Literary Review

Literature as subversion

Misogynist violence seems to be integral to the fabric of our society. The emotional and verbal space is ruthlessly colonised by men so as to evict women into a state of subjugation and silence.

In the wake of the global rape epidemic and violence against women, Ismat Chughtai’s work becomes all the more pertinent. Taking hypocrisy and sexual oppression as integral to women’s daily routine, Chughtai uses her fiction to create a disquiet that reverberates through her works. The brilliance of her writing and its social critique is motivated by an act of resistance to a violent world that calls for change.

Chughtai’s four novellas are replete with examples of patriarchal control and everyday threats to the dignity of women. The novellas span a period of over 30 years from 1939 to 1971, showing the trajectory of Chughtai’s literary development and its inherent preoccupation with the lives of women replete with pain and tragedy as well as the struggle the individual wages against the unyielding mindset of traditional social norms.

Take the example of her story, Wild Pigeon, where the silent rebellion of the central character, Abida, against the adultery of her husband bestows on her a quiet dignity as well as a stature that breaks the conventional stereotypes of a submissive woman. Her silence, obstinacy and equipoise through the long painful aftermath of the discovery of her husband Majid’s extra-marital affair, leaves her in a dominant position compared to her cringing and repentant husband who craves for the past when they loved each other so passionately. He is finally reduced to the realisation that he is a ‘stupid, third class, deficient creature.’ In the face of overwhelming odds, she gains through her subversion of masculinity, thus establishing the basic fact that women in such despondent situations are really not dependent or vulnerable. The story of Abida and Majid exposes the deeply entrenched two-facedness and insincerity of a way of life that characterises our social behaviour.

Chughtai’s counter narrative of a woman’s fight against male dominance and the sad plight of Aunt Quidsia in her novella, The Heart Breaks Free, underlines the writer’s overall agenda of subversive ideology that would unsettle a rigid traditional society: ‘Was it a brat or a funeral? Life’s doors are shut on a young, frail girl; she wants to create a world of dreams and open a small window in it. But the stupid people around her don’t allow it because she threatens their beliefs. And what happened? She shatters their beliefs and turns away from them.’

Her marvellous skill with language and storytelling has indeed resulted in the creation of some of the most powerful women characters in world literature. The portrayal of the charming servant girl Asha in The Wild One and her love for Puran is ideologically forceful in that it stands up against class differences with her refusal to submit to the demands of society that disallow a relationship between a menial and the master.

As with her literary forerunner Rashid Jahan’s disregard for the restrictions of being seen in public, Chughtai creates the figure of Bua in The Heart Breaks Free, the eccentric rebel who allows no constraints on her freedom. It is relevant here to emphasise that both Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai were part of the socially conscious Progressive Writer’s Movement, both free thinkers and rebels to the core. ‘She spoiled me because she was very bold and would speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her,’ Chughtai wrote in her memoirs. Of Rashid Jahan’s writing, Chughtai would say: ‘The handsome heroes and pretty heroines of my stories, the candle-like fingers, the lime blossoms and crimson blossoms all vanished… the earthy Rashid Jahan shattered all my ivory idols to pieces… Life, stark and naked, stood before me.’

Writing about the lives and deprivation of women, Ismat Chughtai’s collection of stories, novels and novellas as well as her essays have helped women to transform despair and apathy in the face of overwhelming social and gender inequality, into heroic rebellion and constructive transformation, thereby bringing a new way of considering the world and freeing it from the assumptions and social outlook that threaten the rightful position of women in our society.

A Chughtai Quartet; Ismat Chughtai, trs. by Tahira Naqvi, Women Unlimited, Rs.400.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 12:42:37 AM |

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