Veiled: The writing and the life of Ismat Chughtai

Any study on Urdu short stories, feminism in South-East Asia and progressive ideology in Urdu literature is incomplete without taking into account the works of Ismat Chughtai.

A disposition of rebel in an orthodox patriarchal society, bold protagonists, outspoken and brash rebellion — Ismat Chughtai never failed to raise eyebrows. All of these along with her blunt feminist ideology made her the most controversial writer of her time.

Ismat was raised in an elite Muslim family but this didn’t take away the stringent mindset that trickled down with conventions. While the girls of her age learned to master the art of cooking, sewing, and managing homely chores, she found solace in words. She embraced books in an adamant defiance of her family’s countless taunts.  

Ismat Chughtai, South Asia's first feminist author

Ismat Chughtai, South Asia’s first feminist author

She was an iconoclast and a symbol of women’s empowerment. She wrote brilliantly of the complexities of women’s life, their inhibitions and their subversive desires. And this made her unfathomable in writing and in life.

When her most infamous short story Lihaaf was published in 1941 in Adab-i-Latif, a Lahore-based magazine, it created massive waves of scandal. In a time when women spooked behind the veil, a depiction of a lesbian relationship between a childless woman and her servant was seen as obscene rather than bold or progressive. A raging controversy ensued.   

The themes of sensuality were not a rarity in Urdu literature. A lot of references to homosexuality in males were made in classical poems and masnavis. Muhammad Hasan Aksari’s Chai ki pyali, 1942 which made subtle gestures to female homosexuality and rekhtis written by male poets did not invoke much criticism. However, when Ismat Chughtai, a female author touched on the theme of female homosexuality, it was not approved of by society. Such covert, explicit and overt expressions were seen as offensive and thus derided.

(Photo: Uncredited)

(Photo: Uncredited)

She, along with another writer friend of hers, Sadat Hasan Manto, was charged with obscenity by the court for her story. Though it panicked her at first but with Manto’s assurances both of them ridiculed and scoffed at the thought and laughed heartily at those judging them.

No ‘obscene’  words were found in the short story and after her trial ended, Chughtai continued her work in a strident, audacious feminist voice.

“When I see that frightening dream, I feel as if I have come to life after having died. Who knows, death may have visited me for a few moments. But after the moment of dying passes, I feel more energetic than before, my brain begins to navigate distant limits, the magical wave of life penetrates every fiber of my being, life is shortened by a few years. I have extracted a new peace from this storm. I laugh for no reason, my heart is filled with joy, my nostrils fill with the fragrance of moist earth.” (Kaghazii hai Perahan- Of paper my apparel)

She has a sensible understanding of her physical needs without getting caught up in the complicated notions of modesty and morality.

Her story Gharwali was a dark satire on the institution of marriage and the impact it has on a woman’s life. It is seen as a mandate for all women to marry unless one welcomes suspicion and raised brows. The story of a submissive yet razor sharp lady who is bold, outspoken and conscious of her sexuality, she has a large hearted concept of a man-woman relationship.

Dauzkhi, her pen-sketch of her brother Azeem Baig, written a few days after his death, is one of the best pen-sketches ever written in Urdu. It is humorous and saddening, sentimental and analytical, all at the same time. Azeem knew Ismat detested wearing burqa and he would hide it under a pile of mattresses. It was Azeem and her mother she considered as the support pillars of life and losing her brother was split her completely.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in a still from Deepa Mehta's Fire, 1996. The movie draws it's primary inspiration from Chughtai's Lihaaf.

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in a still from Deepa Mehta’s Fire, 1996. The movie drew it’s primary inspiration from Chughtai’s Lihaaf.

Renowned author, Qurratulain Hyder, dubbed her as ‘Lady Changez Khan’ not only because she traced her lineage to Changez Khan, but mostly due to her vile approach to life and to writing.

“If one moves beyond the world of Lihaaf; Gharwali, Terhi Lakir where Shamman’s life is marked by outrage and rebellion, to Masooma the young girl who becomes a distortion of herself in the ugly underbelly of the Bombay film world, to Dharm Dev in Ajeeb Aadmi, to Qudsia in Dil ki Duniya, who slyly finds release from her cage, to Kubra in Koti ka Jora, who is stifled in her cage and dies, to a hundred other men and women who inhabit her tales darkly, in pain, tormented by society’s vicious onslaughts, to the servants, both male and female, who fall in love with their masters and mistresses, a call by Chughtai to a classless society – the list is endless.”

The deeper one delves into the words of Ismat Chughtai for scrutiny, the richer and spontaneous is the revelation of how little we know her writing and her life. And yet we indulge ourselves in her world to explore sheer joy, to derive hope and valor, and to move past our trepidation and inquietude.