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An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai review: Lifting the veil

An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil Oxford University Press ₹357  

Literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil’s lucid and persuasive ‘Introduction’ to Ismat Chugtai in An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chugtai serves as an eminently readable preamble to this valuable book on “one of the most provocative and rebellious writers in Urdu.” Ismat Chugtai (1911-1991), of whom her contemporary in arms, the younger Qurratulain Hyder said, “...she dared to raise the veil of hypocrisies in Indian society,” wrote voluminously and fearlessly.

However, as Jalil herself says, “I was appalled to discover that — given Ismat’s popularity — there has been very little critical work on her. Yes, she is a major writer, everyone agrees, yet no one has taken the trouble to tell us exactly why and how. Urdu scholarship has been especially niggardly in this respect.” This book is “...an attempt to make amends, and to redress a wrong.” Jalil rises to the task of exploring such an interesting and inadequately documented subject with adept empathy and purpose.

Brutally candid

Ismat Chugtai’s eminence among Indian writers in Urdu is matched only by her forthright writing on feminism and sexuality, and her brutally candid defence of her work in the face of the controversies that, perhaps inevitably, hounded her afterward.

She is remembered as much for her “five collections of short stories, seven novels, and three novellas, alongside several sketches, plays, reportage, and radio plays” as her difficult relationship with the powerful Progressive Writers Movement, and the charges of obscenity levelled against her, particularly for her short story Lihaf (The Quilt).

If the opening chapter in this book is likely to make every reader wish for a handy Ismat omnibus, the one that follows (‘Disorderly Discernments: How Does One Look through What can be Seen’ by academic Geeta Patel) breaks the pace with abstruse observations such as this on Ismat’s Ek Shohar ki Khatir (For the Sake of a Husband): “This journey allegorizes an arced archive of theoretical entailments...Fleshed out through the somatics of living curved into looking and telling, this archive materialises as space dense with synesthestic textures absorbed into the narrative’s ambience, minutiae as both process and progress.”

The discourse comes with a helpful list of additional reading and nearly 10 pages of explanatory notes. The title (‘An Uncivil Woman’) is borrowed from another paper with the same name, also by Patel. Both the chapter here, and the book, recover quickly and fortunately to be nearly as accessible as Ismat’s own prose, which appears in delightful snatches across the pages.

Fiercely independent

Pakistani writer-translator Tahira Naqvi’s ‘Looking for Ismat Chugtai: Journeys in Reading and Translation’ is guileless in its affection for the intensely compelling woman and writer that was Ismat. “A 100 years after her birth, everyone wants a piece of her. She obliges,” Naqvi writes. “I have written extensively about her, translated nearly all of her major works, thought about her, dreamt about her, spoken about her and answered, tentatively always, questions about her work, or my translations of her work, and have come away with a sense of having just about scratched the surface.”

She weaves personal recollection and experienced scholarship into her humbling assessment of the “‘unselfconscious’ Feminist” who “constantly invites scrutiny.”

The groundwork now firmly in place, the book expands its ambit with readings that include Fatima Rizvi’s exploration of ‘Gender, Modernity, and Nationalist Sensibility in Terhi Lakeer’, which she describes as Ismat’s quasi-autobiographical bildungsroman.

There’s Carlo Coppola’s longish 1972 interview for Mahfil with Ismat herself, in which the Grand Doyenne of Urdu fiction says of both praise and condemnation, “I did not take it very seriously in any case,” and which concludes with ‘[At this point, the interviewee begins to interview the interviewer.]’

Another gem is Qurratulain Hyder’s loving recollection of ‘Ismat Apa’ in ‘Lady Chenghez Khan’, in a translation by Deeba Zafir, which begins with Ismat’s passing.

A precious find is legendary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s short essay on ‘The Sex Appeal of Ismat Chugtai’s Language,’ originally titled simply as ‘Ismat Chugtai’, in a translation by Mohammad Asim Siddiqui, in which he clarifies that he writes of “a certain sexual element” in Ismat’s writing not “ironically or by way of censure but only in a descriptive manner,” and where he, too, touches upon Ismat’s difficult relationship with the Progressive Writers’ Movement.

Eight of the 14 chapters appear in translation, culled painstakingly from obscure archival sources, making Ismat further accessible to a new generation of readers.

The final chapter is aptly again in Ismat’s own no-nonsense voice (‘The Dirt is in Their Minds’), this time in English, in an edited 1985 interview with Asif Aslam Farrukhi for the Herald, Karachi.

The throbbing heart of this book is, in fact, Ismat herself. What it must have been like to know her, the reader may wonder, a woman who wrote and lived with such breathtaking honesty. She is a force of nature in these pages, akin to a gloriously refreshing rainstorm in a parched summer, and this labour of love and erudition by Jalil and her contributors make her nearly as tangible.

An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai; Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, Oxford University Press, ₹357.


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