Remembering Ismat Chughtai, Urdu’s Wicked Woman

In her life and writings, she laid bare the hypocrisy of the male champions of women’s rights and the myths they had constructed about women.

October 24 was Ismat Chughtai’s 28th death anniversary

‘In court, the opposing lawyer had a fit of coughing owing to embarrassment. Stand clear! The woman is arriving.’ I remembered these harmless-sounding lines from Ismat Chughtai’s little-known essay ‘Heroine’ last week as I saw the latest play by Lahore’s famed Ajoka Theatre, titled Saira Aur Maira at the fag-end of the Asma Jahangir Conference on October 20. The essay goes on to deconstruct the changing face of the ‘heroine’ in Urdu literature from its relatively patriarchal origins to its recent feminist avatar, where Ismat hoped that ‘the upcoming heroine will neither be oppressor nor oppressed, but merely a woman; and instead of Ahriman and Yazdan, writers will indeed grant her the status of a woman; and then construction will begin.’

The play itself fictionalised the life and struggles of a real-life heroine, the Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir, who like Ajoka Theatre’s founder, Madeeha Gauhar, died last year. Enacted on stage were snippets from Asma’s life, including a couple of landmark cases where she won a reprieve for a teenage boy accused of blasphemy and for two other young women fighting for their right to marry and divorce by choice in the face of their conservative parents’s objections. The scenes of Asma’s house being besieged and attacked by an angry mob fed and led by clerics reminded me of how Chughtai must have felt in colonial India when she was herself prosecuted for her short-story ‘Lihaaf’, with the ensuing uproar forcing her marriage with Shahid Latif to breaking point.

In this same week too, on October 18, came the 90th anniversary of a landmark event in Canadian history when the law acknowledged for the first time that women were persons. Up to 1929, the legal definition of persons did not include women. But Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Edwards and Louise McKinney disagreed, and later won the battle for personhood in court. As did Asma Jahangir. And before her Ismat Chughtai.

Chughtai, who passed away in her bed quietly in Bombay 28 years ago, is universally regarded as one of the four pillars of modern Urdu fiction, the other three being her contemporaries Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. While in I she and her legacy are feted and commemorated in India, this daring champion of women’s rights – who anticipated by a few decades the heaven-stormers of the ’60s pioneered in the West by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer – has been consciously ignored in Pakistan. The main reason for this, perhaps,  is the controversy she created with ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt), which was banned in 1942 for its erotic and lesbian undertones, and overshadowed almost the whole of Chughtai’s subsequent work, much to her chagrin.

Chughtai of course won the obscenity case filed against her and went on to write many masterpieces in short fiction as well as in the longer form, of which the most notable is Terhi Lakeer (‘The Crooked Line’). It stands out among her six novels with its Joycean, largely autobiographical heroine Shamman (Shamshad) who grows from being a precocious, rebellious independent-minded girl to a politically-conscious feminist activist involved in the Indian independence struggle.

For a writer routinely nicknamed the ‘female Manto’ (owing to her rebellious and daring persona) and ‘Lady Changez Khan’ (she traced her descent from the family of Tamerlane), her life and legacy are surprisingly ignored by scores of middle-class girls in both Pakistan and India, who seem enamoured with pop-schlock television serials and Bollywood films advocating female submission and stereotyping. Not for nothing then are the achievements of courageous icons like the 2014 Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai scorned and belittled by a section of our own ‘liberal’ elite.

The second reason why Chughtai could never become a household name in Pakistan may have to do with the controversy regarding her funeral rites; she chose to be cremated rather than buried as per the orthodox Muslim tradition.

Critics have unfairly stereotyped Chughtai, who died in 1991, as a spokesperson for the respectable women of the Indian Muslim middle-class owing to her unmatched knowledge of the inner lives of the middle-class Muslim zenana. Some even refuse to regard her as a great fiction writer.

The style of writing, themes and problems which she brought into Urdu short-story writing was new. The life of women and their sexual problems had previously been dealt with by many of short-story writers, but there is a fundamental difference between these stories and the stories of Ismat. Ismat viewed these issues from the standpoint of a woman and actually felt them rather than merely narrating or touching upon them in a general way. That is why some people even think that, Ismat has described her autobiography in her short-stories.

Ismat made as her topic the impediments of middle-class Muslim cultural and domestic life within which a woman’s personality is nurtured. She had a familiarity with these constraints and the way she put a finger on the aching veins of the psychology of the Indian woman broke new ground. ‘Dayen’ (Witch), ‘Saas’ (Mother-in-Law), ‘Genda’ (Marigold), ‘Neera’, ‘Javaani’ (Youth), ‘Uff Ye Bacche’ (Oh These Kids), ”Aik Shohar ki Khaatir (For the Sake of A Husband), all these were short-stories from Ismat’s initial stage not only possessed the anguished relish of the prime of youth, but that element of mystery and satirical manner which unveiled a lot of secrets. Her satire was very concealed. The late Intizar Husain wrote quite aptly while comparing the sexual short-stories of Ismat and Manto:

‘The matters which, after observing, Ismat passed on with merely a playful smile, there Manto is like that naughty boy who opens the shutters wide and says, clapping repeatedly, Aha! I saw it.’

Ironically, the afore-mentioned short-story Lihaaf, which is the source of her fame, did not match up the others in her oeuvre. Indeed there were different opinions on this short-story and not just because of its sexual theme; many called it very bad and many defended it like Krishan Chander in the preface to Naye Zaaviye (New Angles, Volume 2). But the most balanced is the opinion of Patras Bokhari:

‘The artist who takes their creation like this to the banks of bestiality like Ismat walks on a sword-edge, so in her famous story Lihaaf I think her step eventually became unsteady. Her blunder is not that she has discussed some social impermissibles… The value of this story falls in that its centre of gravity is not some matter of the heart but a bodily movement. In the beginning one thinks she will unveil Begum Jan’s psychology. Then one hopes that there will be interest in the emotions of the girl through which the story is being narrated, but away from both of these, the story adopts a very different direction in the end and fixes its gaze over an emerging quilt. So the poor reader finds himself among the type of people who sit on the scale of the road, legs stiffened, to watch the spectacle of the love affair of animals, for example.’

Among Ismat’s subsequent short-stories, ‘Pesha’ (Profession) was among the most important Urdu short-stories on the basis of theme and art but later on, it seemed that the treasure of Ismat’s experiences and observations began to dwindle; a bit because the life which she had witnessed and dealt with were contained fully in her novel Terhi Lakeer. Secondly, these issues very quickly took a secondary position with the writers of India forced to contend with deeper and more far-reaching experiences than these, over which Ismat had no command. Of course, she created a first-rate story on the partition riots titled ‘Jaren’ (Roots).

Ismat’s style was the most suitable for the novel and short-story and it had such beauty and attraction that no other short-story writer could compete with it. Her short-stories added numerous new words, new metaphors and new similes and symbols to the dictionary of the Urdu short-story which merely belonged to the social life of women. These words had been heard countless times but were used in the Urdu afsana for the first time. This achievement ensured Ismat’s individuality among Urdu short-story writers. According to Patras, Ismat gave “a new youth to Urdu diction”.

Chughtai’s novella Ziddi (Wayward) is the characterization of a young man who becomes wayward due to not finding the freedom to love in a class system. He loves a girl from the lower class, frowned upon in his social circle. The hero Pooran rebels and the story ends with a painful death. Asha, his love, commits suicide over Pooran’s corpse. This novel was the product of  romantic excess and probably for this reason was very popular among the youth at one time.

Of course, Ismat’s greatest achievement was Terhi Lakeer. The novel’s theme is sexual – sex is the most crooked line in our society – and the artist who drew the novel’s cover depicted the picture of a snake, which is a symbol of sex. Ismat illustrates how an intelligent and capable middle-class girl becomes a victim of psychological perplexities due to moral prohibitions and the inadequate nurturing of sexual consciousness in Indian society. The realities which were gradually but incompletely revealed in her short stories come to the front as a complete picture in this novel; and perhaps Terhi Lakeer was that fictional creation of Ismat where she utilized the experiences and observations of her youth one by one till there was nothing left.

From the unnatural manner in which Ismat concluded this novel one could guess that she had expert familiarity with the labyrinths of its theme; but she did not know the way out of them.

Kishan Prashad Kaul wrote about this novel:

‘Like Premchand’s Godaan can be called his masterpiece, in the same manner Terhi Lakeer is Ismat Chughtai’s masterpiece. Like Premchand has made a great addition to Urdu literature by drawing a complete picture of our rural life and by interpreting it in Godaan, in the same manner, in Terhi Lakeer, Ismat has created new literature in Urdu by drawing a complete map of our modern girl, for which we should be grateful to her. That the picture of a modern girl which has come before us in Terhi Lakeer is very disappointing is a different matter and one cannot but say it.’

The aforementioned Ajoka play depicted the lives of the two eponymous young women supported by the play’s fictionalized Asma Jahangir, Saira, who became a victim to assassins’ bullets hired by her family while she pursued a divorce from an abusive husband; and Maira who won her case, but had to leave her homeland. It provoked the audience to wonder aloud whether our Sairas and Mairas had only these routes open to them, or whether there was a third route. Ismat, like Asma, neither became a victim to any assassin (or a fatwa), nor fled into exile. Rather, she courageously fought and wrote on,  provocatively laying bare the hypocrisy of the male champions of women’s rights and the myths they had constructed about women.

She invented nothing less than a new language for the Sairas and Mairas of our own time, more clearly articulated than any other of her numerous writings, in a little-known essay ‘Aurat: Aadhi Aurat, Aadha Khvaab’ (Woman: Half Woman, Half Dream), her everlasting testament:

‘If a woman shows her womanhood at the right opportunity, it befits her. But what is this that she goes on gathering the basket of femininity in colleges, offices and departments.

When we know that women will indeed have to work with men tomorrow, if not today, we will have to construct new aphorisms, forgetting the present ones:

1. In college or school, you are neither mother nor daughter; nor beloved, just a student; and the others are professors and students.

2. In offices, you are neither loyal nor disloyal in love; just do your work properly and forget your airs.

3. The people who are around you are all human; neither men nor women, they are either officers or clerks; here is a table, chair and peon. You are neither weak nor strong, neither the delicate sex nor the harsher sex. Your work is for what you get paid until you change your profession. You have been created by nature for this same use; you are here not for luring a husband or wife but only for work. Neither take advantage, nor damage anyone with (your) physical or mental strength or weakness.

4. Your destination is not just marriage; because marriage is not reaching your destination, rather negotiating it is actually the long road.

But Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) used to say, “O woman you are half woman, half dream!”

Had someone asked for his wife’s opinion, she might have said that Gurudev himself was a total dream as well as the most beautiful interpretation of a dream too!

But “women are not messengers”…..”women are not prophets”….”women are not spiritual”.

Then why doesn’t anyone stand up and say that “Women are not women!”’

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He has written on, and translated the selected work of Ismat Chughtai, Fahmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah, Amrita Pritam, Kishwar Naheed, Masroor Jahan and Razia Sajjad Zaheer. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com