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Fortnightly Focus:
“Authors, Issues, Ideas”
 
 

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.

CHUGHTAI OEUVRE

                           

For months 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.

Stories 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 writer-producer.

FACE-TO-FACE WITH ISMAT AAPA:

Born in 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 remains universal.

READ: REISSUED! CHUGHTAI’S PEN PORTRAITS

In 1922, 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…

Every 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…

India Today

The “LIHAAF” TRIAL

A phone 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

"Manto Sahib, please stop now," Safia said nervously.

Then the 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 divorce again.

In 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. …

We 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.

"Is this story obscene?" Manto's lawyer asked.
"Yes, sir," the witness said.
"What is the word that indicates it is obscene?"
Witness: "Bosom."
Lawyer: "My Lord the word 'bosom' is not obscene."
Judge: "Correct."
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' then?"
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.

We came 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. …

The 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."

“Which 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 proclaimed.
"Why?"
"Because...because ...thisbehaviour is improperfor respectable girls."
"It's not improper for girls who are not respectable?"
"Uh...uh ...no."
"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 agree."
"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.

BOOKS BY CHUGHTAI:

Ismat 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.

* My 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, Wild Pigeons
* 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

PRAISE FOR CHUGHTAI:

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.

The Book Review

“This [Vintage Chughtai] is an impressive collection... remarkable for the high calibre of its translation—elegant, unobtrusive, unslick, faithful and enjoyable.”

—Krishna BaldevVaid, author and playwright

Witty, personal, descriptive, anecdotal and hectoring by turns, Chughtai’s style has few equals in contemporary Indian writing.

—India Today

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.

The Hindu

ORDER YOUR COPY OF CHUGHTAI:

To order a copy of Ismat Chughtai’s books, write to womenunltd@gmail.com

Vintage Chughtai

A Chughtai Quartet

The Three Innocents, &Ors

One Drop of Blood

Quit India & Other Stories

The Crooked Line

Masooma

A Very Strange Man