Though her life wasn’t as drastically messed up as that of her friend and contemporary, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai was definitely a born rebel. She lived her life the way she wanted, and wrote the truth in her many stories, novels, and nonfiction essays.
Chughtai’s most famous story is “Lihaf” (The Quilt), which deals with a lesbian encounter within an all-woman setting (Zenana) in a traditional Muslim household. It’s a funny and scandalous story (read it here), but actually, my favorite short story by Chughtai is called “Sacred Duty.” I came across it in a recent collection called The Quilt and Other Stories. It’s been beautifully translated by Tahira Naqvi, who has been Chughtai’s committed translator and one of her great champions.
“Sacred Duty” is not online anywhere, so perhaps I should briefly summarize it and quote a little. Samina, who comes from a respectable Muslim family in Delhi, is engaged to be married to a respectable Muslim boy. However, the day before her wedding she runs off with her boyfriend with Tashar Trivedi, a Hindu whose family lives in Allahabad. Samina accompanies Tashar to Allahabad, where converts to Hinduism and is married to Tashar in a Hindu ceremony. When her parents get Samina’s note explaining her disappearance, her mother’s first reaction (the story is told from her parents’ perspective) is “Let’s go to Allahabad and shoot them both!” Lovely. After some months tempers have cooled, and Samina’s father goes on a mission to Allahabad to reconcile, and to invite Samina and her husband to their house in Delhi. He is so gracious and understanding that the Trivedis agree. But in Delhi the young couple find that the Siddiqui family have quietly arranged a second, Muslim marriage ceremony, which requires Tashar to convert to Islam and Samina to reconvert. He’s ready to do it, though Samina isn’t, and a great deal of poisonously comical bickering ensues. Finally, from their hotel, Samina and Tashar sneak off by themselves to an undisclosed city, leaving both their manipulative families behind. The high point of the story is the delciously snarky letter that Samina sends her parents as she and her husband disappear:
And then, Papa, you arrived on the scene; you’re such a good actor — how genially and amicably you convinced Papaji [Samina's father-in-law] — I was so touched. My father’s so broad-minded, I told myself. Papaji had managed to whisk us off to Banaras with the help of his cronies. First it was Papaji who waved the magic wand at us, but when you warmly expressed forgiveness and brought us to Delhi, you too exposed yourelf as someone really petty; you also made us dance like a monkey and its mate. And we took everything as a big joke, that comic drama too. Don’t worry, we’re not going to give away your secret — tomorrow morning, when Papaji [Tashar's father] looks at the newspaper there’ll definitely be an explosion [when they hear about the Muslim ceremony]. No, we only said goodbye to them. Goodbye to all of you too — no, you don’t want to know where we’re going. If we’ve hurt you, please forgive us. No, we haven’t hurt you, it’s you who have caused us pain, you’re the ones who should apologize. You have made us a laughing stock. What kind of parents are you, who make your children dance like monkeys to any tune you like?
I love that reversal of guilt onto the parents themselves. In the name of “respectability” and “the family honor,” they seem willing to do any number of disreputable and hurtful things. (Indeed, the old tradition of the “honor killing” is alive and well, even in the South Asian diaspora.)
With its rude ending, “Sacred Duty” is a brilliant and fitting change-up on the old arranged marriage drama. And as a story it still feels completely fresh and relevant though it was written fifty years ago. Many of Chughtai’s other short stories work the same way, especially when they’re competently translated.
Who Was She? Some Biographical Background
Chughtai was greatly helped in her aspiration to be a professional writer because her husband, Shahid Latif, was a successful script-writer who actively encouraged her (through him, she also tried her hand at script-writing, and was involved in some fourteen or fifteen films in the 1940s and 50s). Chughtai wrote in Urdu and was early on associated with the Progressive Writers’ Association. She was a friend of Manto’s, and often compared to him, so this post is in some sense a complement to my earlier post on Manto. Manto’s inspired take on Chughtai in his essay on her, included in a splendid collection called Ismat: Her Life, Her Times (Edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadique), is well worth reading. Some of Manto’s comments about Chughtai’s status as a woman writer are a bit controversial (Manto was no feminist; he wanted Chughtai to write like a woman). But others are witty and affectionate:
Ismat’s pen and tongue both run fast. When she starts writing, her ideas race ahead and the words cannot catch up with them. When she speaks, her words seem to tumble over one another. If sheenters the kitchen to show her culinary skill, everything will be in a mess. Being hasty by nature, she would conjure up the cooked roti in her mind even before she had finished kneading the dough. The potatoes would note yet be peeled although she would have already finished making the curry in her imagination. I feel sometimes she may just go into the kitchen andcome out again afer being satiated by her imagination.
I’ve tried that, and I must admit it doesn’t work so well for me.
Incidentally, Chughtai also wrote an essay giving her take on Manto, which I haven’t been able to track down.
An Excerpt from Chughtai’s Memoirs Online
The excerpt from her autobiography published at Chowk is well worth a read. Chughtai talks about her sense of rebelliousness, which began in childhood and continued up through her decision to marry the film-writer Shahid Latif. The anecdotes she tells and her style of telling them reinforces the sense one has of Chughtai as someone with a quick wit with an extraordinary ability to use humor to point out the truth — and get her way. Here, for instance, is how, as a young girl, she convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:
“Women cook food Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.
“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.
My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.
“What do you want to do then?” he asked.
“All my brothers study. I will study too,” I said.
My uncle was assigned the job of teaching me. After a month of extensive study, day and night, I was accepted into the fourth grade at a local school. After that I got a double promotion and was promoted to grade six. I wanted to be free and without an education, a woman cannot have freedom. When an uneducated woman gets married, her husband addresses her as “stupid” or “illiterate”. When he leaves for work, she sits at home and waits for him to come back. I thought that no matter what happens, I would never be intimidated by anyone. I would learn as quickly as I could.
It’s not as if Chughtai’s family were that much more progressive than other affluent Muslim families of her generation. But Chughtai knew how to work her family members to ensure access to an education, through which she was able to get out of her parents house and eventually marry a man she herself chose.
The Obscenity Trial for ‘Lihaf’ (The Quilt); Her Account Online
Chughtai’s account of her obscenity trial in 1944, over “Lihaf,” picks up where the autobiographical sketch leaves off. This is the incident in Chughtai’s life for which she is most famous, and it’s interesting to see that at the time she took it rather lightly. She emphasizes the pleasant time she and her husband had with Manto in Lahore, where the trial was held, over the legalities and the question of whether or not her story was actually obscene.
In this memoir of her trial Chughtai does of course get into some of the specifics regarding her interest in the subject of “Lihaf,” though these discussions happen not in the actual trial, but in the informal “trial” she went through from the respectable people in her social circle. Here is her response to one of her husband’s friends, Aslam, when he criticizes her for her story:
Using a mild manner and a tone of entreaty, I said, ‘Aslam Sahib, in reality no one ever told me that writing on the subject I deal with in “Lihaf” is a sin, nor did I ever read anywhere that I shouldn’t write about this . . . disease . . . or tendency. Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.” (link)
It’s a rather ingenious defense: the issue of homoerotic desire between women was such a profoundly unspoken thing that it wasn’t necessarily clear to Chughtai that it was in fact a “sin.” (Of course, this defense doesn’t hold if you actually read the story closely — there one sees there is a strong sense of shame in the chld protagonist’s perception of the acts committed by Begum Jan and her lover, the servant Rabbo.) The second part of Chughtai’s defense of her writing may be the more important: she saw what she was doing as in some sense an act of recording. In fact, there is some indication that the story was based on real people.
Here is how Chughtai describes the actual trial:
There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that “Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their never in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of search a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ashiqs (lovers) is obscene.” “Which word is obscene,” the lawyer said. “Collecting,” or “ashiqs”? (link)
And from there the case against her begins to crumble.
The question of obscenity and censorship is still very much with us today, as many recent incidents have reminded us. The only difference now is that while representing sex acts are considered more or less acceptable in works of literature in India at least (Shobha De has never been tried for obscenity), now the censorship battleground is religion. But even if the theme is different, the arguments are the same: the question of what specifically makes a serious literary work obscene or offensive is as hard to answer now as it was in 1944. Most people recognize that there is a difference between representing an act of communal violence and celebrating or encouraging it. But somehow one still finds that the works of writers and filmmakers whose works criticize communalism — most recently, Taslima Nasreen — are banned because they “hurt religious sentiments.”
More materials online:
Fran Pritchett’s Ismat Chughtai links
An essay by Chughtai: From Bombay to Bhopal (PDF)
An essay by Chughtai: Communal Violence and Literature (PDF)
A review of Ismat: Her Life, Her Times
I also want to thank Ruchira Paul for inspiring me to do this post, and for sending me a copy of Ismat: Her Life, Her Times.