A tribute to the underrated and unsung Urdu writer Wajeda Tabassum, who died recently…

Wajeda Tabassum, the noted Urdu short-story writer and novelist, has died. She was born in Amravati in 1935 and died in Mumbai on December 7, 2010. She was the third in the trinity of Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder that represented modern Urdu women's writing. While Hyder and, to a lesser extent, Chughtai have been accommodated in the mainstream (i.e. male) Urdu canon, Tabassum's stories are ghettoised by their common theme of feudal Hyderabadi society and its sexual tensions. Most of her story collections are out of print and she has not been taken up by the English-language women's presses in India for translation unlike her two senior contemporaries. In 1960, she married her cousin Ashfaq, against her family's wishes and they fled to Mumbai where she lived till the end. Brought up in Hyderabad, she did her MA in Urdu from Osmania University.

Her short story “Utran” was controversial when it was first published in 1977 but its several adaptations — Mira Nair's “Kamasutra”, Lilette Dubey's “Womanly Voices” (as a play) and the eponymous “Utran” currently being broadcast on Colors TV which also loosely follows the plot — pay tribute to Tabassum's ability to write fiction across the gulf of the popular and the literary. Like Jane Austen's two inches of ivory, she kept working on the rusted silver of Hyderabadi feudal culture with two constant points of focus: the woman's body in the zenana and the idiom of Hyderabadi Urdu (which she faithfully transcribes in her prose). These two were, in complementary ways, taboos in mainstream Urdu fiction at the time she began writing.

Wajeda Tabassum's depiction of the repression of women's sexual drives in a feudal sharif marriage (“Nath ka ghurur”, “Zara hor upar”) and the sexual exploitation of the lower-class woman in the same social set-up (“Talakh! Talakh! Talakh!”, “Ladki Bazaar”) was always heavy with a sense of social justice. Writing about social and sexual justice, however, never undermined her sharply witty style. She also insisted on her religious faith and its effect on her writing which seems to affiliate the stories with the status quo but their dramatic energy does not always allow for that. In Tabassum's stories, the confines of domesticity are both dangerous and exciting, the narrators gossipy, the women boldly curious about their bodies, and they often end in a flourish of sweet subaltern revenge such as at the climactic end of “Utran” where the servant girl, insulted through the story for wearing the cast-offs of her madam by her snooty madam, has her madam's to-be-husband for dinner (on the night of the marriage) and gives him to her madam as a cast-off.

She published a novel Zar, Zan, Zamin in 1989 about the traffic in women as part of the normal course of social interactions in polite society and political circles. Tabassum also wrote lyrics for the Hindi film “Jiyala” produced by her husband. Wajeda Tabassum died after a long illness which had left her bed-ridden for the last several years.

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