“In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life,’ this was the reply given by famous Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai when societies labelled her stories obscene. Today is the birth anniversary of this fierce writer.
Born on 21st August 1911 into a Muslim family of western Uttar Pradesh, Ismat Chughtai, through her writing, broke all the Laxman Rekhas which society had drawn for her.
Chughtai was affectionately known as Ismat Aapa in the literary circle. Ismat Aapa was the ninth of the ten children born to Mirza Quaseem Beg, her father, who was a civil servant.
Stories which stood out
When our stories were full of weak and repressed female characters, Chughtai made a different place for her female characters through her stories. Her characters varied from the Begum in Lihaaf who finds love in an emotional and sensual relationship with her masseuse to a village woman Rani in Til who does not shy away from expressing sexual desires.
Her other famous stories include – Gainda, Gharwali, Khidmatgaar. Gainda talks about a domestic helper named Gainda, a lower caste widow who falls in love with an upper-caste Hindu male. Gharwali is a story about Lajjo, an orphan who comes of age to realize that her body is her biggest asset. Lajjo who is proud of her body, is aware of her sexual desires and does not feel guilty about it.
The story in Lihaaf is narrated by a 9-year-old girl. The kid gives away the story about a sensual relationship between two women and does not make any judgment or comment. Lihaaf was one of a kind and drew attention to a same-sex desire among women in those times. It also spoke about the oppressive nature of heterosexual marriage in the feudal society.
Chughtai wrote Lihaaf, just two months before her marriage and had to face charges of obscenity for writing it. The story created havoc in her married life, Chughtai, while talking about it wrote in her memoir, “Lihaaf had made my life miserable. Shahid and I had so many fights over the story that life became a battlefield.”
Talking about the reception of this story, Chughtai wrote, “I was torn to shreds in the literary arena. Since then I have been branded an obscene writer. No one bothered about what I had written before or after ‘Lihaaf’. I was put down as a purveyor of sex. It is only in the last couple of years that the younger generation has recognized that I am a realist and not an obscene writer.”
Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto
When we talk about Ismat Chughtai, we cannot really miss the story of her friendship with Saadat Hasan Manto, another celebrated Urdu writer.
Both of them were contemporaries, however, they did not let the competition between them kill their friendship. Chughtai would always appreciate Manto’s work and so did Manto. Known for their portrayal of sexuality, class and gender, Chughtai and Manto even faced obscenity trials together in Lahore for their stories Lihaaf and Bu.
The friendship was also celebrated by their readers; once a man from Hyderabad even wrote a letter to Manto and asked, “How is it that Ismat Chughtai and you didn’t marry?
Answering his question, Manto in his essay ‘Ismat Chughtai’ wrote, “Had we thought of getting married, then instead of drowning others in wonder and agitation we ourselves would have been drowned in it. And when we would have come to our senses after the initial shock, then our wonderment and agitation would have changed not into joy but sorrow. Ismat and Manto, nikah and marriage—what a ludicrous idea!”
The society which couldn't bear her stories
When society tried to tame her, Chughtai rose again and charmed her readers with her beautiful stories. In her journey, she received many awards and in 1976 she was even awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India.
Chughtai was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in the late 1980s. She died at her house in Mumbai on 24 October 1991, following the prolonged illness. This writer who found herself amidst several controversies during her life had to face one more the controversy even after her death, as she chose cremation instead of burial which is the prevalent practice in Islam.
When our stories were full of petty female submissive lovers, Chughtai’s stories spoke loudly about female sexuality and also touched taboo topics like homosexuality. And when society refused to accept her stories, the fierce writer stood firmly by her stories.
If one really wants to put her attitude towards life and describe Chughtai's stories in one sentence, one must quote her friend Manto who said, “agar aap in aphasaanon ko bardaasht nahin kar sakate to isaka matalab yah hai ki yah jamaana naakaabile-bardaasht hai.” (If you can’t bear my story, then it can only mean that the society we live in is unbearable).