running," Krishan Chander commented in a foreword to Choten, "but the sentences, images, metaphors, the sounds and sensibilities of the characters and their feelings - all seem to be moving together and forward with the intensity of a storm. It is exactly with this impression that one leaves the first paragraph of Terhi Lakir. She was born at a most inopportune time. Bari Apa, whose friend Salma was to be married soon, was working spiritedly on a saroi-crepe dupatta, stitching gold lace to its borders. Amma, who regarded herself as a youthful maiden despite the fact that she had given birth to so many children, was scrubbing off dead skin from her heels with a pumice stone. Suddenly the clouds rolled in, and in the ensuing commotion the longstanding desire to send for the English midwife came to naught, and "she" was born. The minute she arrived into the world, she let out such a yell God help us. Of the early writings by Ismat's contemporaries, many reveal shortcomings in the areas of style and subject matter that one generally attributes to professional and literary incipience. In Ismat's earliest stories, however, one observes a forceful viewpoint and a mature handling of subject matter that is surprising when one takes into account the fact that she was a lone voice at the time, a woman severing her ties with tradition, both in literary and social terms. In reviewing Ismat's skill as a writer, Ehtesham Hussain, a leading critic of Urdu literature, has this to say about her art: Ismat's undaunted intelligence and her power of expression were so well integrated that from the very beginning her stories caught everyone's attention. It is true that at first she too probed only some of society's ills, scraped wounds, poured salt over them, and left her readers in a quandary. But it did not take her long to become aware of the truth about her writing and soon she was able to strike an effective balance between her themes and her subject matter.Kaliyan (Buds), Ismat's first collection of short stories and Choten, her second, were published in Azim Beg Chugtai's lifetime. Her other books are: Aik Bat (A Word; short story collection), Terhi Lakir (Crooked Line; novel), Chui Mui (The Sensitive One; short story collection), Ziddi (The Stubborn One; novella), Masooma (The Innocent; novella), Dhani Bankpan (Green Elegance; short stories), Do Haath (Two Hands; short stories), Hamlog (We People; essays and stories), Shaitan (The Devil; plays), Saudai (The Madman; novel); Aik qatra-e-khun (A Drop of Blood). In addition, Ismat produced scripts of five films in which she collaborated with her husband, Shahid Latif, and made five films independently. She had two daughters by Shahid Latif and after her husband's death continued living in Bombay until her death on 24 October 1991.
A few years ago she was asked why she had not written her autobiography. "I've writteen it, I've written a lot," she replied. When asked why she had not published it, she had this to say: "Why should I publish it right now? It will be published when I'm dead. Why should I die just yet? At this moment I'm telling you the truth, but it isn't necessary that I speak the truth in my autobiography; you no longer remain objective when you write an autobiography, you begin to think of your own reputation. A terhi lakir to the end, Ismat Chugtai died as she had lived, in the midst of controversy. The news that she had left instructions that she was to be cremated became cause for heated debate in both India and Pakistan, and .even those who knew her, who expected her to be unpredictable, were taken by surprise. But the furore over funeral rites could not suppress the facts about her. Ismat's greatness as the Grand Dame of Urdu short story writing (the other three being Manto, Krishan Chander, and Bedi), as the indomitable spirit of Urdu afsana, the last chronicler of the V.P. Muslim culture and its associated semantics, was affirmed by fellow writers, journalists and friends.
A pair of Hands(Do haath)
The wife(Ghar walli)
Bichu phupi(Bichu phupi)
The third hand(Teesra haath)
Eternal vine(Amar bel)
Lingering fragrance(Badan ki khushboo)
Sacred Duty(Muqaddas farz)
Who was he?(Who kaun tha?)
Alone again(Tanha tanha)
The wedding shround(Chauthi ka jora)
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