Feminism is the radical notion that women are people said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded definitio...

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Book Review of Ismat Chughtai's works : A Trio of Collections of Her Writings

Shame on me, for I have only recently realised the full import of Ismat Chughtai's writing and what the heritage of her work means for feminism in India. It is even more astounding to think how much impact her writing must have made on her contemporaries, specially women and girls. Undoubtedly, she must have ruffled many a feather of the establishment!

Admittedly, I don't know much of her position in the Urdu literary pantheon, nor how she was looked upon by her contemporaries. But it isn't too difficult to see that she is a huge iconoclast of her times. What delights me the most about her writing is that she pulled no punches and in essay after essay she has blasted people, naming names and shaming people. I barely suppress a chortle as I imagine her delight in pissing off the establishment of the day.

I base my observations on the three books which I read recently, "A Life In Words-Memoirs" and "Lifting the Veil-Selected Writings" both translated by M.Asaduddin. The third book is "My Friend, My Enemy" a collection of essays, reminiscences and portraits, translated by Tahira Naqvi.

A little personal note here. I read all three books recently over a span of a few days, while on vacation. Having never lived alone, I was now vacationing for the first time by myself, enjoying the absolute solitude this time away from responsibilities afforded me. And here was a woman who lived well over half a century ago, on her own terms when it was unfathomable to do so.
She had courage and grit I could never dream of, setting on her own path from a tender age. A generation ago, she dared to be a non conformist when being one was not only difficult it could literally cost you your life.

She fought tooth and nail to gain an education, telling her parents she'd run away from home if they didn't let her pursue her matriculation. Though from a progressive family, Chughtai's parents were forced to withdraw their two elder daughters from school on pressure from the extended family. Dark hints about the girls' loss of character left the parent perturbed. The final clincher had been "who will marry them?". One relative went so far as to say "better to pimp your girls rather than send them to school" With this background her fight becomes all the more poignant and her courage, more stark. The subversive power of her characters and stories hits you like a blow to the gut.

A lot of her personality is reflected in her writing. Smart, witty and full of satire, her metaphors are at once rooted in the ethos of her times but also lyrical and beautifully evocative. You can see her sympathies lie with the women in her stories and you can't help but be swept along. The poor beggar woman, who, it turns out is also a thief, in "Tiny's Granny" yet leaves you bereft in mourning for her loss. The heartbreaking story of the two women who live and die in the hope of one of them getting married off, in "The Wedding Suit" leave you with a lump in your throat. "Vocation" is a cleverly told tale where the protagonist casts aspersions on her neighbours; she assumes them to be prostitutes. Later, on revelation that they belong to the aristocracy, she's taken aback. This serves to highlight the hypocrisy and sexism of our society in our attitudes towards women.

Some of her most beautiful and thoroughly fleshed out sketches of scenes and characters are of childhood, be it from her memoirs or her short stories like "The Net". Her most well known story "Lihaaf-The Quilt" for which she was prosecuted by the British government, with charges of obscenity, is included in the collection. An account of this trial is also incorporated in her memoirs.

Personally the most searing piece of her writing, to me, remains the short story "Gainda". A poignant tale of how a little girl from a lower caste is sexually exploited by an upper class man, then slut-shamed, and abandoned, once it's discovered that she is pregnant with his child. The psychology of the child and her playmate is brilliantly explored. The image of the frail Gainda in her hovel living in false hope has not left me.

Over five decades have passed and much of our attitudes towards women remain unchanged. That's the sad reality of our country.
 A path breaking feminist of her times and an iconoclast to boot; Ismat Chughtai's works are a must read!

          BOOK : A Life In Words (Memoirs)
                       (Translation of Kaghazi Hai Pairahan by M.Asaduddin)
PUBLISHER : Penguin Books 2012
                         278 pages

          BOOK:  Lifting The Veil (Selected Writings)
                        (Translations by M.Asaduddin)
PUBLISHER : Penguin India 2009
                        261 pages

         BOOK  : My Friend, My Enemy (Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits)
                        (Translation by Tahira Naqvi)
PUBLISHER : Kali for Women 2001
                         284 pages


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