If Ismat Chughtai were alive, she would dismiss everything that I am about to say with a witty remark suggesting that she simply wrote what she saw around her. She didn’t care for symbolism or delving deep into the meaning of situations and characters that she was creating. To her, Lihaaf was exactly what the protagonist saw it as: a somersaulting elephant.
Quite similarly, Saadat Hasan Manto found it absurd that people should find greatness in his writing. For him, his work was anything but great. He only concern was to expose the truth.
For anyone who read Chughtai’s stories in the 1940s, she was nothing but a myth. The supposed pen name of her brother’s, perhaps, many assumed. To Manto, her writings only paved the way for a grand image in his head about how Chughtai might be in real life. But when he met her, he was utterly disappointed and wrote, “The wretch turned out to be a total woman, after all!”
In his essay titled Ismat Chughtai, Manto ponders over what would have happened if Ismat and Manto had married. He uses passages from both their writings to juxtapose how miles apart their thoughts on love and life were, in spite of being part of the generation of progressive writers.
Ismat Chughtai, Choti Apaa
“So many Shoukats, Mahmoods, Abbases and Yunuses have been shuffled around in this world of love like cards in a deck. Who can predict the Jack among them?...They have all been entangled in my mind like yarn in a mess. I cannot conclude which corner to pull from, so a string comes out, unfurling, and I fly away from it all, like a kite.”
Sadat Hasan Manto, Taqleef
“I simply know that loving a woman and buying a piece of land are one and the same. So why not buy land instead of falling in love? One woman in a lifetime when the world is full of them?...Listen to me and use your life well. You are the kind of customer who’d never feel content. I am the kind of customer who’ll do business with many women – you want the kind of love that can be written about in cheap books when it fails you. The book that a certain Narayan Dutt would print on yellow pages and sell for the cost of scrap in the market – I want to lick off the pages of my book of life at one go, like a termite, without leaving any traces behind. You want life from love and I want love from life.”
Manto says that if Chughtai had flown beyond the horizon like a kite, and if he himself had been able to lick off even a quarter of his book of life, then perhaps neither of them would have been able to write the way they do.
Manto says that Kishan Chander wrote a preface of Chotein in which he mentions that the male fiction writers begin to have fits as soon as they hear Ismat’s name. His response: “I cannot recall the very first story of hers that I read even if I delve deeper into my memory. It feels as if I had read them all even before she put them on paper. Perhaps that is the reason why I didn’t get a fit.”
When he first met Chughtai, Manto wanted to discuss her short story Lihaf in detail, but the first thing he mentioned was that he was slightly put off by the last sentence “Even if someone paid me one lakh rupees, I’ll never tell what I saw under the quilt.”
To this, Ismat defensively asked, “What’s wrong with this sentence?”
Manto saw the look on her face change into that of a housewife who gets quickly defensive if someone asks her a foul question.
Sometime later, when Ismat wrote Dozakhi, in which she drew a powerful sketch of her brother Azim Beg Chughtai, Manto mentions a conversation he had with his own sister about it. After reading Dozakhi, Manto’s sister said, “Sadat! How vicious is this Ismat! She didn’t even spare her own brother. What utter rubbish has she written?”
To this, Manto replied, “Iqbal, if you promise to write something like this on my death, then I swear I am prepared to die right now!”
Later on in his essay, Manto explains why he said, “The wretch turned out to be a total woman, after all!” He says that if she weren’t the total woman that she was, it wouldn’t have been possible for her to delve into the stories of Bhoolbhulaiya, Til, Lihaf and Gainda as she did. These narratives were not created to conquer men, but to carve out honest portraits of the vulnerabilities and travesties that a woman experiences.
After Manto’s death, Chughtai wrote a letter to the people of Pakistan in which she emphasised the situations that most writers of the twentieth century had faced at one point or another. She questioned the regime’s decision to honour the artist whom they had tortured and slapped with sedition and obscenity charges when he was living. She said:
“And remember, gentlemen, what I tell you: even after twenty years, Manto would still strike his head against the bars of a prison, as he in fact did, and people would still have death anniversary celebrations for him after he died, as you in fact are. But during his lifetime, people would still kick him down. Look carefully to see if there is any Manto among you. Is there anyone among you who talks nonsense, who is extremely sensitive, who makes lots of silly mistakes and blunders, and who says things that no one understands? Is there anyone among you who thinks that no one understands him, who goes on showing his obstinacy, who sticks like a thistle on the hem of every passerby until he becomes unbearable? Is there anyone among you who thinks he's a great writer, but nobody is willing to admit it, a pauper or beggar who asks for money, properly and improperly, someone people try to avoid because he is alone? Beware of such a fraud, for if he dies tomorrow, you might have to bow your heads before him. You might be compelled to write articles; you might be compelled to hold gatherings in his honour. But these things cannot compensate for Death, and the arrow which has pierced Ali Asghar's throat may continue to irritate the throat of your conscience.”— From “Ismat Chughtai: A talk with one of Urdu's most outspoken woman writers”, Mahfil, 1972
The relationship between Manto and Chughtai stands as a testament to friendships between writers that transcended petty criticism and went beyond the written word.
Excerpts from the essay, Ismat Chughtai, by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated by Niyati Bhat.