Culture & Society

Remembering Ismat Chughtai On Her 107th Birth Anniversary

The writer reflects on the importance of remembering Ismat Chughtai on her 107th birth anniversary for her definitive and timeless style of writing, and her subsequent works that made her such a magnificent writer and woman who had the audacity and heart to inspire women in and after her time.

Ismat Chughtai with Amina Mushfiq, wife of Mushfiq Khawaja.

If I were to describe Ismat Chughtai and her work in a few words, then I would have to quote her dear friend and colleague, Sadat Hasan Manto, who very lyrically said that “agar aap in aphasaanon ko bardasht nahi kar sakte toh iska matlab ye hai ki yeh zamana hi naakaabile-bardasht hai (If you can’t bear these tales, then it only means that the society we live in is unbearable.).”

Such were the tales Chughtai and Manto wrote. Truth pervaded their work, come what may. Together they were two of the four pillars of Urdu literature, the other two being Rajendra Singh Bedi and Krishnan Chandar. It’s almost amusing how difficult it is to mention Chughtai and Manto, without a reference to the other – that was their friendship, immune to all competition, comparison, and conjectures. 

However, while Manto became a household name, and was written about profusely, even posthumously, Chughtai remained entrenched in the shadow of her controversial short story Lihaaf, which gave her both fame and notoriety. While India bestowed her with honours like the Padma Shri, Pakistan consciously disregarded her – Lihaaf being a vital reason for the same. For a woman as magnificent as Chughtai, modern women in the subcontinent were never really exposed to her feminist literature, as they remained blissfully smitten either with Hindi cinema’s slender and submissive heroines or Austen’s and Bronte’s lovelorn women.

Ironically, Lihaaf, the story people remember her for, was nothing compared to the phenomenal work that she had in her oeuvre. Rakhshanda Jalil, the author of The Uncivil Woman: Writings On Ismat Chughtai, has said, “When it comes to Ismat Chughtai, nobody has gone beyond the adjectives. She is appropriated by radicals, progressives, feminists and liberals.”

Chughtai’s life and work were sadly never put under a nuanced lens, unlike her contemporaries, whose legacies were subjected to an analytical understanding, if not in their lifetime, then posthumously. Chughtai was appropriated and stereotyped unjustly by making her body of work synonymous with Lihaaf’s infamy. The short story led to protests and uproar for having erotic and lesbian undertones, and despite not being her best work, eclipsed her successive works.

It’s nothing surprising, to be honest – writers have been burned by their apparently ‘blasphemous’ works since time immemorial. The recent attack on Salman Rushdie, for The Satanic Verses, is only a testament to how scandals are often more loyal than acclaim, owing to the mindless obscenity and blasphemy trails they are put through. Although, to quote Oscar Wilde from The Picture Of Dorian Gray, “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.”

However, like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Henry Miller (Tropic Of Cancer), Ismat Chughtai was much more than her infamous short story. It wasn’t in fact, even representative of her style of work, which was much more introspective and descriptive of the inner workings of a woman’s mind. Unfortunately, Lihaaf does no such thing, and as Patras Bokhari, the former Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations said, “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.” Which is perhaps why, it is so unfair to define Chughtai’s legacy, life, and literature only through the shadow cast over by Lihaaf.

On her 107th birth anniversary today, it’s vital to remember Chughtai for her definitive and timeless style of writing, and her subsequent works that made her such a magnificent writer and woman, who had the audacity and heart to inspire women in and after her time. In Terhi Lakeer, which is regarded as her greatest achievement, Chughtai represents her belief, and caliber distinctly, and it is also touted to be her most autobiographical work. Her heroine Shama is willful and defiant, not an archetype, but rather a result of her life’s complications and conflicts.

The story is a deep dive into the realm of women, and their thoughts, questions, and predicaments. Sexuality, a pivotal theme in the novel, is in fact a recurring subject in many of her short stories, which explored the lives of women. Of course, women’s plights and sexuality have been explored before, in Urdu literature but Chughtai’s individuality, and sense of self, made sure that they were fundamentally different.

Chughtai brought in an odd sense of descriptiveness in her narratives about the personal, the public, and the political, all of which she believed were visibly interconnected. This is not to say that Chughtai was political like other Urdu laureates, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was of the belief that Chughtai didn’t write on politics because she was not keen to comment on the famine, religion, poverty, and more. However, that was precisely what set Ismat Chughtai apart from the rest – Chughtai was political without speaking on penury and persecution because she spoke of the politics of love, and life, and in a way that made you uncomfortable. She wrote of households and the women in them who maneuvered to carve an identity for themselves. The politics of domestic life, especially that of women, you’ll find are as complex and convoluted as that of the nation’s, if not more.

Her other stories, Pesha, Jaren, Ziddi, and Chui Mui, were all attestation to her beauty as a short story writer, and also prolific in the subjects they addressed. While Jaren was about Partition riots, Ziddi was about love in the times of the class system. She added new metaphors and phrases to the Urdu dictionary that were specifically about women and their social life. She ensured that she was irreplaceable, and would leave an everlasting legacy behind her.

Ismat Chughtai was a fierce woman and writer, unlike any seen before. She held a mirror to a society that was adamant about segregating men from women, which is perhaps why, 107 years later, to rediscover Chughtai, is to be enlightened by a knowledge that was always there, but unfortunately ignored, and for the woman Chughtai was, and in many ways is, it’s never really too late.