Ismat Chughtai (1911- 1991)
When I wrote, I imagined my readers sitting before me. I talked and they listened. Some agreed with me. Some didn’t. Some smiled while others got angry, and some felt jealous. Even now, I experience the same feelings. I narrate stories to my audience like a traditional storyteller. And just as a storyteller inserts personal opinions in the telling of a story, I do too.
Ismat Chughtai was one of the greatest writers in the Urdu language. She broke conventions through telling women’s stories which otherwise would have gone untold, delivering uncompromising feminist themes with a vivid descriptive style, a keen ear for dialogue and a wry sense of humour.
Born in Baduan, Uttar Pradesh, Chughtai was the ninth of ten children. She grew up in Jodhpur where her father worked as a civil servant. Due to the early marriages of her sisters, she grew up surrounded by brothers, enjoying masculine pursuits. She showed little interest in embroidery or cooking and instead played hockey, football and gilli danda with her brothers. These masculine-coded behaviours often shocked local sensibilities.
From her teens onward, she studied with her writer brother Azeem Beg Chughtai. She decided to pursue an education, despite the opinion of some of her extended family that ‘educating girls was worse than prostituting them’. She responded to the attempt to restrict her access to education by threatening to run away from home and convert to Christianity if they did not allow her to attend college. The family ultimately gave way, and she attended Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, and obtained a degree in teacher training from the Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University. After this, she became the headmistress of a girl’s school. Her first work was a play which she wrote at the age of 24.
It was at Aligarh that she met her future husband Shahid Lateef. Their marriage grew out of friendship, yet Chughtai seemed to consider it more of a way to escape her family than a true love match. Before the wedding, Chughtai explained that she was ‘a troublesome woman’ who would never be ‘an obedient blameless wife’. He married her nonetheless and the couple had two daughters. Yet the marriage was not entirely happy: the couple clashed frequently, and Chughtai’s professional success may have challenged the self-esteem of her husband, a struggling writer.
As a lively conversationalist, she enjoyed discussions with other writers, artists and actors. She attended the first meeting of the Progressive Writers’ Movement where she developed close friendships with many other members. She fervently believed in the power of socially and politically engaged literature to promote social reform – with a particular emphasis on improving women’s situations. Her writing often featured the nitty gritty of women’s lives – the domestic politics of marriage and family, set in the women’s quarters of Muslim homes, exposing the bitter realities hidden behind respectable façades, and from a female perspective which acknowledged the full complexity of relations between the sexes. The fact that she chose to write in Urdu, along with her down-to-earth settings and ear for naturalistic dialogue, showed a will to communicate directly with the people in the language of the street, rather than that of elite literary circles.
From childhood, she was acutely conscious of suffering: crying in the majlis over the death of Ali Asghar to the point that she had to be taken outside. Although a Muslim by ancestry, Chughtai’s understandings of religion were generous and syncretic: she read the Qur’an, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita, and described herself as coming from a family of Muslims, Christians and Hindus. She wrote about women’s situations across India: from child widows in Rajasthan to the smeared handprints of girls burned in the ritual of sati.
Chughtai’s story Ziddi was also adapted for the cinema. She continued to write scripts through Filmina, a company she founded with her screenwriter husband. After his death in 1967, however, Chughtai abandoned screenwriting. Although, at one time or another, all of Chughtai’s books were banned, the most controversial was the trial of her short story Lihaaf (the Quilt) Chughtai was brought up on charges of obscenity due to hints of homosexuality in the story, where a woman and her maidservant are spotted together under the eponymous quilt by the child narrator. Despite pressure to submit, she defended her writing in court with courage and wit. Although there was ultimately no legal fallout, Chughtai faced public harassment, receiving large quantities of hate-mail thereafter.
She also wrote short stories, novellas, plays and travelogues, and worked on – but never finished – her autobiography. Artistically, Chughtai was inspired by the great Russian and French novelists. Her favourite writer was George Bernard Shaw, who shared her iconoclastic wit and ear for dialogue. The greatest force behind her success was the Urdu writer Rahid Jahan, a pioneer of women’s education who had attended the same colleges as Chughtai and who mentored her in her early days as a writer. Her writing displays a delight in human nature and its creative potential, animated by a lively and natural style. She continued to write throughout her life, only ceasing in the late 1980s when she developed Alzheimer’s disease.
Ismat Chughtai broke through barriers as a Muslim woman living within a patriarchal society, and as a perceptive writer who captured the rhythms, idioms and silences of natural speech. She exposed the lives of those that society neglected – women and the poor – with courage, wit and compassion.