“I have always thought of myself first as a human being and then as a woman…”
Born on August 21, 1915, Ismat Chughtai is not only an indispensable literary voice in Urdu literature of the 20th Century but also a foremost member of the liberal arts community. She was a non-conformist who did not step back from articulating her views on dysfunctional society, even in the pre-partition era of assertive patriarchy.
One of the members of “Anjuman Tarraqui Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind” or “The Progressive Writers’ Movement” along with Saadat Hassan Manto, Chughtai was believed to be “one of the four pillars of modern Urdu short story”, who did not restrict herself to just one genre. From plays, reportage, novels to short stories, she dabbled in it all. Though primarily writing in Urdu, she did not manipulate elite readers by her supercilious proficiency in the language. Instead, she chose to express her unbigoted opinion very boldly in a common man’s language.
Book Review – “Manto – Chughtai: The Essential Stories”
In her lifetime, Chughtai wrote several short stories, exploring diverse issues like women’s sexuality, predefined gender roles, and class conflict, to name a few.
Released on July 25, 2019,“Manto – Chughtai: The Essential Stories” has been published by Penguin Books which has compiled a few pathbreaking stories of Chughtai and Manto originally written in Urdu, and featured the translated version of the stories in this book.
The book is designed beautifully by Devangana Dash with illustration of the litterateurs done by Upamanyu Bhattacharya. The design of the book specifically is very interesting, compiling both the authors into one book but with distinct and separate covers to each by spinning the structure of the pages.
Talking about the content inside is, needless to say, astonishing. For Manto, the publishers have chosen three of his stories based and set in the time of partition, such as “Toba Tek Singh”, “Open It!” and “Frozen”. And ‘Smell’, ‘The Black Shalwar’ and ‘Sharda’ to talk about sex and sexuality. The translation is by Muhammad Umar Memon.
Likewise, Chughtai’s stories have been selected on three subjects. Stories on Communal Colour such as ‘Kafir’ and ‘Sacred Duty’; ‘The Quilt’, ‘The Net’ and ‘The Mole’ on sex and sexuality; and The Zenana suchlike ‘The Wedding Suit’, ‘Gainda’ and ‘Touch-Me-Not’ which celebrates the women of Chughtai, all translated by M. Asaduddin.
Talking about the stories of Chughtai, they deal with issues that can knock the regressive minds and unsettle readers till date. And surprisingly, all these stories, which were written in pre and post partition era, are somehow relevant even today. For example, ‘Kafir’, released in colonial India in 1938, deals with the challenges of inter-religious marriage where a Muslim girl falls in love with a Kashmiri Pundit and they decide to elope as they know their families would not approve of their relationship. Alas! the discrimination on the basis of religion still prevails in India “…Are Hindu donkeys different from Muslim donkeys? And how about Jewish donkeys?…” Unfortunately, we are still trying to find the difference.
What she is famous for is her voice when it comes to women, their sexuality and sex in general. And how ironic that Ismat means ‘chastity’, whereas she has been accused of being obscene in her most popular and controversial work “Lihaf” (The Quilt). ‘Lihaf’ is the story of Begum Jaan who is married to an old Nawaab who prefers “slender – waisted” boys and “… tucked her away in the house with his other possessions and promptly forgot her”. Then Rabbu comes to her rescue under the quilt, and they back-pedal on heteronormative society and go beyond the laws of class and gender. For this story, where she questioned a woman’s place in a marriage, she was charged with obscenity because of the imagery described under the quilt. Though she cleared the charges by raising a question that if you don’t know what can happen inside a quilt, you would never understand what my story was indicating under the quilt.
Furthermore, in the third subject of the book ‘Zenana’ i.e. women, she talks about women who are bold and vocal and also about women who break their barriers of class and caste such as maidservants, sex workers, middle-class women, beautiful coy women inside a preferred sexual oriented marriages and so many other women who come from a patriarchal setting. For instance, ‘Gainda’ which was published in 1938, talks about the taboo which is associated with widow remarriages or existence of widows as such. ‘Gainda’, who is maidservant at an upper-class house, falls in love with her employer and wrestles between her dilemma of being a lower-class woman who succumbs to an upper class man and castigating her sexual desires since she is a widow. Chughtai never fails to celebrate the sensibilities of a woman.
Released just before the 73rd Independence Day of the nation, “Manto – Chughtai: The Essential Stories” clearly highlights how litterateurs like Manto and Chughtai truly fought for the independence of not only our country but all its classes and genders. Because only if women, and men, are free to choose beyond the parameters of class, caste and sexuality, will the society progress.
Last but not the least, a word on translators – both the translators have done a wonderful job. So much so that while reading, you absolutely forget that you are reading the stories in English. You somehow feel as if you are part of the narrative, in that long bygone era, and actually listening to the conversation firsthand. In Urdu.