The author as the central character

April 03, 2012 02:01 am | Updated 02:01 am IST

A LIFE IN WORDS — Memoirs: by Ismat Chughtai, Translated by M Asaduddin; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

A LIFE IN WORDS — Memoirs: by Ismat Chughtai, Translated by M Asaduddin; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

The pages of Ismat Chughtai's memoirs available for the first time in English come alive with her irrepressible spirit. We are allowed a glimpse into her personal life and her large family with a maze of siblings and relatives, her fight against obscenity charges and her struggle for education. Her free will permeates the book whether she is throwing a shoe at her brother or fighting with her parents to let her study and you begin to realise how monumental her struggle against the system and Muslim society of those days must have been. She was born in 1911, when education for girls was anathema. Throughout there is a deep gratitude for her education which did not come easily.

Family escapades

It is difficult not to enjoy her family escapades, and her experiences of evading a future as a daughter- in-law of a Nawab Sahib. Her romantic essay on the interlude with Zia is one of the best parts of the book and she manages to be amusing and tender at the same time. Her language reflects the impulsiveness of her character and she jumps from one thing to another but there is a running thread of defiance and independence throughout. She is clearly a woman who cannot suffer fools or hypocrisy and set a benchmark with her frank writing.

The chapter where she describes her encounter with the law over her famous story Lihaaf is both funny and capricious. She laughs on hearing of her summons for writing an obscene story and refuses to accept it. She annoys her husband by saying she has a great desire to see a prison house and later sends up a thanksgiving prayer to the Crown of England for providing her a chance to have a good time in Lahore. A suit was filed against Sadat Hasan Manto too and they appeared in court the same day. Manto like her is looking forward to a freezing winter in Lahore tempered with fried fish with whiskey and blood red maltas.

Chughtai braved the onslaught of hate mail and says, “Only a hard-hearted person like me could endure them. I never retaliated, nor did I refuse to admit my mistake.”

As a child she made a racket in the majlis over the baby Ali Asghar's throat being pierced by an arrow by the Caliph Yezid and had to be thrown out. This later became part of her family lore. But she mentions another incident which left a deep impression on her and that has to do with her Hindu friends and the prevailing notions of defilement.

The occasion where she picks up a silver Krishna only to create a storm in her neighbour Lalaji's household is both moving and hilarious. She is critical of childhood which forms the basis of her short story Bachpan.

She offers a striking portrait of her father and gives an account of his resourcefulness at a time when relations between Hindus and Muslims were becoming more and more tenuous. Her mother too and her aunts and numerous cousins and friends live through Chughtai's eyes. While the translation gives you some idea of her style, one almost wishes to read her in the original.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.