Manto, while drunk, used to tease his friend Ismat “Tu ek ladki, main ek ladka. Chal aab shuru ho ja.” Ismat would not talk to him for months after such incidents. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with Ismat Chughtai. I wasn’t myself not so long ago, I came across her in relation to Manto. Chughtai is closely associated with Manto on very many levels, so much so that she has even dedicated a story after him titled ‘My Friend, My Enemy!’ in Lifting the Veil. Sonia Roy finds the traces…
“My mother did not like my activities at all. She was worried about my future—‘These manly pursuits do not befit a woman,’ she would say…..But I had spent my life in the company of my brothers. I was greedy to be like them and even outdo them….” wrote Ismat Chughtai in her memoir A life in words: A memoir.
Brought up in a congested household in the suburbs of Lucknow, Chughtai always harboured strong opinions about the division of roles between the sexes. She, for one, never bowed down to the norms that stratified and typified women of her society. “…if a girl obeys the men in her family simply because she is economically dependent on them, then it is not obedience but deception. If a wife stays with her husband simply because he is her provider then she’s as helpless as a prostitute”.
Considered as an obscene writer for her iconoclastic thoughts, Chughtai was shunned by critics and readers alike. For instance, in her short story ‘Mole’, Chughtai describes in detail the range of stimulating emotions that Choudhary sahab, a painter goes through while painting the figure of a village girl. Rani, a voluminous girl is totally unabashed in demonstrating her sexuality and her antics trouble the innocent mind of the elderly artist who considers them to be vitriolic for his well being. However, he cannot resist the inner demons that wrangle his mind at the thought of her body displayed in front of him.
Such situations and scenes provided ample fodder for the critics to disapprove of her and censor her works. When asked about this in an interview, she had to say, “I write about things as they are…a reality that happens behind closed doors and drawn sheets…if people find them uncomfortable, then let them. I do not care”
I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with Ismat Chughtai. I wasn’t myself not so long ago, I came across her in relation to Manto. Chughtai is closely associated with Manto on very many levels, so much so that she has even dedicated a story after him titled ‘My Friend, My Enemy!’ in Lifting the Veil. Chughtai and Manto had a similar way of perceiving life and yet had quite a few fundamental differences. Lifting the Veil is a compilation of Urdu short stories by Ismat Chughtai. In the edition that I picked up by Asaduddin (also the one that is widely available), M.Asaduddin has selected and translated most of the pieces and has brought together both Chughtai’s fiction and non-fiction writing in an attempt to showcase the vast array of issues touched upon by the author.
Lifting the Veil consists of twenty-one short stories, all of the different hues and embodying different themes. Yet the one thing that unites them all is the way the stories are carefully folded in Chughtai’s cutting edge sarcasm, social commentary, and unparalleled frankness.
She deploys no ornamentation when she speaks of an adolescent widow’s longing for the flesh in Gainda ; about the hint of lesbianism within Begum Jaan in Lihaaf or about an elderly man’s sexual attraction for a lowly maid in The Mole. Her stories arose from her firm conviction that all forms of sexual behaviour – whether unwarranted or not -resulted out of a hypocritical sexually repressive society. On the other hand on stories such as Quit India, The Invalid, Tiny’s Granny, she focuses on poverty and inhumanity in all its manifestations, on how the human being tortured to levels beyond endurance still finds its way back to survival. Communal tension and inter-religious feuds also find a place within the collection in pieces such as Kafir, Roots, Sacred Duty.
In all of her stories, the middle class forms the centerpiece for that is the sphere she best knew and her characters stem from that very similar constricted space. You’d be surprised to find the inexhaustible range of characters that colour her stories out of a social milieu most of us belong to.
Chughtai was a lady who wrote about femininity and female sexuality with gusto.
She excelled in portraying the various shades of emotions that ran across the middle-class territory, especially its women. Her tendency to expose repressed desires and intertwines of the heart in all its rawness often got her entangled in controversies over her writings.
In this connection I would like to allude to Season 1 episode 3 of Peaky Blinders, where Tommy Shelby in conversation with Grace says a certain line:
”Everyone’s a whore, Grace. We just sell different parts of ourselves.”
Call her a whore or not, what Ismat Chughtai certainly does is that she lifts the veils of our inner minds to picturise the ‘whoring’ that resides within it.
Title art by Abhijnan Sarkar
Next post on 1st October