↑ Grab this Headline Animator

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ismat chughtai - aisha lee shaheed

Speaking from the margins

Aisha Lee Shaheed

“Purdah had already been imposed on me, but my tongue was an unsheathed sword. No one could restrain it,” said Ismat

The ‘short story’ is the most curious of literary genres. At times anecdotal, at times personal, the short story has the capacity to compel the reader, who usually consumes it in a single sitting. The short story is an understated form. At its worst, it can appear trivial and at its best, offer a thumbnail sketch of a character, place or event. Sometimes its very semblance of triviality allows it to mask a deeper political objective.

The Urdu short story is a relatively recent development, in a language whose literature is better known for its poetry. In pre-Partition India a dedicated group of writers were attracted to the Progressive Movement, which flourished through the 1930s to 1950s. The Urdu prong of the movement included many respected authors, such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto, the latter an accomplished and controversial short story writer. Sifting through the many lists which have been compiled of Progressive Writers, a handful of names stand out by virtue of their gender, the most recurring being that of Ismat Chugtai.

Those who are well-versed in the texts and debates of modern Urdu literature will probably recognise Ismat’s name immediately. For those who are not, a cursory glance shows that one facet of her life and work is invariably brought to light: in 1945, Ismat Chugtai went to trial in Lahore for an obscenity charge brought against her for her short story, ‘Lihaaf’ (‘The quilt’).

Perhaps it is startling that in the 1940s a middle-class, educated Muslim woman would have published a story deemed so controversial by the authorities. However, it is less startling if one is familiar with Ismat’s character. Fiercely independent, she persuaded her parents to allow her to attend school at Aligarh, literally discarded her burqa any time she was compelled to wear it, refused an arranged engagement, and later married the man of her choice. Reflecting on her life, Ismat wrote: “I was a madcap – outspoken and ill-mannered. Purdah had already been imposed on me, but my tongue was an unsheathed sword. No one could restrain it.”

Born in Uttar Pradesh in 1911, Ismat was one of ten children. Their father was of a liberal disposition, especially when it came to his daughters. Ismat was initially educated at home with her siblings, including her brother Azeem Beg who also went on to achieve literary fame. Though receiving a primary education was encouraged, her family was perplexed at Ismat’s insistence that she wanted to take her matriculation exam and go to teacher’s training college. Their contentions went unheeded, and in 1939 Ismat had completed her BA from the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow and received her teaching certificate. During her university career, she began associating with the writers of the Progressive Movement, and in 1938 published her first short story, ‘Kafir’, about a Muslim girl and her Hindu boyfriend.

Around 1940, Ismat left her position as a headmistress in Jodhpur to become an inspector of schools in Bombay. Whilst there, she met her future husband Shahid Lateef, an up-and-coming film director working for Bombay Talkies. Against the will of her brother, Mirza Jaseem Beg, Ismat married Shahid in 1942. She would comment later: “Though marriage is supposed to toll the death-knell of friendship, ours survived with tremendous stubbornness.”

Months before their marriage, ‘Lihaaf’ was published in a collection of short stories entitled Adab-e-latif. By this time, Ismat had published numerous stories, plays and other prose works and thought nothing out of the ordinary about this most recent submission. She and Shahid married, and their daughter Seema was born in October 1944. In December, an astonished and amused Ismat received a summons: ‘Lihaaf’ had been declared pornographic and she was to travel to the Lahore High Court for the trial.

‘Lihaaf’ was one of many of Ismat’s tales, most of which were culled from the people she observed. The story dealt with the lesbian love of a woman and her maid. Even liberal-thinkers at the time, who could accept interclass relationships, could not tolerate the theme of same-sex love. Neither could the authorities. Leaving behind her two month-old child, Ismat ventured to Lahore for the trial. Charges had also been brought against Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi, who had published the story, and the hapless calligrapher who had copied the manuscript. During the proceedings Ismat had the company of Saadat Hasan Manto who had also been accused of obscenity in his short story ‘Bu’. The two made the most of a difficult situation. Ismat later recalled this first trial with characteristic humour: “my heart sent up a thanks-giving prayer to the Crown of England for providing us this unique opportunity of enjoying ourselves in Lahore. I began to look forward eagerly to the second hearing. I did not even care if the verdict was that I be hanged… The people of Lahore would give me a fitting funeral.”

The second hearing was scheduled for November 1946. Meanwhile Ismat received volumes of hate mail and her husband and daughter were dragged into the controversy. Ismat herself affirmed that she had no intention to be vulgar; she had simply written a fictitious story about incidents she had seen at Aligarh. As for the more risqué words, she simply used “…” because she did not at that time know the words for the things she had witnessed. Few were interested in the reasoning behind the story. Luckily, Ismat had a good lawyer.

In the second trial the witnesses who argued that Ismat’s story was obscene were not able to say exactly how. Ismat recalled a moment in the interrogation when a witness was asked to indicate which phrase was obscene:

Witness: This phrase ‘…collecting lovers’ is obscene.

Lawyer: Which word is obscene: ‘collect’ or ‘lover’?

Witness: Lover.

Lawyer: My lord, the word ‘lover’ has been used by great poets most liberally…

Witness: But it is objectionable for a girl to collect lovers.

Lawyer: Why?

Witness: Because it is objectionable for good girls to do so.

Lawyer: And if the girls are not good, then it is not objectionable?

Witness: Yes.

And so on. Ismat became notorious on the basis of ‘Lihaaf’ and the ensuing controversy. She became inextricably linked to ‘Lihaaf’, and no matter whether her readers loved or hated her, this story always accompanied discussions of her. So, whether one sees the case as an example of sensationalist negative publicity or as a brave and progressive defence of literature, let us not fall into the same trap and leave it now, turning to the other facets of Ismat’s career.

Ismat and Shahid became a filmmaking team. She wrote the screenplays and he directed the movies. She was associated with thirteen films in total between 1943 and 1979, and she and Shahid personally produced five. Though she had always been interested in films, she returned to her first love of literature. Her prolific writing included plays, novels, articles, radio dramas and autobiographical works, along with her favourite form, short stories.

Shahid passed away in 1967, and the following year Seema married a Hindu. With the birth of their son Ismat became a devoted grandmother and settled in Bombay. In 1976 she visited Pakistan for the first time post-Partition, and wrote a work of reportage, Yahan se vahan tak (‘From here to there’). The story was based on her nephews, one of whom remained in India and one who migrated to Pakistan. Remaining a faithful Muslim, albeit one with marked Communist affiliations, Ismat consistently argued that Islam was a religion of tolerance. Decrying the division between theology and custom, she once stated in an interview that: “I believe that Islam is a great religion. It believes in the welfare of women. But now Muslims have snatched away everything from Muslim women.” She used the same arguments to denounce purdah, saying it was indigenous to the subcontinent and that the Quran demanded women’s modesty, not their seclusion.

Ismat continued writing until her death in 1991. The newspapers predictably focused their obituaries on ‘Lihaaf’, though this only scratched the surface of a life full of self-assertion, wit, politicisation, and literature. Ismat’s contributions to the Progressive Movement and the vocalisation of women’s rights were overshadowed by the scandal of her early career. However, it was this scandal which made her writing and her personality well-known, amongst both her ardent fans and her equally ardent detractors. Today it would be nice to think that she could be remembered not by her stories alone, but as the author of those stories: an educated and outspoken woman who wrote with an ink pen and an open mind.


Blogger aditya said...

i know it has been a long time since you have written this piece... but after watching garam hawa and reading many a short story by Manto, at 3 in the morning, i was just forced to google 'Ismat Chugtai' to reach your blog. Just wanted to say good work and yeah, thank you. It was a great piece to read...


August 11, 2010 4:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home