Shama Afroz Zaidi: Apa, can you shed some light on your early years? Where did you receive your education? Tell me some interesting stories about your student days.
Ismat Chughtai: Well, my mother was not interested in providing me with an education. I was never really interested in housework or related activities. I was severely reprimanded for my antics. I wasn’t into playing with dolls; I would rip the doll apart, finish her off. If I was ever assigned any sewing, I would hide it under the quilts. I was crazy about writing from the very beginning. I started writing things that could get me into trouble. I sat down to write when everyone had gone to bed. I stole ideas from here and there and put them in my stories, but my characters represented my own stubborn nature. I not only made spelling mistakes but also got the vocabulary wrong. I read my first Quran reader at the age of five. Because I was so young, I received a lot of beating while reading the sipara (one of the 30 sections of the Quran). Amma wanted me to read the Quran and I wanted to attend school. I didn’t want to spend my time learning how to sew and embroider. Abba was informed of my recalcitrance and he asked me why I wasn’t learning how to cook. I told him that I didn’t like cooking, I wanted to go to school, and if I couldn’t go to school, I would run away from home and become Christian.

Actually, I had realised that if I wanted to do something in life it was essential to get an education. Of what use would cooking, embroidering, knitting, sewing, etc., be to me? How would I earn a living? For this reason, I put all my energy into getting an education and I had no fear of failure. In Aligarh, there was a Muslim girls’ school where English was a compulsory subject. But they did not conduct BA classes, so later I had to win another battle – to go to Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. Naturally, my parents refused, and when talk of my marriage began I went on a hunger strike. For four days they held on, but when my mother couldn’t swallow another morsel, my father agreed to send me to Lucknow. I wept so much that my father asked in surprise, “Why are you crying now?” I said, “I’m crying with joy.”

Your literary journey has been going on for nearly half a century and your work has been published in all the leading journals in India and Pakistan. But you have been repetitive in all the novels after Terhi Lakir. Why is that?
If this is what people think, then I cannot control their thoughts. Actually, the subject of Terhi Lakir was the Muslim middle class. Using Shaman’s character, I have addressed the questions around women’s freedom and their problems. The novels, Ziddi, Masooma, Dil ki Duniya (The Realm of the Heart), Saudai (The Mad One), Ajeeb Aadmi (A Very Strange Man), etc., how will you categorise them? They have different themes.

Sex dominates your afsanas and novels. What is the reason for this?
It all depends on one’s point of view. Is Kok Shastra an obscene book? I never thought it was. There’s a great demand for works by women who openly write about sex in English, and their work is considered important. Actually, sex has always sold well in capitalist countries. There’s nothing obscene in the world. If the body is not obscene then mentioning it is not so either. In Urdu, women avoid the subject because they regard it as obscene. I have not seen any story written in Hindi that is obscene or immoral.

Don’t you feel that the kind of short story writing that is prevalent in Hindustan today is becoming less popular with the public, whereas the quality of afsanas written in Pakistan is quite good? Do our writers lack good themes, despite the fact that corruption is rampant and there are innumerable other problems as well? Under these circumstances, the writer should be more active and we should see great writing. Or perhaps we can say that today’s writer is no longer honest in terms of his art and his writing.
We do have good writing in Hindustan. Jeelani Bano, Ali Baqar, Husainul Haq, Salam Bin Razzaq, Muhammad Ashraf and others, for example, are writing very good stories. They have first-rate subjects. And among the younger writers, why are you forgetting Shabib Ahmed Kaaf and Saifur Rahman Abaad? Modern writers are very annoyed with women. Islam has endowed them with more rights than any other religion has, but a woman is like a puppet, she beautifies herself for a man, she wears pretty clothes and puts on jewellery to please a man, she has no will of her own. Then what’s the difference between this woman and a prostitute? Did any man ever sati a prostitute? A man dotes on the prostitute and beats his wife. All these subjects are being written about. I don’t remember who has written what now.

As for Pakistan, so many periodicals are published there, but only one, Dosheeza, comes here with any regularity. Even in this publication, women are denigrated, the stories deal mostly with the mistreatment of women, with male characters who are self-absorbed, who delight in abusing women. Women remarry two or three times there. They do make a good living, however, and are fond of good clothes and probably also like jewellery. But the men humiliate and abuse them. They can’t have two wives anymore because of a law passed by General Ayub Khan. The girls here (in India) have become quite independent and self-reliant. I occasionally get stories from women writing in Hindi and Urdu and I see that they are not preoccupied with themes related to mistreatment by men.

Some very important names are associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement, like Manto, Krishan, Sajjad Zaheer, and you. The movement began in the fourth decade of this century and was active until 1960, but it has become somewhat stagnant now. Is the movement still alive, or can one at least hope that it will be revived?
Where is the Progressive Movement? It has no future. People just make a lot of noise about it in order to feel good. The movement died with Manto, Krishan, Bedi, and Sajjad Zaheer. The writers who were raised to great heights by our movement have fallen to the ground. Those writing and reading Urdu are now old, they only write criticism. If they (writers and critics) have doctoral degrees, their status improves. What exactly are the critics doing? Just pull yourself together and stop thinking that another writer or critic can turn you into a writer. If that were possible a writer would be in college or university dealing with unenlightened students. All the critics are either professors or are receiving endowments from academies. The government also regards them as the ones holding Urdu’s reins.

What are your views on the problems that Urdu faces today?
Urdu has no problems. Only those from the lower classes read Urdu. There is assistance from the government which the administrators involved in advancing the cause of Urdu utilise in ways they deem fit. The majority of the country’s population is illiterate and those who do read don’t derive anything meaningful from Hindi or Urdu literature. As for Urdu, Partition shattered the Muslims. They were overcome by the unsettling feelings of loss and failure. All they could think about was how to make a living. Meanwhile, there are bigwigs getting fat on subsidies meant for Urdu. They are only concerned with money. Urdu can go to hell.

Why do you want to change the Urdu script when you are an Urdu writer?
I’m not against Urdu, nor do I want to change the script. All I’m saying is that Urdu literature should not be translated, but rather preserved as it is in Hindi. Children will benefit greatly from learning the Urdu script. Our literature suffers when it stands alongside Hindi because those involved with literature don’t translate it themselves. They hand it over to their wives and daughters for translation which results in a complete transformation of the text. People have misunderstood me. They think I’m talking about changing the Urdu script whereas I’m simply saying that when an Urdu text is transferred to the Hindi script it should not be translated. The script should be Hindi, but the text should remain in its original Urdu. If English works why bother with Hindi or Urdu? The problem is that even 42 years after Independence our leaders can’t speak Hindi and Urdu as well as they can speak English. The British divided our country into two, our rulers went further and divided it into 24 provinces. Each province has a separate language but the language of the ruling class is English. There is a lot of noise about Urdu without any cause and Hindi is referred to as the national language, but all the work is done in English. Higher education is offered in English and it will continue to be that way. But there’s a lot of propaganda about Hindi just for show.

You wrote a great deal for half a century. As for fame, you have a great name in the entire subcontinent, but why has no critic done any substantial work on you?
I’ve never thought that I’m famous throughout the subcontinent. As for someone writing about me, I’ve never really cared about that. I wrote when I felt like it and never considered writing for anyone. I did it just for myself, for my own peace of mind. I don’t care that critics have not written about my work.

Excerpted with permission from In Her Own Words: Letters and Interviews, Ismat Chughtai, translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi, Women Unlimited.