↑ Grab this Headline Animator

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

ismat chughtai- REVIEW by Aisha Lee Shaheed

Friends in need

REVIEW by Aisha Lee Shaheed

My friend, my enemy: essays, reminiscences, portraits By Ismat Chughtai, Trans. Tahira Naqvi, Sama, Rs 395.00

Ismat Chughtai was one of the few grand dames of modern Urdu literature, though English translations of her works have proliferated in the past few years. This recent collection comprises twenty-one essays, ranging from commentaries on the state of modern literature to character studies of the author’s family and friends, translated by Tahira Naqvi. Chughtai achieved notoriety when her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) incurred an obscenity charge by the British-Indian government in the mid-1940s. Less well-known and appreciated, amongst Anglophone readers at least, are her non-fiction works.

Divided into three sections, headed “Essays”, “Reminiscences”, and “Portraits” the pieces begin with Chughtai’s comments on the state of literature and the role of women in South Asian society. The latter portion of the book is devoted to her own personal recollections of family and friends, though these are always firmly positioned against the backdrop of Partition and shifting gender relations in the subcontinent.

Though little is needed in the way of editing for such a collection – Chughtai’s astute and acerbic writing stands alone – one would have appreciated a more reader-friendly volume. Though this edition is only available in Pakistan (a 2001 edition was released by the Indian-based publishers Kali for Women), a non-South Asian readership may be confused by some of the details. For one, many Urdu terms are left untranslated. Certainly, many words and phrases cannot be rendered into English without losing their flavour and specificity; however, one would expect a glossary or footnotes to help the non-Urdu speaking reader. Perhaps my own ignorance is a prime factor but, for example, upon reading that a prince fell madly in love with a princess every time he caught sight of her “slipper or her anchal” I was convinced that a sloppy proof-reader had horrendously misspelled ‘ankle.’ It was soon pointed out to me that this term referred to the bottom of a duputta , but after the sixth or seventh word needed looking up I began to wonder whether all readers would enjoy doing so much work to make sense of the text. Either the text is translated into English or it is left in Urdu: Hinglish may represent the spoken language, but it does not work as a vehicle of literature.

My second caveat is that for those unfamiliar with South Asian history, some contextualisation would help in order to understand the placement of these essays within political developments and within Chughtai’s own career as a writer. As the essays are ordered thematically, there is no sense of which pieces were written before or after Partition. Likewise, without some external cross-checking, it is often not clear if certain essays were penned during the heyday of the Progressive Writers Movement or in retrospect.

Nonetheless, for those who are not overly concerned with issues of translation or chronology, this is a certainly a valuable collection of Ismat Chughtai’s work. Chughtai was a highly embodied writer, by which I mean that she was always aware not only of the rapidly-changing society around her, but also of her own role within it. When writing about the key figures of the Progressive Writers’ Association, such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander, Ismat is aware of the individual personalities behind the literature, as well as her own contributions to that movement. Likewise, her comments on the status of women are not always overt, but instead run through her essays signalling her recognition that gender relations cannot be extricated from other aspects of social equality. It also suggests that as an upper-middle class, Muslim, Indian woman, Ismat was aware of the influence her own experiences had in shaping her observations about the society in which she lived. Eschewing omniscience, Chughtai revels in her ground-level view and constructs her commentary around conversations, impressions and personal experiences.

The collection begins on an evocative note, with the essay “Communal Violence and Literature” in which Chughtai declares:

“Communal violence and freedom became so muddled that it was difficult to distinguish between the two. After that, anyone who obtained a measure of freedom discovered violence came alongside…But 15th August came and went, leaving behind embarrassed, whimpering and teary-eyed masses. The hearts that had been singing were hushed, the dancing feet were stilled.”

This forceful piece discusses the need people felt to explain these revolutionary events, and how this manifested itself in literature. The Progressive writers used high realism and violently graphic language to condemn the excesses society before, during and after Partition. In the aftermath of independence, and the shedding of blood during that process, the tone of this literature became shrill and gory. Chughtai’s lyrical assessment of this literary moment implies that if these authors were creating work which seemed bleak, it was not because they were hopeless pessimists, but rather that they refused to be partisan in their politics, instead deeming all perpetrators of communal violence and injustice equally guilty.

Another facet of Progressive writing which came under criticism from the establishment was the degree of erotic content in the literature. In one essay, Chughtai provides a rebuttal, asserting that, “If contemporary literature is filthy then one can assume that the modern era too is filthy because literature is a representation of its times.” If literature, as she insists, is beneficial for both the creator and the consumer, then all facets of experience should become subject matter for a socially-aware body of work. This historicized approach to writing resurfaces in her essay “Heroine,” in which Chughtai argues that the way in which a female protagonist is portrayed in a narrative work is indicative of the status of women in the author’s specific time and place. Therefore, the argument follows that with regards to the Partition, violence and trauma necessarily foster violent and traumatic literary assessments.

Though the selections in this volume are all non-fiction, Ismat Chughtai uses certain narrative techniques to illustrate her points. One device is making the familiar appear strange, by turning conventions on their head. This has the result of making certain accepted behaviours appear ridiculous. For example, in “Woman” she points out that in Indian tradition, though a woman is widowed her bangles are to be broken it would be ludicrous to imagine a man’s watch or glasses smashed after his wife has died. Instead of didactic ranting against the social order, Chughtai’s style of dissent is more cheeky and ultimately, more persuasive.

Another way in which Chughtai injects a dose of reality into a social convention is in the darkly satirical “Story”, which begins as something of a fairy tale: “Once upon a time there was a king (it was only in the old days that a king had the right to exist).” However, soon after the reader is transported, one is brought sharply back to stark reality. When the allegorical prince is looking for a “damsel” he is informed that:

“The belle [in Bengal] has been reduced to a famine-ridden bag of bones. Don’t go to the Deccan either because the high prices of wheat have sucked the life out of the belles. The fisherwoman of Gujarat and Maharashtra also has no time for romance because there, too, the scarcity of wheat has forced her to eat cornmeal bread.”

However, Ismat Chughtai’s style was lighter than some of the other Progressive writers, and this collection is not all disparaging critique. She recounts the infamous Lihaaf trial with humour and wit (she seems to have been most pleased at the opportunity to visit Lahore, despite the unfortunate circumstances). Her visit to Pakistan in the 1970s provides vignettes of a very particular time and place: a Pakistan where a great deal of people still remembered India as home and understood the common bonds between the two countries.

Chughtai’s character studies are personal, charming and pithy. The eponymous story, “My Friend, My Enemy,” paints a portrait of Saadat Hasan Manto not as a larger-than-life author, but as a friend, a family man, and as a fallible human being. She describes him as a man with a scathing tongue, yet haunted by the memory of his deceased son; as an alcoholic, yet as a genius. This piece was written after Manto’s descent into addiction, madness and finally, death. The brutally honest statements she writes about him cannot override the fact that every word of this famous essay has been written with a fierce love and comradeship.

And this is the crux of Chughtai’s writings. At times her style is flippant, self-congratulatory, and hyperbolic. Nonetheless, the passion with which Ismat wrote about subjects that mattered to her – social equality, her family, the art of literature – compels the reader to not just be swept away by her story-telling and anecdotes, but to appreciate the unwavering conviction with which Ismat Chughtai wielded her pen.


Post a Comment

<< Home