Remembering Ismat Chughtai - II

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

Remembering Ismat Chughtai - II
Ismat Chughtai’s prose carried within it a creative jewel in addition to its spontaneity and sharpness. She was not necessarily the most elegant stylist but possessed her own style. In fact,  her style was most suitable for the novel and short-story and it had such beauty and attraction that no other short-story writer could compete with it. Her short-stories added numerous new words, new metaphors and new similes and symbols. These words had been heard countless times but one felt the creative powers concealed within them, seeing them used in the Urdu afsana for the first time. This achievement by Chughtai ensured her individuality. In the words of Patras Bokhari, “Ismat has given a new youth to Urdu diction.”

Chughtai’s novella Ziddi (Wayward) is the characterization of a young man who becomes wayward due to not finding the freedom to love in a class system. He loves a girl from the lower class, which is not praiseworthy in our social system from a “moral” basis. Because of this epidemic, the flames of rebellion are ignited within its hero Pooran and it ends with a painful death. In the end, the writer has shown the scene of its heroine Asha committing suicide over the hero’s corpse by sprinkling oil on her body and being burnt along with it. This novel was the product of a romantic excess and probably for this reason was very popular amongst youth at one time. Some people believed it to be influenced by the film Devdas, but one gentleman’s research suggests that this novella was inspired by a Turkish novella.

Ismat Chughtai’s greatest achievement was her novel Terhi Lakeer. This novel is 500 pages long and in it not only is the writer’s own observation and personal experience reflected; but the living, breathing character of Shamman to a great extent informs her own personality as well. The artist who drew the novel’s cover depicted the picture of a snake with respect to the topic of the novel, which is a symbol of sexuality. Sex is the most complex issue or the most crooked line of our society. Due to the moral prohibitions around sexual consciousness in South Asian society, the manner in which an intelligent and capable middle-class girl becomes a victim of psychological perplexities and the various types of influence that this has on all aspects of life – all these issues are successfully illustrated by Chughtai here. This is, in fact, truly a psychological novel and the manner in which the writer has unraveled these psychological knots by means of the tiny problems of life and minutiae, is nothing short of a literary miracle. The realities which were gradually but incompletely revealed in Chughtai’s short stories came to the front as a complete picture in this novel; and perhaps Terhi Lakeer was that fictional creation where she utilized the experiences and observations of her youth one by one and then there was nothing left in that inn. The satirical dialogues in this novel on the various social customs, persons and institutions could be said to be its most valuable jewel. The dedication of this novel, too, is satirical: “To those orphan children whose parents are still imprisoned within life.”

Pandit Kishan Prashad Kaul wrote about this novel:

“Like Premchand’s ‘Godaan’ can be called his masterpiece, in the same manner ‘Terhi Lakeer’ is Ismat Chughtai’s masterpiece. Like Premchand has made a great addition to Urdu literature by drawing a complete picture of our rural life and by interpreting it in ‘Godaan’, in the same manner, in ‘Terhi Lakeer’, Ismat has created new literature in Urdu by drawing a complete map of our modern girl, for which we should be grateful to her [...]”

Chughtai had written two dramas in her initial period. Saanp (Snake) and Fasaadi (Brawler); these dramas were indeed not for the stage but were enjoyable for reading. They had pinches of satire and domestic dialogues. Her drama on partition riots Dhaani Baanken (Green Bangles) became very popular. A collection of her dramas was published under the title Shaitaan (Satan).
Ismat Chughtai’s greatest achievement was her novel Terhi Lakeer

Ismat Chughtai’s Dozakhi (Hell-Bound) was one of the most important essays in connection with character-sketches, which she wrote on her brother Azeem Beg Chughtai. This essay was a rare example of unbiased realism and personal album-writing. According to Hasan Askari, Dozakhi occupied the status of an eternal creation in the whole stock of Progressive literature. Chughtai also wrote an essay on Majaz for another series of character-sketches titled Architects of New Literature begun from Bombay, which was published in the form of a booklet.

The recent Ajoka play which we mentioned at the beginning of the previous installment of this article depicted the lives of the two eponymous young women supported by the play’s fictionalized Asma Jahangir: Saira, who became a victim to assassins’ bullets hired by her family while she pursued divorce from an abusive husband; and Maira who did win her case, but had to leave her homeland. It provoked the audience to wonder aloud whether our Sairas and Mairas had only these routes open to them, or whether there was a third route. Ismat Chughtai, like Asma Jahangir in our time, neither became a victim to any assassin (or a fatwa), nor went into exile. Instead, she courageously fought and wrote on, provocatively laying bare the hypocrisy of the male champions of women’s rights and the myths they had constructed about women, and then proceeds to invent nothing less than a new language for the Sairas and Mairas of our own time, more clearly articulated than any other of her numerous writings, in a little-known essay Aurat: Aadhi Aurat, Aadha Khvaab (Woman: Half Woman, Half Dream, her everlasting testament:

“If a woman shows her womanhood at the right opportunity, it befits her. But what is this that she goes on gathering the basket of femininity in colleges, offices and departments?

When we know that women will indeed have to work with men tomorrow, if not today, we will have to construct new aphorisms, forgetting the present ones:

  1. In college or school, you are neither mother nor daughter; nor beloved, just a student; and the others are professors and students.

  2. In offices, you are neither loyal nor disloyal in love; just do your work properly and forget your airs.

  3. The people who are around you are all human; neither men nor women, they are either officers or clerks; here is a table, chair and peon. You are neither weak nor strong, neither the delicate sex nor the harsher sex. Your work is for what you get paid until you change your profession. You have been created by nature for this same use; you are here not for luring a husband or wife but only for work. Neither take advantage, nor damage anyone with (your) physical or mental strength or weakness.

  4. Your destination is not just marriage; because marriage is not reaching your destination, rather negotiating it is actually the long road.

But Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) used to say, ‘O woman you are half woman, half dream!’

Had someone asked for his wife’s opinion, she might have said that Gurudev himself was a total dream as well as the most beautiful interpretation of a dream too! [...]” 

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