Ismat Chughtai’s fearless pen
She spoke truth to power. No one like her exists today
Ismat Chughtai always reminds me of that other writer. You know that woman, her name escapes me, who writes in Hindi about what a mess north Indian society is? A dysfunctional and barbaric place with pretensions to civilization. A culture in decay perfuming itself with the past to evade the stench of its putridness. Speaking truth to power.
You know the writer I’m talking about, right? No? That’s because she doesn’t exist. Chughtai, who died in 1991 at age 76, doesn’t remind me of any writer because none like her exist today. We are a society of cowards who are warmed by the greatness of our past and totally unashamed of our failure to look at ourselves with honesty. This piece is about a writer who wasn’t really one of us in that sense. Let us begin with her name, Ismat, which means, funnily enough, chastity. Funny because, as many readers will know, she became famous after being accused of obscenity.
Chughtai hints at a very peculiar lineage: the original Mughals. They would of course have been offended at being called that, and referred to themselves as being Timurid, from the less pastoral, more urbane, more literate and more Turkish side of the great Khanate clans. Ismat’s surname itself comes from Chaghatai, that son of Genghis Khan who inherited the Central Asian part of the Mongol empire. It shows her family claims a very particular ancestry which is not Arab or Persian but Uzbek.
Chughtai wrote in the language of the people she was writing about. She wrote from inside the tradition and spoke to it. You can write pretty much anything in English and get away with it in India because the readership is liberal and enlightened for the most part. Writing in Urdu, Chughtai was not, to make a pun, preaching to the converted. She was proselytizing among angry natives. Telling them about their culture and their lives and doing this in unvarnished fashion.
Her material was always that which surrounded her, not some imagined idyll, and there was no concession to the romantic for its own sake.
From a very early age, she had rejected the femininity expected of her. She liked doing physical stuff, like boys, though she was feminine in her own way. At 12, she was asked to take up sewing but hated it and shirked it. Then she was asked to learn to cook. This she rejected immediately, asking that her brother be taught instead. Her obstinacy resulted in her being finally sent to school, being admitted to class IV and then double-promoted to class VI.
At 13, in Nabokovian fashion, she fell in love with a neighbour aged 26 who she says she found beautiful. She confesses she was drawn to physical beauty in men (when, Mint Lounge reader, will we again see such direct honesty from writers?).
She went to college and then became a headmistress, threatening to convert to Christianity if she wasn’t allowed to study beyond class X.
She convinced her cousin to claim her hand, pretending to be in love with her, thus blocking the marriage her parents were pressuring her into. Such fierce independence manifested itself in her work of course. And she stood out as a writer for her freshness, and the clarity and strength of her voice.
Chughtai wrote her first piece, a drama for the magazine Saqi, in 1939 at the age of 24. She did not know how to write a story at that point, being unfamiliar with pace and distance. Writing conversations was easier. Her natural and uncomplicated style is what made her stories so easy to dramatize. When Naseeruddin Shah’s troupe Motley began showcasing the works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Chughtai, they would have found the latter especially easy to deal with. Their first production in this series showed Chughtai’s Chui-mui, Mughal Bachcha and Gharwali.
Encouraged by the fact that she had been published, she started sending her writing to other papers.
One of the first responses she got was a letter from a magazine she had submitted a story to. The editor said her writing was blasphemous and that she had insulted the Quran, which she had not.
After her first two stories, there was outrage, which was predictable. One problem was that Chughtai’s writing was in the language of the street, not of literature.
She was part of the group called the Progressive Writers’ Association. What were they progressing from? From the highly Persianized style of writing that was prevalent for a century or more. And from the idea that only the upper classes were worthy of being written about.
Chughtai was personally influenced in her style by Angaray (the book of short stories by assorted writers that set off the “progressive” movement and horrified Muslims because of its content). She was also drawn to the work of writers O.Henry, George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov.
This last named writer she greatly admired and continued to read regularly for the rest of her life. She borrowed from him the ability to take an ordinary man and ordinary event (even a sneeze, as she put it) and use it as material.
Chughtai clarified that she wrote the things she would hear of, not necessarily experience. She had herself had a relatively free life, as the tolerance of her family to her early obstinacy showed. She said she hated the suffocation of the women and men she wrote about. That being trapped in the ideas of shame and honour was ridiculous.
She wondered why people lied and lived with all this rather than reject it, but then she didn’t really understand all of our fragility.
She remained convinced about the goodness of the individual. She thought it was morality in society that was disturbing. Left to themselves, people would mostly behave in humane ways. She figured out that the real enemy of her heroines was society, state and environment. She wrote about change.
Till she was in Agra, she wrote about such things. When she reached Bombay (now Mumbai), the writer turned to other things.
It was in Bombay that she noticed hunger for the first time. On meeting the daily wager, the labourer, she understood poverty. Perhaps because of this she was associated, as almost all the great figures of literature of that time were, with the Communist Party. Her move gave width and depth to her writing. Like Manto, her craft really flowered when she went to Bombay. As an artist, she said she was not a painter but a photographer. She captured the image but did not interpret it. Some stories she would write in one sitting, meaning, in one night.
Though she has become one of the hallowed writers of Urdu—and Tedhi Lakeer, Garm Hava, Lihaaf are part of the Urdu canon—it will surprise readers that Chughtai was not good at spelling.
In one of her sketches, Chughtai says her katib (calligrapher and proofreader) tells her she makes a lot of mistakes. She acknowledges this, and in her explanation confesses her exasperation at Urdu’s confusing alphabet. A script that borrows sounds from three disparate cultures, Arab, Irani and Indian, has, for instance, many variants of S and Z and H, and Chughtai was confused by what went where.
Like Manto, she was charged with obscenity not in Bombay, the place she lived and wrote in, but in Lahore, the citadel of morality, then as now (is it not remarkable that a city that produced so many talented writers, actors, directors and musicians could not produce a film industry? It is because of this morality, which stifles expression).
When she was taken to the police station to post bail for Lihaaf, her writer’s instinct took over. After signing all the required forms, she demanded to see the convicts.
“You want to see them?” the incredulous officer asked. Assuredly, she replied.
He showed her a dozen men in the space behind him, lying down in crisscross fashion. He told her they were not convicts, but those accused of crimes. Which crimes, she asked and was told they were the usual: pickpockets, thieves, the drunk and disorderly.
She was not impressed. Murderers would have been more interesting, she said.
Despite her bravado, she was afraid and nervous when this case was filed. Like all writers, she was never totally secure. She confessed that she even thought she may have been guilty. She said Manto, who had been booked on the same charge for his masterpiece Bu, showed up looking pleased with himself (“as if he had won the Victoria Cross”).
To me her writing is as much about its content as its spareness and observation. Look at the Wodehousian manner in which she reports how the case against Manto collapsed:
‘“So this story is obscene?” Manto’s lawyer asked. “Yes,” replied the witness.
“What word indicates that it is obscene?”
Lawyer: “My Lord, the word ‘bosom’ is not obscene.”
Witness: “But the author has used it for a woman’s breasts.”
Suddenly Manto was on his feet: “What then do you want me to call a woman’s breasts? Peanuts?”
The courtroom erupted in laughter. Manto was also laughing.
They laughed, Chughtai and Manto. How they laughed at us then, and how they must be laughing now.
Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India.
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