Ismat Apa or Lady Chengiz Khan, or both?

Eminent Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s birth centenary fell on August 15. A tribute.

August 23, 2015 11:43 am | Updated March 29, 2016 05:00 pm IST

Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Apa needed no external tools to construct her self; she had conviction and the strength to translate her conviction into action. Nor did she require any weapons to demolish old notions or conventions. Her feminism demonstrated itself through the choices she made so naturally, so smoothly! No major battles had to be fought even when she decided she’ll wear no purdah . And her pen worked merely as a device to shear the purdah over the world of the middle-class Muslim women, their gossip and scandal, desires and urges, jealousies and tensions, rituals and traditions, as also their repressions and little rebellions.

For the first time through Ismat’s writings, ‘begumati zubaan’ entered Urdu fiction (the distinctive language of the ladies of the house) excelling in its proverbial idiom, metaphor and lacy diction. With the energy and dynamism of a pioneer, Ismat used her own lived experience, her own language and characters from her family to fearlessly reveal the world behind the veil, lying silent. This had remained almost absent in Urdu fiction till Ismat Chughtai, who regarded Rasheed Jahan as a mentor, stomped into the Urdu literary scene in the 1940s. The publication of her story ‘Lihalf’ in 1942 led to a widespread reaction and even took her to court. Ismat became a legend, someone to be surrounded by controversies. So much so, that even after she passed away, researchers have been arguing about the year of her birth: Was it 1911 or 1915?

An easy intertextuality is evidenced in Ismat’s stories, her autobiography Kaghazi hai Pairahan and her novels Tedhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) and Aik Qatra Khoon (A Drop of Blood). The line between the actual life and experience of Ismat Chughtai and the fiction that she created melted for her. The members of her family, the servants of her household, her friends became the characters of her stories, sometimes with the same names as in life. The episodes and relationships that she goes through become the context of her fiction. At times the same episodes are narrated in her autobiography, novels and short-stories. Ismat’s acerbic wit, her linguistic prowess and her smart sense of humour combine to make her writings most readable. In fact, her contemporary, the well-known writer, Krishan Chander, compared the pace of Ismat’s sentences with the galloping of horses!

Ismat’s person, her life and her fiction, merge into one another. To know one of them, inevitably means having to know the other as well. Ismat’s sense of self evolved through her confrontation with the reality of her ‘formative years’: she records at least two such experiences in ‘Caravan Dust’ (a chapter in her autobiography) — the haunting experience of crackling cane on the fingers of the child and her exposure to the painful image of the arrow stuck in the throat of Ali Asgher. Her progressivism sprouted and grew from such experiences of injustice and exploitation rather than from any theory. Much of Ismat’s research comprised listening to women talking to one another, while hiding under the bed as a child, interacting with servants and gathering stories from real life situations. The critic, Fuzail Jaffery, describes Ismat’s art as photography, not painting, precisely due to the authenticity of reproduction of domestic truths seen in Ismat’s fiction. She entered the psyche of the nannies, servants, old and young women of the house and with her keen and perceptive observations, she wrote story after story bringing alive a whole culture of Muslim households.

Ismat calls her autobiography Kaghazi hai Pairahan , an expression borrowed from Ghalib’s first verse in his Diwan . She is conscious of her role of a complainant seeking justice on behalf of the weak, the exploited and the needy. She stands as a witness, as it were, in the court of justice narrating true stories. Wearing the ‘papery apparel’ to present her complaints and confessions, Ismat entered the literary scene as though giving a clarion call for awareness and change. Ismat Chughtai became a legend while she was alive primarily because of her story ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt). She would not confirm: Let the world, said she, be compelled to accommodate and modify itself.

Ismat had declared “while writing I imagined that my readers were sitting before me. I was talking to them — like storytellers in the oral tradition, I narrate stories to my audience.” The audience is a crowd. But she also wrote many letters to individuals, many of which she did not post! In a letter written to Ramlal, the eminent Urdu writer, Ismat Chughtai discusses Radha’s love for Krishna and the unconventional role of the woman as the lover, and the man as the beloved. Ismat’s forthright ideas, fearless and dynamic mind combined to produce a large body of fiction that corroborated with her own style of living.

When Qurratulain Hyder emerged on the Urdu literary scene as a ‘modern’ intellectual and writer, Ismat wrote ‘Pom Pom Darling’, an article in which Ismat ranted against the upper class as a world of fossilised characters. Much later, after Ismat died, Qurratulain Hyder, by now an eminent writer, wrote a piece on Ismat ‘Lady Chengiz Khan’ and said: “In the battle-field of Urdu literature, Ismat was a Chughtai, equestrian and an archer who never missed a mark. Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder — Ismat Apa and Annie Apa as they were affectionately called — stand as two strong pillars among some others, over which rests the edifice of Urdu fiction of the modern times.”

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