When you are a child, you do not realise the significance of a person you happen to meet by chance, only once and never again. It is much later that the significance dawns on you, but the moment is lost forever. A dusky young lady, I think her name was Salma, ran a dance class in a flat on Cadell Road (Veer Savarkar Marg) near Shivaji Park where we lived in Bombay. I was around ten and wished to join. My mother, equally eager, asked me to find out. I was hardly twelve. I found the young lady already training a batch in the living room of her ground floor flat. In one corner, a middle-aged lady with a curly, salt-and-pepper bob and round-framed glasses was sitting on a chair. The dance teacher said that the lady was her mother-in-law. My aunt, who lived upstairs, told me that the lady was someone quite famous and was the wife of filmmaker and writer Shaheed Latif. I did not know who Shahid Latif was but had heard the name somewhere.
When I grew up, I realised that the lady in that chair was Ismat Chughtai. I had met the great woman in the flesh and I had let it go! Who is Ismat Chughtai? She is the gutsy young lady who told her father that she would like to go to school instead of learning to cook. She is the girl who wrote a letter to the man her parents had fixed her to marry stating that she did not wish to marry and wanted to continue with her education. The engagement was called off. She was hauled in a court case for her short story Lihaaf (Quilt) for obscenity and decided to fight instead of tendering an apology. Her lawyer argued that there were no explicit references to homoeroticism in the story and hence she could not be accused of obscenity. The case was dismissed.
Lihaf (The Quilt), deals with a lesbian encounter within an all-woman setting (Zenana) in a traditional Muslim household. It courageously fleshes out female sexuality within a lonely and beautiful young woman who yearns for her husband’s love. Written in 1942, The Quilt remains a landmark in Urdu short story writing. A frustrated housewife, whose Nawab husband has no time for her, finds sexual and emotional solace in the company of an ugly female servant. Written many years before the term ‘lesbianism’ entered the vocabulary in India, the story unfolds from the point of view of a girl child who hides under the bed of Begum Jaan and wonders what the two women are doing under a quilt that keeps moving forever.
Chughtai was greatly helped in her aspiration to be a professional writer because her husband, Shahid Latif, was a successful script-writer who actively encouraged her. Through him, she tried her hand at writing scripts for films and got involved in around a dozen or more films during the 1940s and 1950s. She even acted in a couple of films. Ismat was born in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh and grew up in Jodhpur where her father was a civil servant. She was the ninth among ten children comprised of six brothers and four sisters. Her sisters were married off when Ismat was a child and her childhood was mostly spent in the company of her brothers. This contributed considerably to her forthrightness and to the spontaneous nature of her writing. One brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai who was already an established writer was her first teacher and mentor. She studied in the Women’s College of Aligarh Muslim University and is the first Muslim woman to have attained two degrees – a B.A.and a B.Ed.
In Ismat’s formative years, Nazar Sajjad Hyder, a noted Urdu littérateur had established herself as an independent feminist voice, and the short stories of two very different women, Hijab Imtiaz Ali and the progressive Dr Rashid Jehan were a significant early influence on Ismat. Her view that the Niqab, the mask Muslim women wear, should be discouraged because it is oppressive and feudal. Many of her books have been banned at various times during their publication history.
“Ismat Chughtai used her pen as a weapon to question male authority and hierarchical power structure in patriarchy. Most of her work deals with themes directly related to women and their status and role in Indian society. She portrays the struggle of women against oppressive social institutions of her time and her deep understanding and perception of the female psyche are clearly reflected in her writings”, writes Megha Katoria in her paper, Women and Sexuality – Gender-Class Interface in Selected Short Stories of Ismat Chughtai
Chughtai’s short stories reflect the cultural legacy of the region in which she lived. This is especially notable in Sacred Duty where she deals with social pressures in India. It is a brilliant and incisive satire on the practice and custom of arranged marriage.. The story is timeless and is perhaps more fresh and relevant than it is when it was written more than 50 years ago.
Early in her career, Chughtai was associated with the Progressive Writers’ Association. She was a friend of Sadat Hasan Manto and was often compared to him which comes across as a compliment on her work. Sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadiq edited a wonderful collection of essays and articles on different aspects of Chughtai’s life and writing in Ismat: Her Life, Her Times. Considered the grand dame of Urdu fiction, Chugtai decided to stay back in India after the Partition while Sadat Hasan Manto, her equally famous contemporary, crossed over to Pakistan. Ismat’s work stands for the birth of a revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in 20th Century Urdu literature. Her forthright and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice of the unheard, and she remains an inspiration for the younger generation of writers, readers and intellectuals now and in the future. Women like Ismat never die. They live on through their writing, their revolutionary ideology and their life.
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.