‘Ismat never minced words’

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Fresh look: Tahira Naqvi offers rare insight into Chugtai’s works.
Fresh look: Tahira Naqvi offers rare insight into Chugtai’s works.


Author and translator Tahira Naqvi on Ismat Chugtai’s works and her impact on South Asian literature.

Her writing is ironic, caustic, frank, bold and, yes, irreverent if the occasion merits it. She is merciless in her depiction of corruption, deceit, injustice and hypocrisy.

Many years after she breathed her last, Ismat Chughtai continues to inspire a fresh look at her work. Translators and critics continue to be fascinated with her writings, ranging from Lihaaf, her most debated work that was way ahead of the times with its frank portrayal of alternate sexuality in the 1940s, to Chauthi ka Jora, Terhi Lakir and Ajeeb Aadmi. Tahira Naqvi’s translation of the last book has just been brought out by Women Unlimited in India.

Incidentally, Naqvi, a U.S.-based academic, writer and translator, is a known admirer of Chughtai’s work and has spoken about “one of the pillars of Urdu fiction” with rare insight and unmatched zest at various seminars and shows. She shares her views on Chughtai, explaining why the writer is still best known for Lihaaf and why Ajeeb Aadmi, despite its cinematic potential, has not attracted a Mumbai filmmaker.

More than a decade and a half after her death, Ismat Chughtai continues to be an unexplored writer, a woman whose gender has often been highlighted to the neglect of the literary worth of her work. Is it fair?

Translations of Ismat’s work have made her accessible to Western readers and I with great pleasure note her recognition as a major South Asian woman writer in Western academic circles. Nearly every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/ Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, Ismat’s work draws as much attention as her Western peers. Seen from this angle, she’s not an unexplored writer.

However, sadly, she still has to be recognised in equal terms by her South Asian readers, although when Urdu fiction is mentioned, Ismat is given her rightful place among writers like Manto, Bedi, and Krishan Chander. The four have together been referred to as the four pillars of Urdu fiction.

As for the importance she receives as a woman rather than a great story-teller, this is perhaps a fall-out from the age-old and universal perception of literature as a male-dominated domain. Even in the West “found” women writers have only recently gained ground. So, whether it is fair that Ismat’s gender has been highlighted to the neglect of her work is perhaps not an issue we need to worry about. She herself had no such worries.

Ismat Chughtai was a wonderful writer who tackled varied subjects with remarkable poise and penetration. Isn’t it a tyranny of public perception that many remember her largely for Lihaaf only?

Well, D.H. Lawrence is best remembered for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller for Tropic of Cancer, so it’s little surprise that Ismat, and her contemporary Manto received similar treatment in India. Interestingly, both Ismat and Manto were also tried on obscenity charges. It should also be noted that there were hardly any women writing like Ismat in the West at the time, Simone De Beauvoir notwithstanding.

It is true that when Ismat’s fiction began appearing in journals and collections, Lihaaf became her trademark, the yardstick by which she was judged not only by her readers but also by her male peers. And the trend, I’m sorry to say, has continued.

Today, those who recognise her worth as a great writer of fiction and have a serious interest in her work, instantly move beyond Lihaaf to other stories like Chauthi ka Jora, Badan ki Khushbu, Kallu, Nanhi ki Nani, Amarbel, and Bichu Phupi, to name a few. Of course, Ismat’s Terhi Lakir stands on its own and is actually the place from which we can best view Ismat.

Interestingly, before Chughtai came to the public domain, women writers in Urdu were not welcome in the literary circles. Even Qurratulain Haider’s aunt wrote under a different name. Have the later generations been grateful enough for the path carved out by Chughtai and others?

Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masroor, Bano Qudsia, Altaf Fatima and many other writers have been deeply influenced by Ismat’s style and choice of subject matter. I would go so far as to say that Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz have also derived inspiration from her bold, uninhibited style of writing. It is said that writing about women was never the same after Ismat appeared on the scene. She was a major force in creating new trends in writing by and about women, encouraging a move away from the tawwa’if genre and the didactic, reformist styles of such works as Bahishti Zewar, Taubatun nasuh, and Mira’tul Arus.

In A Very Strange Man, Chughtai attempts to project the angst-ridden genius of Guru Dutt. Yet it is actually about the film industry where every loser is a loner, and every winner feted. Isn’t it also a shade too irreverent?

Ismat never minced words. Her writing is ironic, caustic, frank, bold and, yes, irreverent if the occasion merits it. She is merciless in her depiction of corruption, deceit, injustice and hypocrisy. Yet, her empathy for her characters is always evident, as is her pain for their suffering.

Chughtai continued her husband’s tradition of filmmaking, and the larger relationship of Progressive Writers and Hindi cinema. However, A Very Strange Man, which probably has greater potential for mass acceptance than many other works adapted to celluloid, continues to be neglected. Can you put a finger on the possible cause?

Ismat said, in an interview, that she had been sued by someone she had put in one of her novels and then went on to describe her “novel about life in films” without naming any actor or actress she was planning to use in her narrative.

I think the novel she was talking about was Ajeeb Aadmi and the reason she didn’t name names is the reason the novel has not been filmed as yet. A pity, because it has great potential as a film about Bombay cinema which could be, at the same time, a powerful and dramatic love story.

Finally, with translations, the newer generation in India is becoming familiar with a whole generation of writers they thought did not exist. Are they really able to appreciate the nuances, the sub-layers of the ideals they do not necessarily identify with?

For most kids not familiar with the language or the culture Ismat writes of, the translations may prove overwhelming. But they’re never dull, I’m sure, and certainly offer much food for thought. With some help from online sources and conversation with those who now have a point of reference for the works, the young , or let’s say all, readers not familiar with Ismat and her world, can find a way of appreciating the nuances and sub-texts that enrich her fiction.



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