Remembering Ismat Chughtai - I

Raza Naeem on the style and sensibilities of one of the most bold Urdu short story writers

Remembering Ismat Chughtai - I
“In court, the opposing lawyer had a fit of coughing owing to embarrassment. Stand clear! The woman is arriving.”

And it all reminded me of how Ismat Chughtai must have felt in the 1940s in colonial India, when she was herself prosecuted for her banned short-story Lihaaf, with the ensuing uproar forcing her marriage with Shahid Latif to the breaking point. remembered these harmless-sounding lines from Ismat Chughtai’s little-known essay Heroine last week as I saw the latest play by Lahore’s famed Ajoka Theatre titled Saira Aur Maira, at the very end of the Asma Jahangir Conference on the evening of Sunday, the 20th of October. That essay goes on to deconstruct the changing face of the “heroine” in Urdu literature from its relatively patriarchal origins to its recent feminist avatar, where Ismat hoped that “the upcoming heroine will neither be oppressor nor oppressed, but merely a woman; and instead of Ahriman and Yazdan, writers will indeed grant her the status of a woman; and then construction will begin.” The play that I watched fictionalized the life and struggles of a real-life heroine, the Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist Asma Jahangir – who, like one half of Ajoka Theatre, Madeeha Gauhar, left us for the heavenly abode last year. I saw enacted on the stage before me some snippets from Asma’s life, including a couple of landmark cases. There is the one where she won reprieve for a teenage boy accused of blasphemy. Then there is the one where represented two young women fighting for their right to marry and divorce by their own choice and against the wishes of conservative parents, aided by the press and clerics in tow. There were scenes of Asma’s house and her family within being barricaded, besieged, threatened and attacked by an angry mob fed and led by conservatives.

In this same week too, on the 18th of October, came the 90th anniversary of the landmark event in Canadian history when the law acknowledged for the first time that the women of Canada were persons. The legal definition of persons did not include women up to 1929, so the Supreme Court had decreed. But Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Edwards and Louise McKinney disagreed, and later won the battle for Canadian personhood in court.

She anticipated by a few decades the heaven-stormers of the 1960s, powered and pioneered in the West by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer

In her own context, I think Asma Jahangir fought for much the same. And so did Ismat Chughtai.

Chughtai, who passed away in her bed quietly on the evening of the 24th of October in Bombay, 28 years ago last week, is universally regarded as one of the four pillars of Urdu fiction in our time, apart from her contemporaries Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. In fact, 2015 was celebrated as her birth centenary year. While in India her legacy is feted and commemorated, in Pakistan, this unrelenting and daring champion of women’s rights and feminism has been consciously ignored – even though she anticipated by a few decades the heaven-stormers of the 1960s, powered and pioneered in the West by Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer.

Perhaps some of it has to do with the controversy caused by one of her earliest short-stories Lihaaf (The Quilt) which was banned in 1942 for its erotic and lesbian undertones, and overshadowed almost the whole of Chughtai’s subsequent work, much to her chagrin.

In any case, Chughtai subsequently won the case and went on to write many masterpieces in short fiction as well as in the longer form, of which the most notable is Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line). It stands out among her six novels with its Joycean, largely autobiographical heroine Shamman (Shamshad) who matures from a precocious, rebellious independent-minded girl to a politically-conscious feminist activist involved in the Indian independence struggle.

Her satire was very concealed and wholesome. She quietly mounted an attack through dialogues – which one realized after some time

For a writer routinely described as a “female Manto” (owing to her rebellious and daring persona) by some and “Lady Changez Khan” (she traced her descent from the family of Emir Timur) by others, her life and legacy are unfortunately unknown to most middle-class young women here in both Pakistan and India, who are instead offered a stream of vacuous television serials and Bollywood films advocating female submission and stereotyping. Not for nothing, then, are the achievements of courageous icons like the 2014 Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai scorned and belittled by a section of our own elite.

The second reason why Chughtai could never become a household name in Pakistan may have to do with the controversy regarding her burial rites; she was cremated rather than buried as per the orthodox Muslim tradition.

Some critics have unfairly stereotyped Chughtai as a spokesperson for the respectable women of the Indian Muslim middle-class owing to her unmatched knowledge of the inner lives of the middle-class Muslim zenana. Some even refuse to regard her as a great fiction writer.

The style of writing, problems and themes which Ismat Chughtai brought into Urdu short-story writing were essentially all about writing in a new manner. Indeed the life of a woman and her problems – including those around sexuality – had previously been dealt with by many of our short-story writers, but there is a fundamental difference between these stories and the stories of Ismat Chughtai. She, in fact, had viewed these issues directly from the point of view of a woman. She felt them rather than merely narrating them or provoking or touching upon them in a general way. That is why some people even think that her short-stories are autobiographical in their inspiration. Aziz Ahmad has counted among Ismat’s literary flaws that her personality seems to be peeping out from behind her short-stories.

Ismat Chughtai played by Rajshri Deshpande in Manto, the film directed by Nandita Das

But if Ismat Chughtai’s short stories are examined closely, the concretization and digested condition one finds there has traveled from the person of the writer to the depths of some important issues of society. Majnoon Gorakhpuri writes, “It is possible that her entire art be observation and that personal experience has nothing to do with it. If it is true, then this unrelated objectivity is truly a great miracle.”

Chughtai often chose as her topic a few impediments of the cultural and domestic life of the middle-class of Muslim society, within which a woman’s personality is nurtured. She had an expert familiarity with these settings and the way in which she put her finger on the aching veins of the Indian woman’s psychology is perhaps unparalleled in Urdu afsana.

Dayen (Witch), Saas (Mother-in-Law), Genda (Marigold), Neera, Javaani (Youth), Uff Ye Bacche (Oh These Kids), Aik Shohar ki Khaatir (For the Sake of A Husband) – all these were short-stories from her initial stage but they not only possessed the anguished relish of the prime of youth but also that element of mystery and satirical manner which unveiled a lot of secrets. Her satire was very concealed and wholesome. She quietly mounted an attack through dialogues – which one realized after some time. The late Intizar Husain wrote quite aptly while comparing the short-stories of Chughtai and Manto on themes of sexuality. According to him:

“In those matters after observing which Ismat passed on with merely a playful smile, there Manto is like that naughty boy who opens the shutters wide and says, clapping repeatedly, ‘Aha! I saw it!’”

Few of her works have been the subject of as much discussion as the aforementioned short-story Lihaaf. The “flaw” of this story was perhaps not that its theme was sexual but more that the objectivity and vision which gives width to a theme by extracting it from its limited meaning is missing here. Indeed there were different opinions on this short-story. Many called it “very bad”. And many others defended it, like Krishan Chander in the preface to Naye Zaaviye (New Angles, Volume 2). But above all, the most balanced is perhaps the opinion of Patras Bokhari. He writes that:

“[...] Her blunder is not that she has discussed some social impermissibles. Since when have the laws of society and literature been parallel? From the pile of dirt to the galaxy, all things can be the dynamic of feelings and whatever could be a dynamic is included in the property of literature; so there is no need to be an opponent over why she has described such matters. But the value of this story falls in that its centre of gravity is not some matter of the heart but a bodily movement. In the beginning one thinks she will unveil Begum Jan’s psychology. Then one hopes that there will be interest in the emotions of the girl through which the story is being narrated, but away from both of these, the story adopts a very different direction in the end and fixes its gaze over an emerging quilt [..]”

Among Chughtai’s subsequent short-stories, Pesha (Profession) was among the most important Urdu short-stories on the basis of theme and art but later on, it seemed that the treasure of her experiences and observations began to dwindle. A bit because the life which she had witnessed and dealt with, and the complexities of social life about which she had perception, were contained fully in her novel Terhi Lakeer. Moreover, these issues very quickly took a secondary position and the writers of India had to contend with deeper and more far-reaching experiences than these.

Nevertheless, she created a first-rate story on the Partition riots titled Jaren (Roots). Here Ismat Chughtai widened her viewpoint by remaining within the circle of her subject and her society. Her short-story Nannhi ki Naani (Nannhi’s Grandma) was also a very artistic expression of her observations and penetrating vision.

(to be continued)

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He has written on, and translated the selected work of Ismat Chughtai, Fahmida Riaz, Zehra Nigah, Amrita Pritam, Kishwar Naheed, Masroor Jahan and Razia Sajjad Zaheer. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979