An Interrogating Dangerous Voice

Katoria, MeghaMegha Katoria is presently working as an Assistant Professor (English and Communication Skills) at a University in India. She has also been associated with newspapers as an Assistant Editor. An avid reader and writer, she has made contributions in the form of research papers, poems, articles and book reviews in various journals, magazines and newspapers. She likes reading, writing, painting, sketching and all activities that involve creativity.

Ismat Chughtai, a courageous and outspoken writer of Urdu literature is apt for the title of “a dangerous woman.” A woman who used her pen as a powerful weapon to interrogate the oppression of women and the patriarchal set-up of Indian society at a time (1930s) when such themes on which she was writing were pushed under the carpet thereby, causing danger to the social structure of a repressive society. She surely posed a threat to the traditional established structure of society which expected women to sit silently, performing their stereotypical roles without questioning any precincts of the established social paradigm. A potential voice for the silenced and oppressed voices, she boldly exposed the double standards of society. In words of M. Asaduddin: “As the subcontinent’s foremost feminist writer she was instinctively aware of the gendered double standard in the largely feudal and patriarchal structure of society she lived in and did everything to expose and subvert it” (IX).

Ismat Chughtai was born on 15th August, 1911 into a Muslim family of western Uttar Pradesh, India. She was the ninth of the ten children born to Mirza Quaseem Beg, her father who was an honest civil servant. All her sisters were older than her and had got married when she was quite young. She spent her childhood in the company of her brothers and this greatly contributed to her frank nature which is also visible in her writings. Her father supported her when her mother and all relatives were against her education. Woman’s education was staunchly resisted in those times to the extent that Chughtai’s father was threatened by his relatives that he would he ostracized for supporting the education of his daughters. Her father was advised by his friends also that he should withdraw his daughters from school as “to educate a girl was worse than prostituting her” (Chughtai 72).

In her memoir “Leaving Aligarh Once Again,” Chughtai relates how reading had a deep impact on her mind. She says, “When I read that the women were the weaker sex and that they were easily corruptible, it had a strange impact on me. I felt angrier with myself rather than the society, thinking there must be something lacking in me. I felt pity, not anger, for my parents. They were trapped in their limited world” (Chughtai 110). For Ismat Chughtai, it was a battle which was to be fought for getting a higher education and she even threatened to run away if she was not allowed to pursue her education. It was her father who supported her in her endeavors.

Through her writings, Chughtai sees the issues of society in all complexity and does not present women as mere victims and men as oppressors. She presents the real face of society where women can be as oppressive as men and even as ones who internalize patriarchal mores and values which they feel are important to be adhered to and therefore, they refuse to part with them even when they are inconvenient for them.  In her stories and memoirs, she brings to light varied characters from life. It was from childhood only that the rebellious streak was deeply imbued in her personality and it continued throughout her life. She grew up insisting that she would not play with dolls or do other stereotypical roles ascribed to women but would do all that the boys did. Chughtai made friends with the daughters of the helpers who lived in the official bungalow of Ismat Chughtai’s family. Her family highly disapproved of her friendship with the sweeper’s daughter and the washerman’s daughter labeling her as a ‘chamari’ (a woman of low caste in India who does menial jobs). Chughtai used her sharp tongue to retort: “Yes, I was a chamari in my last life and I will be a chamari in my next life. It is only in this one that something has gone wrong” (Gokhale 127).

Chughtai was highly influenced by an open-minded and bold woman named Rasheed Jahan who was a doctor by profession, a writer and a political revolutionary. It was in 1936, while Chughtai was completing her B.A. that she attended the first meeting of Progressive Writers Movement in Lucknow. Here she met Rasheed Jahan for the first time who was “a woman of a particularly strong-willed, liberated sort” (Naqvi x). Chughtai liked her bold character and wanted to be like her. It was through her that Ismat Chughtai was able to see the stark reality of life. Chughtai says that after getting in touch with Rasheed Jahan, the beautiful and crimson red dresses of her own stories “vanished into thin air” and all her “ivory idol pieces were shattered” as “life stark naked” stood before her (Gokhale 128). People were often scandalized by Ismat Chughtai’s writings and said that no woman could pen down such “indecent” work. Chughtai used to receive dozens of insulting and abusive letters and she often tore them up and continued to write the truth of society which existed but remained hidden. In 1941, Chughtai wrote a brilliantly crafted story, “The Quilt” (Lihaaf) which was an eye of controversy landing her in the quagmire of the court. The story brings forth the lesbian relationship between the wife of a rich landlord and her maid servant. The narrator is a child who narrates all that happens with the innocence of a child and without knowing the inhibitions posed by society. While the wealthy landlord remains busy in his homosexual pursuits, the wife feels ignored and is gripped by a sense of loneliness. She turns to Rabbo, her maid for fulfillment of her desires. Chughtai delineates a woman’s sexual desires and longings- a subject considered forbidden in patriarchal set-up. The British government tried her in court at Lahore on charges of obscenity but at the end she won the case. According to her own account, the narrative was based on the actual life of the wife of Nawab Swale Khan of Aligarh, who was a homosexual. In an interview, Ismat Chughtai said: “In my stories I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life. These people think that there is nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains…All of them are halfwits” (Asaduddin 89). At a time when such issues were unthinkable, Chughtai’s writings proved to be a breakthrough in Urdu literature. The gender-class interface is well portrayed in her story “Lingering Fragrance” (Badan ki Khushboo). This story depicts the system of concubinage where the poor village girls are employed in palaces to sexually train the princes and it is no other than the elder women of the household who provide “healthy maids for their sons,” (Chughtai 212) thereby becoming perpetrators of injustice and demolishing “sisterhood” as a myth. We are presented with a social setting in which “women are turned into commodities, totally disposable, totally dispensable, to be used and discarded” (Kudchedkar 5).

“Tiny’s Granny” brings out the hypocrisy and false religiosity of the upper class people. The society’s truth is brought to the fore where it is difficult for girls of lower classes to lead a respectable life. It also brings to light poor Granny’s pitiable condition who lives a lonely life and is denied identity throughout her life. “A Pair of Hands” focuses on the plight of poor people for whom morality is not important, their only concern being working and earning for the basic necessities of life. Ram Autar is not concerned whether the child born to his wife is his or somebody else’s. He is just happy about the fact that the child will support him in his old age. The story throws light on the hypocrisy of upper class people who do not peep into their own lives but keep levelling charges against the poor for all the wrongs that happen. The story also foregrounds the issue of woman being no more than a commodity that can be bought or sold for the convenience of all other members of the family. “By the Grace of God” brings to light the obsession of the mother to get her daughters married and how she marries her twenty-two years old daughter to an old man of sixty years. Instead of letting Farhat marry Anwar, a young man whom Farhat loves, the mother forces Farhat to stay in an incompatible marriage with the rich old man. Farhat is sacrificed at the altar of marriage for the convenience of other members of the family as Farhat’s staying with the old man gives them economic security. Chughtai talks of all the happenings in the ‘home’ and focuses her attention on this enclosed space, the true happenings of which otherwise remain hidden from the outer world. Chughtai brings to the fore the plight of women who are compelled to dance to the beats of tradition. “The Wedding Shroud” presents the desperation of a mother to get the elder daughter married to a cousin who has come to stay with them. In order to woo him, they lavish hospitality on him even at the cost of selling off their meagre belongings. This cousin robs the younger sister of her dignity. He extracts all the physical labour from the elder daughter without acknowledgement and then leaves as his marriage is fixed elsewhere. The elder daughter is heartbroken and dies soon after. Many times in the story the younger daughter questions patriarchal notions but she is silenced.

In her memoir “Leaving Aligarh Once Again,” Chughtai questions about her own identity, individuality and existence. She interrogates the society: “Who decides what is right in this world? Who were the makers of my life? If it is my parents then why did God endow me with intelligence? What can I do with it?” (Chughtai 111). A member of the Progressive Writers Movement, Ismat Chughati was influenced by the works of Dostoyevsky, Somerset Maugham, Chekhov, O’ Henry and Prem Chand. A major early influence in her life was also her brother, Azeem Beg Chughtai, a well known writer of his times. Chughtai somehow also managed to escape from being tied in wedlock at the age of fifteen and married Shahid Latif at the age of twenty eight which was absolutely different from the social set-up of that time as the girls were married at a young age. Chughtai says that her friends “were married off around the age of twelve” and she “saw their lives… Also the whole business of marriage seemed to be dreadful – sex, cooking, beatings from the mother-in-law and all the other in-laws” (Gokhale 127).

Sometimes referred to as a ‘tehri lakeer’ (crooked line), which is also the title of her semi-autobiographical work, Chughtai died on 24th October, 1991 and here too there was a line of controversy as she had proposed to be cremated which was against the Muslim tradition in which the person is buried and not cremated like the Hindus. The “indomitable spirit” and “Grand Dame of Urdu fiction” (Naqvi xx) amply illustrates that she was a rebel much ahead of her times who courageously and fearlessly brought to the fore the facets of reality making her a “dangerous” woman for those who would like the patriarchal structure to reign supreme.


Works Cited

Asaduddin, Mohammad. “Short Stories and Sketches.” Ismat Chughtai: Monograph in Makers of Indian Literature Series. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1999. 75-113. Print.

Asaduddin, Mohammad. Introduction. A Life in Words: Memoirs. By Ismat Chughtai. Trans. Mohammad Asaduddin. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. IX-XXV. Print.

Chughtai, Ismat. “Conflict.” Trans. M. Asaduddin. A Life in Words: Memoirs. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. 61-75. Print.

—. “Leaving Aligarh Once Again.” Trans. M. Asaduddin. A Life in Words: Memoirs. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. 95-112. Print.

—. “Lingering Fragrance.” Trans. Syeda S. Hameed. A Chughtai Collection. Trans. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. 190-224. Print. Rpt. of The Quilt and Other Stories, The Heart Breaks Free & The Wild One. 1990, 1993.

Gokhale, Shanta, trans. “Ismat Chughtai.” Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Ed. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. 2 vols. NY: Feminist, 1993. 126-29. Print.

Kudchedkar, Shirin. “Feminist Voices from India and Canada.” Feminist Spaces: Cultural Readings from India and Canada. Ed. Malashri Lal. New Delhi: Allied. 1997. 1-10. Print.

Naqvi, Tahira. Introduction. A Chughtai Collection. By Ismat Chughtai. Trans. and ed. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. vii-xxii. Print. Rpt. of The Quilt and Other Stories, The Heart Breaks Free & The Wild One. 1990, 1993.

Further Reading

Chughtai, Ismat. A Chughtai Collection. Trans. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. Print. Rpt. of The Quilt and Other Stories, The Heart Breaks Free & The Wild One. 1990, 1993.

—. A Life in Words: Memoirs. Trans. M. Asaduddin. New Delhi: Penguin, 2013. Print.

—. “Tiny’s Granny.” Trans. Ralph Russell. Contemporary Indian Short Stories. 1959. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1984. 117-29. Print. Ser. I.