27 June 2014 Books

Four Novellas By Ismat Chughtai Now Available in Collection

In good news to Ismat Chughtai fans, four famous novellas, offering valuable insights into the ways the inimitable writer develops her characteristic themes revolving around the lives of women, are now available as a collection. A Chughtai Quartet comprises the novellas, spanning Chughtai’s literary career from its early stages to the last years of her writing life, The Heart Breaks Free (Dil ki Duniya) written in 1918; The Wild One (Ziddi) in 1939; Obsession (Saudai) and Wild Pigeons (Jungli Kabutar). The novellas have been translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi, a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Like many others in Chughtai's stories, the protagonists in these four novellas are despairing in love and faced with tragedy when they try to cross social boundaries, seek and find agency in the exercise of an obdurate will that cannot be bent; and they cannot therefore be regarded as tragic figures. At first, struggling against society's harsh mores, suffering its blows, these women appear to be hapless victims. However, even as they pass through fire they do not let it consume them. They achieve what we may not regard as "triumphs" in the usual sense, but which do translate into a victory of sorts; tragedy pursues them, but in the end they swim against the tide. Chughtai berates the social ills that inflict tragic consequences on the women, but she does not allow the reader to pity them or feel they are a lost cause. She does this by highlighting festering mores and the maladies that infect society in such a manner that the relationship between victim and oppressor remains clear in its dimensions and implications. The works in the collection, published by Women Unlimited, offer valuable insights into the ways Chughtai develops her characteristic themes revolving around the lives of women. According to Naqvi, The Heart Breaks Free, in which Chughtai draws on her childhood memories of life in Bahraich, is one of her best stories. "Here, society is made up of the women in the narrator's household, aunts, mothers, mothers-in-law, housekeepers. Chughtai has repeatedly brought to our attention the cruel treatment that women dole out to each other," she says. Together, the women of the household proceed to ruin the life of Bua, a free spirit who "had created a free world of her own where she ruled.''

All seems to be lost, but in a cleaver twist, Chughtai stirs up the dying embers. A strange and unexpected exchange takes place, a masterful turn of events in terms of plot development that culminates in a tour de force. Qudsia Apa, docile and weakened by attacks of hysteria as an abandoned wife, suddenly gains ownership of her life even as Bua loses control over hers.The Wild One seems to be a traditional love story complete with a love triangle, but of closer examination we see the plot has been complicated by Chughtai's critique of class differences. She revisits this trope repeatedly in screenplays like Sheesha and Buzdil and novellas Saudai and Badan ki Khushbu.Obsession actually reads like a screenplay an here Chughtai’s continues with her trope of master-and-servant romance.Wild Pigeons is an exploration of feelings and emotions that wrack both the person who betrays and the one who is betrayed. Each one of the novellas develops the author's central preoccupation with the lives of women as they experience love, tragedy, societal prescriptions and proscriptions, in collision with their own rebellious spirit. A keen sense of their individual subversive potential and a willingness to take the consequences of obduracy in the face of overwhelming odds, ensures that these women are neither hapless nor victims. Through them, Chughtai delivers a scathing critique on the hypocrisy and cant of social mores, and the festering maladies that infect society. Chughtai's characteristic mastery of form and technique, her vivid imagery and richness of language make for marvellous story-telling, and create some of the most memorable female protagonists in Indian literature. Naqvi, however, says Chughtai is never a comfortable read. "She jolts the reader out of any sense of complacency, creates havoc and practically bullies the reader into digging deep into the many meanings concealed in her powerful idiom, her tapestry of images and her rich symbols and metaphors," she says, adding, "but she never disappoints."

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OUTLOOK 27 June, 2014