In Govind Nihalani’s 1984 movie Party, Amrit, played by Naseeruddin Shah, is a haunting absence. You do not see him but you hear about him from everyone gathered at a party in honour of Diwakar Barve (played by Manohar Singh), a celebrated playwright who has just been bestowed with a prestigious award. The guests discuss lofty ideas and the great existential crises that plague their lives. They mention Amrit as a poet of potential who became the cause of his own ruin.
As Party progresses over the course of an evening, it unravels the hypocrisy of the literary elites. While revealing Amrit to the audience, it leads them to a climax that scars as well as indicts the film’s viewers.
Amrit was a poet who gave up the glamour and charms of the world of letters to join the adivasis in their struggle against various oppressive powers. An evaluation of what he gained or lost perhaps requires an appraisal of who and what a writer writes for.
The firebrand Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai might have agreed with Nihalani’s vision. When she wrote her essay “Pompom Darling” critiquing Qurratulain Hyder’s early writings, which she felt contained an elite bias, she told us flatly that “…authors write for their readers, not for their own enjoyment.”
Hyder was then a young writer, a twinkling new star in the literary firmament. But Chughtai refused to get sucked into the usual mutual back-patting of cultural cliques. Her reason for doing so was her conscience: “You deliberately desisted from showing the way to a talented author, allowing her shortcomings to be reinforced. Because you knew if she got rid of her weaknesses, she would be miles ahead of everyone.” She made sure that her critical essay was Hyder’s baptism by fire.
Chughtai was perplexed by Hyder’s characters, whom she found vain and monotonous: “…how long she would continue to be obsessed with Shosho and Fofo [Hyder’s characters] and Bharatnatyam and take dips in the swimming pools of the Savoy de Lamar.” She wondered why they all seemed to look the same, with “curly golden hair” and eyes like “silent blue pools”. Why was no one afflicted by diseases in Hyder’s world, why were no faces pockmarked, and if the only disease they evidently suffered from was love, then where were the sentences about sexual desire?
She admitted that this could be because the two writers had starkly different upbringings, and that as a young writer she was at times embarrassed for not being “a creature of the drawing-room.” However, she immediately thanked her stars for her lack of privilege that allowed her to see the world beyond the “mirror palaces” whose windows were covered with “Persian carpets”.
Chughtai found Hyder’s characters battling the same existential demons and nothingness that Nihalani’s Barve so valiantly fought. Hyder’s Pompom, Shosho and Fofo to Chughtai represented the capitalist imperial classes, whose biggest fear were the masses, the communists who they saw as a threat to their empire. “When her pen, dancing to the rhythm of Kathakali, Manipuri, and the Rumba, and sniffing the fragrance of jasmine buds, writes the word ‘communism’, it hisses like a black cobra.”
Chughtai was an avowed communist. It is easy to see her criticism of Hyder’s characters stem from her defence of her ideological roots. Her reasons for distrust become clearer when we place her writing in the context of the post-World War II capitalist boom and “red scare” (anti-communist fear) that swiftly spread from the new imperial power, America, to the rest of the world. While one might disagree with her constant stress on realism in literature, one cannot fault Chughtai’s call to her fellow writer to “…come out and see what lies in the outside world…”
Ismat apa, as Chughtai was fondly called, admitted at the end of her essay her “…fondness, a strange kind of love, for Qurratulain’s writing”. She only wished for Pompom darling “to throw away the thick Persian carpets…and take herself off to Bombay, perhaps.” She wanted Hyder to live in a small flat, start working in a school or newspaper office and make coffee because “by god, making coffee is a thousand times easier and a more interesting occupation than wrangling with these ‘charming bores’.”
Debojit Dutta is a founder of the literary webzine Antiserious and is a copy-editor with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. This article is a part of Saha Sutra. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.