Rasheeda Bhagat

The powerful isms of Ismat

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on March 29, 2012

A Life in Words: Memoirs By Ismat Chughtai Translated by M. Asaduddin Publisher: Penguin Price: Rs 499

She was Urdu's most iconoclastic writer — engaging, fiery and controversial, searingly honest and, above all, a rebel, a feminist and a fighter. Ismat Chughtai's contribution to Urdu literature is immense. And those of us who can't read Urdu finally have an opportunity to look at her magnum opus, Kagazhi hai Pairahan, thanks to a wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin.

Titled A Life in Words: Memoir (Penguin Books), this autobiography by the sub-continent's foremost feminist writer (born in 1911) is a compelling read on more than one count.

At one level it provides a delightful and detailed account of what life must have been like at the beginning of the 20th century in a large, upper middle class Muslim family. As the various chapters were published in instalments from 1979-80, there is no chronological order, an unfettering factor of sorts.

Ismat's vivid descriptive style, her rich imagery, her wry sense of humour and a rare ability to look critically at herself, all come together to etch an interesting canvas of an era gone by, but which has left such a strong stamp on the India of today, Muslim society in particular.

What comes through most strongly from this narrative — a must-read for every modern, thinking, liberal Indian woman — is the struggle of a woman, and a Muslim one at that, to make her own choices. Ismat, who from childhood is fascinated and lost in the world of books, chooses to demand from her family the right to education. First at the Aligarh school for Muslim girls, and later a B.A. at the IT College in Lucknow. She becomes the first Muslim woman in the region to get a B.A.

The rebellious streak ran in her right from childhood. Her family had cordial relations with Lalaji, their Hindu neighbour, and she gate-crashed into the house where Janmasthami celebrations were being held.

Her first curiosity is to see the Bhagwan sitting inside the decorated room. “I was overwhelmed by a sense of inferiority. How easily their Bhagwan came and went. And there's our Allah Mian — no one knew where. He remained hidden.” Seeing the little silver Krishna rocking in the cradle, “maternal love” wells up in her heart. She first touches his cheek and then clasps him to her heart, only to find hell breaking loose!

Thrown out like a “dead lizard”, she gets thrashed by her mother; it is reiterated that worshipping images is a sin. The child is puzzled; “the idea of worship had not occurred to me. I was not performing a puja, just hugging a baby.”

Ismat was constantly berated for her “sharp tongue”, and the reprimanded child would take refuge in books. They were her constant companions, closest friends, providing succour in moments of sorrow. Books affected her more than anything else; giving her answers to many problems. “I have coped with my hours of darkness and a thousand deprivations with the help of these friends.”

While she loves Hardy, Bronte sisters and Bernard Shaw, the Russian writers influenced her the most. “When my mind and intellectual needed a guide, I encountered these authors and their books. I still read Chekhov for good luck. When I can't come to grips with a story, can't make out where to begin and where to end, I read a couple of stories by Chekhov as an intellectual exercise. All at once my mind lights up and my pen begins to move,” she says.

Intellectual depth

The depth of her intellectualism and sparkling wit is awesome enough; what is even more awesome is that she wears it lightly. Describing how she draws inspiration for her writing, she says simply: “talking to simple, illiterate people often opens windows of the mind. To understand human beings, it is necessary to talk to them.”

Her intense feminism has been described elsewhere in these columns (https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/rasheeda-bhagat/article3247857.ece). But this autobiographical account also gives us a view that Hindus and Muslims of that era enjoyed more cordial relations than today. Despite hearing only “paeans in praise of Islam” as a child, “I had developed a romantic view of Hinduism and its trappings. The bells and bhajans in temples, the gods in their fine attire, especially Krishna wearing the peacock crown, his antics commemorated in the lyrics, his peccadilloes with the gopis, the lilting tune of the flute…” All this fascinated her.

Hindu friends would be invited to Ismat's house, with fresh utensils commissioned for the vegetarian cooking. Her amma, a devout Muslim, “would give money secretly to Panditji for Satyanarayan katha and offering to the goddess Shitala”, even though her husband used his clout as an officer to forcibly inoculate everybody. She would light diyas during Diwali, for she firmly believed that because she was in “the good books of Goddess Lakshmi, our family was thriving.”

Liberal views on religion

Ismat's liberal views on religion are striking. When her friend, Lalaji's daughter Sushi, gets married, she places a tiny brass Krishna in Ismat's palm, and the author ruminates that even though idol worship is forbidden for Muslims, “devmala, in Indian mythology is a part of my country's heritage. It has absorbed the culture and philosophy of centuries. Faith is one thing, the culture of one's country is quite another. I have an equal share in it, in its earth, sunshine and water. If I splash myself with colour during Holi, or light up diyas during diwali, will my faith suffer an erosion? Are my beliefs so brittle and judgement so shaky that they will fall to pieces?”

She adds: “I have travelled beyond all limits of worship”. Unfortunately, 40 or 50 years since these views were expressed, the universe of even educated, liberal Indian Muslims embracing this viewpoint is shrinking.

Ismat had the courage to take on Mullahs too; when a cleric launched a vicious campaign to close the Aligarh school for girls and berated the Abdullah family for starting it, Ismat, a student there, wrote an article which said: “Muslim girls are backward and deprived of many opportunities. On top of it Mulla Ahrarvi has become their mortal enemy. Let the college be closed but only our corpses will go from here. We have six thousand brothers in the (Aligarh Muslim) University. Will they see our corpses being defiled and remain quiet?”

Immediately on its publication, the boys gave the Mulla a thrashing, vandalised his office and he disappeared overnight. His effigy was burnt in the courtyard and “girls roasted peanuts in the flames and ate them with great relish. For months we were intoxicated with this victory.”

Witty, humorous

Read this book also for the author's great sense of humour and sharp wit. The chapter ‘The Golden Spittoon' is hilarious, describing the antics of the Nawab of Jawra and his sons. Seeing a “strange beast”... a Muslim woman who had passed B.A., the Nawab promptly makes her a headmistress of a school! But when the Nawab wants to make her and her 11-year-old niece his daughters-in-law, she is first tempted by the thought of sound sleep on soft mattresses, spitting in the golden spittoon, and other such luxuries.

But after all this, what would she do? “The walls of the palace began to close over me and I felt suffocated.” The Nawabs didn't favour a divorce; she being a rebel and argumentative, couldn't get along with anybody. How would she accept anybody as her spiritual god? As terrible thoughts of being poisoned by the Nawab crowded her head, one early morning she grabbed her trunk and her niece, and fled the town.

Feminist to the core

But the best parts of this memoir are the thoughts, musings, observations and comments on women. “Marwari women were extremely musical. (But) there was a deep ache and sadness in the tune, and a strange intimation of loneliness.”

Aptly, the book ends with her comments on the depiction of woman… right from the First Sin. “When Adam got bored in paradise, Eve was created for his entertainment. The woman as the plaything of Man.”

Eve made Adam eat the forbidden fruit. “Incited by Iblis, Eve led Adam astray. Woman is the handmaiden to Satan. As a result both were flung away to earth.”

“Qabil (Cain) became the first murdered on earth, for a woman. A brother shed the blood of a brother. Woman is at the root of discord.”

As the class (during her B.A. days) discussed this and the theory of evolution, Ismat expressed her thoughts, to be told wryly by her teacher: Don't mix belief with history.

Adds the author: “For several days we discussed the first chapter of the Bible. The woman has to carry the burden of all transgressions, which is her secondary existence. We felt it was a personal attack on us. We felt both sad and angry.” The theory of evolution was totally contradictory to what the Bible taught.

At the beginning of the Stone Age, both men and women had more or less equal status, and there was equitable division of labour. Women produced children, which strengthened the tribe, so they had a position of prominence. Before marriage came into vogue, women had multiple husbands and the children got their identity and names from their mothers. Women also used to be the chiefs of tribes. But slowly their roles were subjugated and they became machines for producing children. Later, along with livestock, they became the objects of plunder, and were also collected as booty along with other objects.

This book is a compulsive page-turner, and nothing less than a treat. It clears cobwebs in your head, and provokes you to think, debate. M. Asaduddin deserves our gratitude for making it available to thousands who can't read Urdu.


Published on March 29, 2012

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor