* Even those who have not read Chughtai’s Lihaaf know of the short story that discusses same-sex relationships between women

* Chughtai is relevant today for her microscopic unveiling of the life of the middle-class woman deeply enmeshed in her wide circle of relatives and neighbours

* To read Chughtai in translation is to awaken these women who continue to inhabit the chawls, flats and kothis of Chughtai’s imagination

* In translation Chughtai remains as striking as in the original


When Ismat Chughtai first published her work people assumed it was a man writing, for who could write so boldly about the intimate lives of women, but a man. In an interview conducted in 1972 by academic Carlo Coppola in the journal Mehfil, Chughtai says, “In the beginning, people were very shocked because I wrote very frankly.” This frankness, however, did not stem from her command over Urdu. In fact, in Aligarh Muslim University, where she studied, the primary medium of education was English. Writing in Urdu, especially literary Urdu, she says, was difficult for her.


The Collectors’ Chughtai / Ismat Chughtai; Translated by Tahira Naqvi / Women Unlimited / Fiction / ₹675


It is perhaps the dexterity with which she used the spoken language, eschewing the literary, that makes Chughtai extremely readable even in translation. She wrote with the ease of conversation and Tahira Naqvi’s The Collector’s Chughtai faithfully renders this style in translation. Much has been spoken and written about Chughtai and her feminism. Even those who have not read Lihaaf know of her short story that discusses same-sex relations between women. Published in 1942, it was radical for the time, especially coming as it did from the pen of a woman, and Chughtai was sued for it.

But Chughtai, by her own admission, had little understanding of lesbian relationships when she wrote Lihaaf . She remains relevant, but not merely because she was a feminist at a time when women writing about the private lives of women was dangerous activity. A new reader, devoid of context, may even find these stories tame, given as we are to a historic critique of literature. Chughtai is relevant today for that microscopic unveiling of the life of the middle-class woman who is deeply enmeshed in her wide circle of relatives and neighbours, and whose desires much like Begum Jaan’s in Lihaaf are often unspoken and unfulfilled. Or there is Chughtai’s recurrent character type — the young pubescent girl, sensuous but artless, aware of her own desires but not always of the consequences of the desires of men at whose mercy she often found herself in. The ‘unremarkable’ women rarely make an appearance in contemporary writing about women’s lives. At best they are relegated to a supporting role as the trailblazing lead lady shatters the glass ceilings. Chughtai herself shattered glass ceilings. But her stories were of the immense resourcefulness of women who circumvented the glass, who left the shattering to the more privileged.

To read Chughtai in translation is to awaken these women who continue to inhabit the chawls, flats, and kothis of Chughtai’s imagination. In Bichu Phuphi , a termagant aunt, at once spewing vitriol and loving her family in convoluted ways, deals with the betrayal of her husband, a self-declared widowhood and brothers who do not see the husband’s indiscretion as unwarranted. A 15-year-old widow is impregnated by the young master of the household in Gainda and cannot make sense of the absence of the man who has been sent away to protect the family’s honour or the physical and mental abuse she suffers on account of the child she now nurses. In A Morsel Sarlaben, a nurse at EM hospital, and messiah to the neighbourhood, is running out of time to find love, because she is untrained in the art of offering men ‘a morsel’. In The Mole , a young Rani finds herself at the receiving end of attention from three men, one of whom is making a painting of hers for an exhibition.

Manto once wrote of Chughtai, regretting his first, insensitive remark, in which he dismissed her as ‘a mere woman’: “If she had not been ‘a mere woman, after all!’ then we would not have found such fine and sensitive stories like ‘Bhulbhulaiyan’, ‘Til’, ‘Lihaf’ and ‘Gainda’ in her collections. They portray different facets of a woman — neat and transparent, purged of all artifice.” (Translated from Urdu by M Asaduddin.)

In translation Chughtai remains as striking as in the original. Naqvi has long been a Chughtai scholar and has been translating her works since 1983. Her rendition in English sticks close to the ‘frankness’ and the rhythm of the Urdu prose. There is no attempt to paraphrase the author’s intent, even when she is confronted with sentences that are difficult to translate. Much like Chughtai, Naqvi uses the language of conversation to translate — an English that is unique to the subcontinent. The frequent complaints about translations not being an effective rendition of the sensorium created by the author or of the singular expressions of the language do not arise here. Even in translation, Chughtai is inimitable in her style and storytelling.

Farah Yameen is an oral historian