As our physical world continues to remain restricted,
largely out of bounds, and we all look for different ways to stay
connected to the people we love and the things we love to do, Women
Unlimited brings your favourite authors and their writings a little
closer to you, our dedicated community of readers. We present
Fortnightly Favourites: Authors, Issues, Ideas, a focus on an author,
an issue or an idea that we explore through our books.
now, we have been to trying to adjust, physically and mentally, to what
everyone is calling, ‘the new normal’. That basically translates into
work and more work, since a typical day is usually choc-a-block with
either domestic chores or work deadlines, leaving little room for some
much-needed ‘me’ time. So here's what we propose: everyday, take some
time out for yourself, take a break from the many, many digital devices
that have come to rule our lives and our time, and instead find a quiet
corner to curl up with one of India's most loved and lauded Urdu
storyteller—the incredible Ismat Chughtai.
provide a way fun, engaging way to understand life; they sometimes
offer simple solutions to the most complex problems and situations; at
other times they are supremely therapeutic and, of course, highly
entertaining! Chughtai's works give her readers a ringside view of her
life and times; of the struggles and triumphs of women; of childhood,
womanhood, loves, ideologies, and the triumphs of an insurmountable
human spirit–in short, a power-packed canvas of delightful tales. Over
the next fortnight, we will share some of her best works here, along
with interesting titbits from her life as a novelist, her engagement
with the Progressive Writers' Movement, and being a Bollywood film
WITH ISMAT AAPA:
1915, Ismat Chughtai was educated at Aligarh Muslim University, and was
briefly associated with the Progressive Writers' Movement, started by
Premchand, in Lucknow. She began writing at a time when the voices of
women writers were still muffled, and any attempt on their part to
write poetry or fiction was viewed as “intellectual vagrancy”. An
intense individualist and iconoclast long before it was fashionable to
be so, Chughtai's life has been an inspiring struggle against
conservatism. She writes about the lives of ordinary people with
sensitivity and humour. Little cameos spring to life as she details
fine nuances of conversation and delineates completely believable
characters. Her central concern is to tell the truth as she sees it.
The flavour of an entire culture can be savoured in her work, yet it
READ: REISSUED! CHUGHTAI’S PEN PORTRAITS
Ismat Chughtai successfully defended herself against a charge of
obscenity for her short story, Lihaaf (The Quilt), in which she
explored areas of sexuality that were considered taboo. This is
humorous excerpt from our newly eissued, My Friend, My
Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits describes the time she received her summons for
a trial in Lahore. Read on…
chapter [in My Friend, My Enemy] bristles
with words, phrases, sentences, even paragraphs that clamour to be
quoted. Witty, personal, descriptive, anecdotal and hectoring by turns…
call from Manto informed us that he too had been charged with obscenity
and his case was also scheduled for the same day in the same court. A
short while later he and Safia came over. Manto looked so happy, as if
he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. My heart was heavy with regret,
but I was putting up a brave front. However, Shahid felt better after
he talked to Manto and I was also greatly comforted by him. I had been
feeling very apprehensive, but Manto's exuberance banished all my fears
Sahib, please stop now," Safia said nervously.
letters filled with profanities began arriving. Directed not only
against me but the whole family—Shahid and my two-month old daughter
whose birth had been announced somewhere in the news—were insults that
were so unusual and coarse that if they were uttered in the presence of
a corpse it would come back to life and run.
A lot of
people put on a great show of bravado but they'rescared out of their
wits if they see a dead rat. I'm terrified of slippery slime, lizards
and blood-sucking chameleons. I was terrified of my mail. I felt as if
tbe envelopes contained snakes, scorpions and monsters. I would 'open a
letter apprehensively, and if I glimpsed snakes and scorpions I would
read the letter quickly and immediately burn it. But if any of these
letters happened to fall into Shahid's hands we would be talking of
addition to the letters were the articles in the newspapers, and the
discussions that took place in private gatherings that only someone as
hardened as I could tolerate. I never responded to anything. I never
refused to admit my mistake. Yes, I had made a mistake. I was
confessing to my crime. Manto was the only person who was enraged by
this cowardly behaviour on my part. I was against myself. But he
supported me. …
appeared in court on the designated day. The witnesses present today
were to prove that Manto's "Bu" (Smell) and my "Lihaaf'' are both
obscene. My lawyer explained carefully that until I was questioned
directly I was not to open my mouth. He would say whatever he deemed
proper. "Bu's" turn came first.
story obscene?" Manto's lawyer asked.
"Yes, sir," the witness said.
"What is the word that indicates it is obscene?"
Lawyer: "My Lord the word 'bosom' is not obscene."
Lawyer: "The word 'bosom' is not obscene, then?"
Witness: "No, but here it is used for a woman's chest."
Suddenly Manto jumped to his feet.
"If I don't call a woman's chest 'bosom,' should I call it 'peanuts'
Laughter broke out in the court. Manto was also laughing.
"If the prisoner engages in this type of tawdry humour again he will
either be thrown out on contempt of court charges or he will be fined."
Manto's lawyer whispered in his ear, telling him he should behave,
after which he calmed down.
The discussion then continued, during which the witnesses kept
returning again and again to the word 'bosom'.
"If the word 'bosom' is obscene, then why aren't the words'knee' or
'elbow' obscene, too?" I asked Manto.
"This is all rubbish!" Manto was angry again. Arguments continued.
out and sat down on the wobbly benches in the verandah. Ahmed Nadeem
Qasmi, who was with us in court, had brought along a basket of oranges.
He showed us how to eat an orange gracefully. Soften the orange gently,
make a small hole at one end the way you do in a mango, and then suck
on it with ease. We finished off the basket of oranges as we sat there.
Once we had eaten all the oranges we felt really hungry, and during
lunch break we raided a hotel. After Seema's birth I had lost a lot of
weight and now I didn't have to abstain from rich foods. The chicken
pieces on our plates were so large they seemed to have come from a
vulture or an eagle. Chicken sprinkled with coarse black pepper, eaten
with steaming hot qulchas and washed down with the juice of Kandahari
pomegranates instead of water—good wishes gushed forth from our hearts
for those who had brought us to court. …
that day was packed. Several people had been urging us to offer our
apologies to the judge. They were even ready to pay the fines on our
behalf. By now the proceedings had lost some of their verve, with the
witnesses who were there to prove that "Lihaaf' was obscene, quite
confused and befuddled at this point. No one had succeeded in finding a
word that could be easily denounced. After going through the text
minutely a gentleman said, "The sentence 'she was collecting ashiqs'
(lovers) is obscene."
word is obscene,"thelawyerasked,"collected,'or ‘ashiq ’?”
"The word 'ashiq,’” the witness said uneasily.
"My Lord, the word 'ashiq' has been used frequently by the
greatest poets, and has also been used in na'ats. This is a word that
has been afforded a special place by the devout."
"But it is highly improper for girls to collect 'ashiqs,"' the witness
"Because...because ...thisbehaviour is improperfor respectable girls."
"It's not improper for girls who are not respectable?"
"My client has mentioned girls who are perhaps not respectable. So
according to you sir, non-respectable girls do collect ashiqs?"
"Yes. It's not obscene for these girls to mention such words, but for
an educated woman from a respectable family to write about these girls
merits condemnation!" the witness thundered. "So please condemn as much
as you like, but does it meritincrimination?"
The case crumbled.
"If you apologise we will pay all your fines and ..." a man came up and
whispered in my ear.
"Well, Manto Sahib, shall we offer an apology?" I asked Manto. "We'll
use the money we get to do a lot of shopping."
"Rubbish!" Manto widened his eyes.
I turned to the man and said, 'I’m sorry, but Manto is crazy, he won't
"But even if you, if you alone ..."
"No," I said in a serious tone, "you don't know what a troublemaker
this man is. He'll make it impossible for me to livein Bombay. The
punishment I'm supposed to receive here will be several times better
than his fury."
The case was closed and we didn't receive any punishment.
The gentleman's face fell.
Judge Sahib called me to his chambers and greeted me very warmly.
"I've read nearly all your stories and they're not obscene, nor is
'Lihaaf' obscene. But there's a lot of filth in Manto's writing."
"But the world is filled with filth," I said meekly.
"But is it necessary to fling it about?"
"Flinging it makes it visible and one's attention can be drawn to the
process of cleansing."
Judge Sahib burst out laughing.
We had not been not been shaken up by the case nor did winning it make
us happy. As a matter of fact we were saddened, because who knew when
we would have the opportunity to visit Lahore again.
Chughtai is the author of several collections of
short stories, four novellas, three novels, a collection of
reminiscences and essays, and a memoir. Here’s our complete booklist of
Chughtais, translated from the original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi.
Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits
* Vintage Chughtai: A Selection of her Best Stories
* A Chughtai Quartet: The Heart Breaks Free, The Wild One, Obsession,
* One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala
* The Crooked Line: a novel
* The Three Innocents, &Ors.:Chughtai on Childhood
* Quit India! & Other Stories
* Masooma: a novel
* A Very Strange Man: a novel
Ismat Chughtai is considered one of the four pillars
of modern Urdu fiction, the other three being Sa’adat Hasan Manto,
Krishan Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi.
“This [Vintage Chughtai] is an impressive
collection... remarkable for the high calibre of its
translation—elegant, unobtrusive, unslick, faithful and enjoyable.”
BaldevVaid, author and playwright
Witty, personal, descriptive, anecdotal and hectoring
by turns, Chughtai’s style has few equals in contemporary Indian
With the energy and dynamism of a pioneer, Ismat used
her own lived experience, her own language and characters from her
family to fearlessly reveal the world behind the veil, lying silent.
This had remained almost absent in Urdu fiction till Ismat Chughtai.
YOUR COPY OF CHUGHTAI:
To order a
copy of Ismat Chughtai’s books, write to email@example.com
Three Innocents, &Ors
Drop of Blood
India & Other Stories
Very Strange Man