Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) wrote short stories, sketches, essays, plays, novellas and novels. Drawing themes of her best stories from the lives of Urdu-speaking women, she wrote with an authenticity no male writer could have matched. She brought into the ambit of Urdu fiction the hitherto forbidden terrain of female sexuality and "led her female contemporaries on a remarkable journey of self-awareness and undaunted creative expression". In more than one way, she changed the complexion of Urdu fiction.
My Friend, My Enemy Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits
By Ismat Chughtai
Kali for Women Pages: 284; Rs 350
Krishan Chandar, Rajindar Singh Bedi and Saadat Hasan Manto were her contemporaries. So were scores of brilliant poets connected with the Progressive Writers' Movement. Ismat was a fellow traveller in their creative journey. Now Tahira Naqvi, editor of this volume, has provided access to her essays, reminiscences and portraits. True, Ismat's pungent and nuanced style is missing in this English translation, yet the collection bears the imprint of her strong personality. We hear her loud and clear. We see her in various moods: angry, bitter and disillusioned at times, then boisterous, full of optimism and buoyancy. She was unsparing in her criticism of sub-standard works, but appreciated good literature with her characteristic generosity. She was certainly much less pretentious than some of her contemporaries. Refined and sophisticated like Qurratulain Haider, wit and humour reached new heights in Ismat's writing.
This collection illustrates the evolution of Urdu language and literature from the 1930s onwards. For a historian like me, its value is enhanced by the fact that the essays mirror the joy and expectancy of an era, and capture the mood of India's painful transition from the colonial era to Independence and Partition. Ideas flow from Ismat's pen without being convoluted in their presentation. As the leading light in the Progressive Writers' Movement, her engagement is serious and reflective sans any proselytising zeal. She is critical of some people around her, but there is hardly any malice, rancour or bitterness in her writings. Disgusted with a lot of happenings around her—including the bloody and brutal Partition—she appears poised, controlled and almost magisterial in voicing her anger and discontent. Notice the following lines in the essay Communal Violence and Literature: "Communal violence and freedom became so muddled that it was difficult to distinguish between the two. After that, anyone who obtained a measure of freedom discovered violence came alongside."
Notice, too, the humane portrayal of Asrarul Haq Majaz, the anguished poet of the '30s and '40s and her candid assessment of his contributions. "The old Majaz was a passionate rebellious youth, now he is a tired, spent man. He was a turbulent, gushing windfall, now he is a river that has been dammed. Let's see what happens when this dam bursts."
Not all the pieces are reflective. But, then, one is adequately compensated by the inclusion of an excerpt from Lihaaf (Quilt), the brilliant short story for which Chughtai was tried in Lahore on a charge of obscenity. Equally moving is the pen-portrait of her brother who died of tuberculosis, and the long essay on Manto, the enfant terrible of Urdu literature. She was needlessly critical of Manto and harsh in dismissing Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins) as rhetoric rather than reality. But she was deeply pained by his premature death. "The world that let him die," she cried out, "is my world as well. Today it let him die, and tomorrow I, too, will be allowed to die in the same way. And then people will mourn.... Meetings will be held, donations will be collected, and because of a dearth of leisure time no one will be able to attend these meetings. Time will pass, the heaviness on the chest will slowly diminish, and people will forget everything."
We hope not. She was too great a writer to be lost in the mist of history. Urdu is dead or dying in India. Long live Ismat and Manto, Faiz and Firaq!