The iconoclasts

The iconoclasts

Saadat Hasan Manto once said of his contemporary fellow writer Ismat Chugtai, “If Ismat had been a man she would have been me and if I had been a woman, I would have been Ismat." While their style and language were vastly different—Manto’s was the “tell it as it is" genre stories in his upfront Punjabi Urdu, and Chugtai, a master of subtlety, in her idiomatic and delicate Lucknavi Urdu—Manto, as usual, had hit the nail on the head.

Both were strong, politically charged voices of the 1940s-1950s; both were progressive and modernist, and yet refused to be bracketed into any one category—they loved their freedom too much. Both wrote short stories, essays, and screenplays; both wrote about Partition, communal tension and sexuality. And both faced obscenity trials because, in essence, both laughed at the establishment. Out loud.

As the country completes its 63rd year of independence, the literary community, fittingly, pays tribute to two of the greatest proponents of freedom and free speech in Indian literature. The two-day celebration, called Ismat and Manto: Life, Times and Legacy, will open later this month with writer-poets Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Padma Sachdev discussing the works of the two stalwarts, and sharing personal anecdotes about them. There will also be a screening of the film Ismat and Annie (2008), directed by Juhi Sinha, on the rivalry between Chugtai and her contemporary, Qurratulain Haider (Annie), followed by a discussion (Lady Changez Khan was the name Annie had given Chugtai, and Chugtai reciprocated generously by calling her Pompom Darling).

The idea, says publisher Urvashi Butalia, who is helping organize the event, is to discuss issues of censorship, sexuality and Partition through the prism of their lives, times and works. They stood up long ago against “the kind of paranoia our society has come to represent," she says.

Sukrita Paul Kumar, who edited Ismat: Her Life, Her Times (2000), a collection of writings on Chugtai, and is one of the organizers of the event, says both writers “defied the established notions of content and form in their writing". Chugtai, for instance, started writing at a time when the main writing available for Indian Muslim women was a two-volume novel called Goodar ka Laal (1905) penned by one Walida Afzaal Ali, or “mother of Afzaal Ali"—as a woman, the author could not publish under her own name.

The novel is full of cultural descriptions and ceremonies and was a popular wedding gift to women. Other novels around this time, written mostly by men, stressed on norms of behaviour for “good Muslim women". Then, in 1941, Chugtai wrote Lihaaf, about a bored and sexually deprived begum and her friendship with her maid Rabbo, and the image of the “rocking lihaaf" (quilt) caused a furore. Everyone assumed that the book was written by a man.

“Chugtai wrote about female sexuality and lesbianism using the Begumati zubaan, which was very strictly the voice of women, typical to the Muslim women in Lucknow. She brought out the language in all its gossip, colour, idiomatic expression," says Gulzar, who recalls being a nervous and awkward junior writer when Chugtai congratulated him for the film Parichay, which he directed in 1972. “She went into the inner courtyard and brought out issues that weren’t in the domain of high literature," says Kumar.

Manto too broke new ground with his collection of short stories Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins), in which he evolved a new style of writing. “Each story is a separate stand-alone paragraph, which are also knit together," says Gulzar. Manto wrote about anti-imperialism (his one-sided correspondence with the American president, whom he refers to as “Chachaji", are wildly funny), communalism (in his short story Toba Tek Singh, a scathing satire on the “madness" of Partition) and prostitution. “He’s one of the first writers who gave dignity to the prostitute. And there is no pity in his writing. He brings out the real human beings, in the raw," Gulzar adds.

“What surfaces in their work is the use of humour and comic as subversion," says author Namita Gokhale, one of the organizers. Of course, before they could laugh too hard, they were asked to shut up. Manto faced five obscenity trials and Chugtai, one—for Lihaaf. However, even the Crown’s summons weren’t enough to keep them down and the court trial transcripts, often wildly funny, show their fearlessness.

As Chugtai recalls in Kaghazi hai Pairahan (her essay on the Lihaaf trial where she and Manto both had received court summons from Lahore), Manto, charged in one of the trials for using the word ‘bosom’, asks the court, “What else did you expect me to call a woman’s breasts—peanuts?" Chugtai, on her part, asked which part of the phrase “collecting aashiqs", was obscene. “Collecting or aashiqs?"

“We need to go back to them and learn our lessons and exercise our freedom of speech and mind," says Kumar. At the moment, Chugtai and Manto, although taught in the Delhi University’s English honours class, don’t quite command a big readership. “They’re not cool in that sense," says Gokhale. “Yet, how cool they are."

Ismat and Manto: Life, Times and Legacy will be held on 27-28 August at the India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi. For details, log on to