Rasheeda Bhagat

She defied, yet defined, her times

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on November 14, 2017


Through the memoir “A Life in Words”, Ismat Chughtai deftly describes the double standards and hypocrisy in Muslim society vis-à-vis women. Her rebellious nature went hand-in-hand with her unrestrained, courageous writing.

I am not exaggerating when I say I was blown away by Ismat Chughtai's memoir A Life in Words (Penguin). Considered the subcontinent's foremost feminist writer and perhaps Urdu language's most controversial and fiery writer, her rebellious nature went hand-in-hand with her unrestrained, courageous writing.

Ismat was a jewel in Urdu literary movement's crown. Her short story Lihaaf (Quilt), which explored homosexuality, triggered a huge controversy in 1940s' India, attracting filthy, obscene letters. A suit was filed against her for obscenity by the British Crown in 1942 and this memoir has a hilarious chapter on how the summons were served on her in Mumbai.

She had to appear before the Lahore High Court, and Saadat Hasan Manto, who too had been slapped a similar charge, urges her to come to Lahore: “Aha! Fried fish with whisky… fire in the fireplace like the burning flame in a lover's heart... the blood red maltas are like a lover's kiss.”

We get a delightful portrait of Lahore, with its enchanting Anarkali shopping area, its buzzing literary scene. With Manto's many friends playing hosts, Ismat meets the city's literary figures; one of them, Mr Aslam starts ranting against the “alleged obscenity in my writings”.

Feminist to the core

Here, we get an account of the double standards and hypocrisy in Muslim society vis-à-vis women. She responds by attacking him for the vulgar words he uses in his stories “with details of the sex act merely for titillation”.

When the enraged man hides behind his gender to write what he likes, the furious feminist tells him she doesn't need his permission to write what she wants. The argument veers to her being “an educated girl from a decent Muslim family”. Her repartee that he too hails from a decent family gets the same ghisa-pita answer: “Do you want to compete with men?” The expected retort: She was always better than the boys in her class.

Today, this might appear no big deal, but this is an Indian Muslim woman born in 1911. Ismat had to launch a virtual war to go to high school. A hunger strike and a threat to run away and convert to Christianity as that would give her the right to unlimited education, finally got her permission and money from her progressive father to get an education.

Through this memoir, beautifully translated by M. Asaduddin (the original, Kagazhi hai Pairahan was first published in instalments in 1979-80), we get a rich, vivid portrait of a large — she had 9 siblings — upper middle-class Muslim family in pre-independent India.

Deftly, and with a light pen, Ismat describes in detail various facets and characteristics of each member of her family, including sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, cousins…

Under her magic prose, her mother comes alive as a formidable, shrewd and down-to-earth woman. “We were so many siblings that my mother felt nauseated by the very sight of us. One after another we had tumbled to the earth, pummelling and battering her womb.”

Ismat understands later why her mother didn't encourage her rebellious streak as a child. “This was a man's world, she said, made and destroyed by man. A woman is a tiny part of this world and man has made her the object of his own love and hatred. Depending on his whims, he worships or rejects her.”

During her travels, a Russian woman, who refuses to wear make-up, impresses her deeply when she says: “I would like to offer (a man) looks that are genuine. My own complexion, lips and feminity are good enough.”

A radical, a rebel

Adds the author: “In my stories I have written a great deal about women's economic subjugation and helplessness. If a girl obeys the man in her family simply because she is economically dependent on him, 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. The children born of such a mother will only display helplessness and a slavish mentality.”

Such a society would only depend on the munificence of developed nations; women suffering oppression without resistance would be inferior in both political and economic spheres, she adds. Has much changed after 40-50 years, one wonders.

She then relates the story of Mangu, the vivacious teenage daughter of her coachman. Married at 14, after her first daughter, her “playfulness and smile” vanish. Touching on another desperate measure, battered and desolate women resort to, even today, the author describes Agra of the 1930s.

“In the exceedingly restrictive environs of Agra, I observed the utter helplessness of women… nearly all of them looked consumptive and depressed, exploited by their husbands and their families. They somehow maintained a precarious existence on the strength of armulets and charms and back-breaking hard work. I felt even more repelled by the fate of being a woman.”

In this environ, Mangu's constantly wailing three daughters, were “a gaping advertisement of the insignificance of womankind. I felt angry with God for the injustice of making me a girl.”

this changes with time…

Unfortunately, the angry and filthy letters Lihaaf attracted chastened Ismat so much that “I reined in my pen, and as far as I know I haven't slackened it afterwards”.

But, she adds, she never gave up the habit of speaking her mind. Later, in another story, when the publisher suggested she make the protagonist a lesbian, as in Lihaaf, the infuriated writer refuses to do so.

At Aligarh, her personality really blossoms, her mentor, Ala Bi, who founded the school for girls there, along with her husband Papa Mian (Abdullah), once asks her why she is “allergic” to marriage.

She responds: “I can't be a slave to someone else and obey his commands. I have spent my life resisting the oppression of the elders. I want to make my own way. I feel repelled by the idea of a proper Eastern wife devoted to her husband. Everyone thinks I am crazy. But I am happy in my madness, and want to be responsible for my own happiness or sorrow, reward or punishment.”

Well, women like Ismat were trailblazers for Indian women's emancipation and made the road much easier for us. It is Ala Bi who disabuses her pupil of accepted norms of an “ideal wife” by saying its okay to let your sisters raise your kids and pay a few extra rupees to the dhobi for sewing the buttons on the husband's shirts!

Thank god for siblings, maids, cooks and, of course, dhobis!

Responses to >rasheeda@thehindu.co.in and >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in

Published on March 26, 2012

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