Balance gone awry

Ismat Chugtai's aesthetic works in her fiction. In non-fiction, she comes across as contradictory and unthinking, says ASHLEY TELLIS.

THIS is a deeply disappointing book. There are several reasons for this. There is Tahira Naqvi who is an abominable translator (the book is rife with bad translations, clumsy formulations and wrong English), there is Alpana Khare's unimaginative cover and there is Tahira Naqvi again, this time with a banal and insufferable introduction to this selection of Chughtai's prose writings, trotting out all the usual cliches about Chughtai.

But the most disappointing thing about My Friend, My Enemy is Ismat Chughtai herself. She proves herself a rambling, anecdotal, frequently tiresome prose writer and certainly no literary critic (to her credit, she admits this); even her reminiscences and portraits lack any organising principles or emotive coherence. The "Essays" section begins with a round-up of all the writing on Partition which is seriously damaged by her pedestrian notion of Progressive realism. She listlessly catalogues novels and what they are about, faulting them for lack of verisimilitude. She forwards an essentialist and offensive notion of motherhood (that she surely should have examined) making unbelievable statements like "she's [the figure of Mother India] still a woman and a woman can never tolerate a mockery of the mother-child relationship nor deliberately attack it". She offers a vulgarised reading of Manto, accusing him of shock tactics, even when she spent half her energies otherwise defending him, if badly, against that charge.

Then there is a confused and contradictory defence of the erotic in contemporary writing. On the one hand, Chugtai somewhat bafflingly says that people are poor in India and should read more erotic literature; that most of them are illiterate does not cross her mind. On the other, she reprimands people for seeing biology text books as "titillation only (sic)" and not illustrative of "medical principles". Again, she defends the erotic under all circumstances as being educative and liberatory, yet complains that when the really important bits are elsewhere in her writing, people only read the erotic sections.

"Heroine" continues this unreconstructed rambling. It surveys the ways women are portrayed in writing, especially by men and examines types like the respectable housewife, the tawaif and the working woman. However, though the plea at the end of the piece is to recognise women as just women, the types are not examined enough, the defence of the tawaif ranges from the weak to the problematic (they need reform, she says) and compulsory heterosexuality remains unexamined throughout. The essentialism of being seen just as women (are females always women?) appears to be questioned in "Aurat", yet Chughtai retains the traditional notion that women have an intrinsic feminity they should employ only outside the work space - even as she criticises Russian women for defeminising themselves in the workplace.

The contradictions and lack of reflection in Chugtai's hastily dashed musings can get exasperating. It is unimaginable that such a fine writer of fiction can be so unthinking in her non-fiction. This becomes glaringly apparent in her piece on the "Lihaaf" in the next section. It comes as a staggering shock that Chughtai did not stand by the radical sexual aesthetic of what is perhaps her finest story, that she was ashamed of it, regretted writing it, and went through the trial for it in such a lacklustre fashion. One can only share with Manto his wrath at her cowardice and lack of principles as a writer and defender of the erotic.

The last section is a set of portraits. The one on Manto shows that she cared for him less than she cared for judging him and leaves us with a deep sense of pain at his fate and her growing indifference to it. "Chirag Roshan Hai", her famous portrait of Krishen Chander is a moving account of the enigmatic writer, but content with the enigmatic resonance of anecdote, Chughtai does not build on her insights. There is a small and powerful vignette of filmstar singer Suraiya which is evocative of the film industry in its early days. Her portrait of Meeraji, however, is surprisingly misogynist and homophobic. Meeraji took on the name because of his love for one Meera Sen. Chughtai accuses her (Sen) of turning him to "pulp" and then wonders, "How can any intelligent woman associate herself with such a weakling, who is proud to play the role of a wife?" This, from a so-called feminist writer, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

Ismat Chughtai comes across as an individualist and a spirited writer who did not think deeply of art even as she drank deeply of life. Stick to her fiction. Her ingenuous aesthetic works there, representing the complex nature of the realities she sees with the right balance of verisimilitude and individual spirit. In non-fiction, this balance goes awry and the result is nothing short of embarrassing.

My Friend, My Enemy, Ismat Chugtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi, Kali for Women.