When asked by a publisher to change the heroine in her novel, Terhi Lakeer (Crooked Line), into a lesbian one like the begum in her widely-known, controversial short story Lihaaf (The Quilt), Ismat Chughtai was furious. Such tokenism was not permitted in her writing, which endeavoured to depict realistically the world of aunts, nephews, joint Muslim families crammed into small houses, feuds, gossip, and scandal that she lived within in Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the twentieth century. She withdrew the manuscript and sent it to a publisher in Lahore, which at the time was still a part of India.
Lihaaf was based on a well-circulated rumour about a begum in Aligarh who was said to be having an affair with a female help. Years after publication of the story and the obscenity lawsuit that followed, Chughtai met this woman for the first time at a dinner party with no small degree of fear. But the begum embraced Chughtai and revealed to her that she had broken off the lonely marriage alluded to in Lihaaf and was happily remarried.
Chughtai wept and wrote in her memoir that it came to her in that moment that “flowers can be made to bloom among rocks. The only condition is that one has to water the plant with one’s heart’s blood.” She wanted to show the world she lived and breathed in – a world clothed in hypocrisy but navigable by force of will – not the world she aspired to.
Where did she begin? The ninth child of ten, Ismat was mentored by her second-oldest sibling, Azim Beg Chughtai, who wrote short stories. Azim was frail and sickly, and like Chughtai, the youngest girl who was allowed more freedom that her older sisters, he operated on the margins of the masculine world and hence on the margins of power.
He was already an established writer when Ismat was in her teens. He taught her that if she wanted to speak of subjects that created a stir, she would be well served to embalm her message in fiction. Azim’s stories were romantic and adventurous – a feat Ismat was later dismissive of because she saw it as a depiction of his dream life, of the boisterous, active life of their brothers that he would never enjoy. “They were false,” she said simply in her memoir, “and didn’t contain any trace of the anguish of his own life.”
The heroines in popular Urdu short stories, such as those of Hijab Imtiaz Ali, didn’t appeal to Chughtai either. It was meeting Rashid Jahan, a doctor, an activist at the forefront of the Progressive Writer’s Movement, and a writer who wrote candidly about the lives of Muslim women, that mapped Chughtai’s road to writing realistic, challenging female characters. Jahan herself met an untimely end, and her busy life left limited time for writing, but her legacy includes nurturing one of Urdu literature’s finest.
In Chughtai’s memoirs, masterfully translated into English by M Asaduddin, she recounts the convoluted, hidden ways in which women in her family and in her social circles were made to suffer and how they rallied quietly and deviously against that suffering. The “anguish” cannot be simply summarised as violence or restrictions. In Chughtai’s stories, the web that surrounded Muslim women of the time is brought to life in her use of local idioms and her life-like dialogue between categories. As Asaduddin put it, Chughtai was “writing silences” by telling the stories that no one else considered worthy.
The voice of a subculture
She described the language spoken in her house and in her neighbourhood as so rich that she never fumbled for a word or a phrase to describe something in a story. She believed, “Man can express every thought in his language of everyday speech.” She wrote her dialogue in begamati zuban – a form of Urdu spoken amongst women in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Begamati zuban was women’s Urdu, but it was by no means lady-like. Without the fear of men considering them uncouth, women spoke frankly and graphically about all aspects of their life in this variation of Urdu. By preserving this earthy tongue, Chughtai was paying homage to the hidden sisterhood that existed outside the realm of men.
Interestingly, Chughtai’s marriage to the writer and director Shahid Lateef isn’t as candidly written about as the rest of her relationships are. But in her memoir, she does make it clear that her husband felt, on her behalf, the embarrassment that she refused to feel herself. In an incident that should be infuriating but is hilarious and emboldening in Chughtai’s narration, her husband wrings his hands when a police officer arrives to give Chughtai a court summons for Lihaaf while Chughtai offers herself up for arrest without hesitation.
She is often described as courageous and outspoken, though I am not convinced she would warm up to those terms. She resented Lihaaf’s popularity. It inspired furious arguments in her marriage. It pigeon-holed her as a writer who shocked and who championed (solely) diverse sexualities. She wanted to be known for more. She wrote an entire sub-culture into existence in Urdu literature. She would have hoped that several of her women, not just the most controversial ones, would continue to find readers.