There are several ways to read Ismat Chughtai’s Ek Qatra-e-Khoon (One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala), her last novel. It is, ostensibly, a reimagined narrative of the historic battle of Karbala, fought in 680 CE, between a tiny army of the family and friends of Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and the formidable warriors of the reigning Caliph, Yazid I of the Umayyad dynasty. It is also a political allegory; its allusion to the Emergency in India underlined by the year in which it was first published in Urdu by Fan aur Fankar--1976. That the allegory is as relevant today is a fact that Chughtai eerily foretold, in her preface: “This fourteen-hundred-year-old story is today’s story as well, because man is still man’s greatest enemy….” The story of the battle is also one of inconsolable grief. Its elegiac overtones are a tribute to, and a rendition in prose of, the marsiyas of the 19th century poet Mir Anis. The narrative is turgid with grief, even as it is preoccupied with the politics of the caliphate of Kufa, in Iraq.
This English translation by Tahira Naqvi allows for these varied interpretations, although one might mistakenly believe that the narrative is a mere clear-eyed recounting of a historical confrontation between a righteous iman and a debauched caliph.
The story begins with an intimate portrait of the household of the Prophet of God, Rasulullah, better known as Naana Jaan to his grandsons Hasan and Husain. With the arrival of their baby sister, Zainab, familial love and devotion grows. The tenderest moments are also the most ephemeral, and Husain’s idyllic childhood dissipates with the death of Rasulullah, his beloved Amma, Fatima Zehra, the murders of his father Ali Ibn Abi Talib and his elder brother Hasan. Husain refuses to pledge his allegiance to Yazid, insolent heir to Amir Mu’awiya, who has secured Syria and crushed opposition in Kufa. The people of Kufa write a letter to Husain: “You are the Prophet’s grandson and his people are going through a catastrophic time. No one but you can come to our rescue.” Husain prepares to leave Medina with Zainab and other family members. The journey advances towards the treacherous plains of Karbala and the impending battle.
One Drop of Blood is a timeless parable, a multi-layered text. Bilal Hashmi offers one allegory in his Introduction here, drawing comparison between Yazid and Sanjay Gandhi; the punishment inflicted upon Yazid’s adversaries, described as ‘ilaj,’ is, presumably, a reference to the forced sterilisation of the urban poor: “Or, perhaps, one might translate that word, ‘ilaj’, more literally, as ‘treatment,’ which, after all, was how Indira Gandhi described the Emergency--‘shock treatment,’ she called it, a phrase coined by Milton Friedman, and then very much in vogue in Pinochet’s Chile.”
The political implications of Yazid inheriting the caliphate after the death of his father, Mu’awiya, and his demand for a pledge of allegiance from Husain, who, writes Syed Akbar Hyder in Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom In South Asian Memory, had “… accrued unmatched spiritual status and his allegiance was perceived by Yazid and his advisors as essential to the survival of their rule”, is perhaps the perfect allegory of a distraught age. Husain’s supporters are persecuted; one gleans from Hyder’s historical chronicling and Chughtai’s retelling that dissenters were either bribed or snuffed out.
A lucid narrative and attention to detail notwithstanding, One Drop of Blood swoons with the cries of mourners. Unlike her previous work, in particular the 1942 short story Lihaaf, for which she was charged with obscenity, One Drop of Blood is almost an Islamic manifesto. “The novel contradicted her image as a secular, rebellious progressive writer, never known to be connected in any way to religious observance or belief,” writes Naqvi.
The story of the battle of Karbala is couched in traditions of Islamic mourning and commemoration. For it is a tale of sacrifice and suffering. In an interview with Jalil Baz Yadpuri in Ismat Chughtai Naqad ki Kasauti Par, Chughtai mentions being deeply moved by the slaughter of Ali Asghar, a six-month-old boy. She had read the marsiyas or masterful elegiac poems of Mir Babar Ali Anis of Faizabad. “The Urdu marsiya writers were heir to Persian literary traditions; and these traditions, whether in ghazal mode or in the epic form, provided ever new aspects to the images of Karbala that were projected in the 19th century,” Hyder explains in Reliving Karbala.
Chughtai’s One Drop of Blood is ultimately a lamentation--a prolonged mourning for martyrs, a battlefield awash with tears. Its grief is a relentless interrogator of history.