Edited By Rakhshanda Jalil
Ismat Chughtai was a great writer (mind you, I have not added ‘woman’ to her description, though I shall return to it). Being a luminary of the Progressive Writers Movement of pre-independence India that was greatly influenced by the new Communist movement and one that wanted to write about labourers and peasants, Ismat chose to chart her own way. She was equally fascinated by Communism and its slogans, attended the meetings of the Progressive Writers Movement and yet chose to pick subjects that were middle and upper middle class and wrote in a language that the women in her circle spoke. If other members of the Progressive Movement frowned on her writing, then be it. Frankly, it could love her or hate her, but the Progressive Movement could not do without her and Manto. I guess she knew it.
The book under review is not altogether new for readers of Urdu and other students of literature. The essays are mostly known to the readers of Ismat and of literary criticism, yet it was left to the erudite Jalil to collect and publish them in a collection. We loved her stories and now would love to read on her. It’s a great collection of essays from Ismat’s contemporaries, like Faiz, Qurratulain Haider and Ashk, who write on Ismat like a friend who does not have to be praised or criticised. They write about her as one would about a family member and as lovers of Urdu literature. There are other essays in the volume from scholars like Geeta Patel, Tahira Naqvi and Fatima Rizvi, who skilfully analyse the phenomenon of Ismat from a critical point of view. They add value to the charm of reading and knowing Ismat. But to me, a teacher of history, the highest point of the book was the essay of Faiz. What bebaki, what prose, what magisterial comments without being judgemental. What else one could expect from one who wrote, Sheeshon ka maseeha koi nahi kya aas lagaye baithe ho (why are you hopeful, glasses do not have prophets!).
Perhaps, the book needed a section where some stories of Ismat Chughtai was published for the sake of new readers. Not all must have read her. Her stories are now part of literary folklore, but that is the problem of folklores, not many must have read them in the original. Ismat needs to be read, read again and then again.
There is a problem in the otherwise pleasant introduction of Jalil. She wants Ismat to be seen as a writer of Urdu literature and not to be “viewed through the prism of women’s writings”. But why not? Ismat consciously chose her subjects and wrote in a typical female voice, employing a typical begumati zubaan that gave her stories a flavour that was completely missing from Urdu literature. Her writings were a celebration of women’s sexuality without any of the apologies that even the progressives expected from her. No less, Ismat’s writings were a celebration of women’s bodies too.
Jalil wants Ismat to be seen as an Urdu litterateur, not to be “viewed through the prism of women’s writing”. But why? Ismat consciously chose her subjects and wrote in a female voice.
Though she was part of the Progressive Movement, she is quoted by Jalil: “I picked up from the Progressive Movement...all that touched my heart, but I always had faith in my convictions. For instance, when the policy of the party rigidly concluded that progressive literature is only that which is about the peasant and the labourer, I disagreed. I cannot know and empathise with the peasant class as closely as I can feel the pain of the middle and lower middle class.” And yet she thundered, “I have always felt influenced by Communism and will always continue to do so”. This is Ismat Apa for the new generation. So rooted she was in her language, femininity, Communism and above all, the finite wish to write independently. It’s not fair to call her a writer for all when she was undoubtedly a writer with the woman’s gaze. She gave voice to millions of suppressed stories; she told us stories from the inner quarters of the Zenana that were horribly buried in the web of customs, family honour and social stigma.
With Urdu not being in the public space as it was once and needs to be celebrated as a wondrous, rich language during the Jashn-e-Rekhta and such festivals, this book is happy reminder of Urdu as a language in which immortal stories have been written, and Rakhshanda must be thanked for bringing Ismat alive. For many, like it was for me, this book will be a long nostalgic journey into powerful women’s writing in Urdu. You may not approve of Rakhshanda Jalil, but that’s how it has to be said.