Much before the subject of female sexuality became ‘woke’ and female desire started streaming on OTT, Ismat Chughtai (21 August 1915 – 24 October 1991) ruptured conventional morality and made sexual politics an enduring theme of her work. The doyenne of Urdu literature gave us ‘messy’ women characters much before there was any such word used in formal criticism of literary or cinematic heroines.
One of the subcontinent’s original foremost feminists or “bad girl”, Chughtai ruffled many feathers — the feathers of decorative femininity. Through the bold themes of her delectable Urdu short stories, she unraveled the trappings of beauty and decorum in Nawabi life, traditionally designed by patriarchal structures to tame women. Chughtai stormed into the sacred space of the zenana — specifically the closed quarters of women in Muslim households. Her pen sliced through the apparent world of glitter and glamor to lay bare the suppressed desire, the latent frustrations, pain, longings and untold stories of exploitation that populated the world of her women characters.
Chughtai, canonized as one of the "four pillars of Urdu fiction" — three of her male contemporaries being Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi — lived a life of bold assertions, yet one that was marked by a quiet anger and pain stemming from being wronged. Chughtai — at once a writer, an educationist and a torchbearer of women’s rights — was treated as an outsider among many literary circles of her time for a larger part of her life. This part goes back to the controversy stoked by her seminal short story Lihaaf, which was banned in 1942 for its “erotic and lesbian undertones”.
Early life and career
Born in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, a young Chughtai was educated at the Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University where she got versed with the diverse literature of the subcontinent as well as with Western literature of the 19th century, an influence that is said to have shaped her later writing exploring themes of sexuality. She debuted in the literary scene with her short story Fasadi in 1938. Two years later, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, in 1940 and subsequently joined the Progressive Writers’ Association. It has been recorded that her co-mingling with fellow writers at the Association meetings further inspired Chughtai to rein in the political with the personal, or to use the might of her pen to voice women’s issues and fight for their rights.
It was here that Chughtai met Rasheed Jahan, a doctor by profession. Jahan is known to have remained a lasting influence in her writing as the former’s deep interest in “women’s writings for women from women’s perspective” shaped a stream of Chughtai’s work that refused to box women into the roles of a model daughter, good wife, sexually repressed or chaste woman who is either revered as a mother, glorified as a virgin, or vilified as a vamp. However, she was soon disillusioned with the group’s narrow-minded vision of ‘real’ writers, who according to the leading members were those who wrote on "farmers or the working class". Moreover, Chughtai was at odds with the group’s trivialization of women’s issues that were not considered worthy enough to write with distinction. Chughtai stuck to her unpopular stance on giving a voice to the feminine in literature thereby creating a body of feminine expression in Indian writing, akin to the French term “ecriture feminine” coined by French feminists later to refer to a body or style of feminine writing that reclaims the male-dominated space.
Lihaaf and the forbidden in fiction
Chughtai immortalized the lived realities of middle-class women at a time when there was no such parallel in Urdu fiction, or in the larger literature of the subcontinent. And in doing so she entered the ‘forbidden’ territory in fiction that was until then silenced by patriarchal custodians of morality. Chughtai questioned male privilege and heterosexual male privilege when the sanctity of a man-woman relationship and the hierarchy within it were unquestionable. She risked the wrath of religious guardians who lorded over patriarchal systems controlling women’s sexuality.
One of the rare and foremost progressive writers of the 20th century, the legacy of Chughtai endures in her evocative themes of feminist rebellion. It is only telling that a scene in the 2014 black comedy movie Dedh Ishqiya, pays homage to Chughtai. The forum Urduwallahs says how in the scene where both the characters of Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi’s hands are tied and they are watching the characters of Madhuri Dixit and Huma Qureshi engage erotically, “Naseer looks at Arshad and says, Lihaaf maang le. Arshad looks up and smiles. And then we see just a big shadow on the wall, which suggests physical intimacy between Madhuri and Huma’s characters. That’s the homage to Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf. The setting, Begum, homo-eroticism, huge shadow play – the elements and the incident is the same as in Lihaaf.”
Lihaaf, seen through a child narrator’s eyes, chronicles the life of the sensuous Begum Jaan with unfulfilled desires as her husband prefers the company of ‘young, fair and slender-waisted boys’. The narrator, a young girl sent to stay with an aunt, saw and heard, “Sometime in the night I suddenly woke up, feeling a strange kind of dread. The room was in total darkness, and in the darkness Begum Jaan’s lihaf was rocking as though an elephant were caught in it. ‘Begum Jaan’, I called out timidly. The elephant stopped moving. The lihaf subsided… When I awoke on the second night… I only heard Rabbu’s convulsive sobs, then noises like those of a cat licking a plate, lap, lap. I was so frightened that I went back to sleep.”
The gender- and class-defying lesbian thrust in the relationship between Begum Jaan and her dark-skinned masseuse Rabbu showing a woman transgressing the boundaries of respectable sexual behavior was ‘profane’ and ‘forbidden’ by the standards of the age. The character of Begum Jaan was far from being perfect, she was a sexual predator herself. So, while Chughtai drew her readers’ attention to the failure of the patriarchal institution of marriage, she resisted from portraying Begum Jaan as a character out of a feminist manifesto. She modeled Begum Jaan as aware of her privilege and exploiting those lower in social rank to hers. Yet the story painted the loneliness and frustrations of the flawed Begum Jaan. And that’s precisely Chughtai’s fiction; in the polarized world of today a reader might conclude she was consciously a loud flagbearer for feminism. But in reality, she always weaved her feminist tales with a touch of realism. A woman’s narrative is more layered than the pamphleteering of a movement, Chughtai seemed to tell us.
Lihaaf ruffled the quilted chambers of a genteel, respectable society. Published in the Urdu journal Adab-i-Latif, Lihaaf courted controversy and Chughtai was tried in the Lahore court, then a part of British India, on charges of obscenity. It is well-known that while the Crown did give Chughtai a chance to apologize in order to avoid a public trial and a hefty fine, she chose to contest the charges in court and won the case in court. After the Lihaaf controversy, Chughtai soon moved to then Bombay where she married Shahid Latif, a Hindi film director. This marked the beginning of a new phase in her career where she started writing screenplays, songs and dialogues for Hindi films.
Lihaaf had continued to ghost much of her later literary life but this did not deter her from continuing to write fearlessly on tabooed subjects to ruffle some more feathers.
Witty, unchaste, irreverent
Her first novella Ziddi drew a sharp critique of the sexual exploitation of young, female domestic help by their masters’ sons. As Gainda explored the themes of the caste-class nexus in patriarchal modes of oppression and the taboo surrounding widow remarriage and pre-marital pregnancy, Chughtai gave a new lease of life to female kinship in contemporary Indian fiction. Gainda, a lower-caste woman and also a young widow who is forbidden romance and sex, falls in love with an upper-caste Hindu male. As Gainda develops a shared sisterhood with the narrator — the young daughter of the employer — the story explores the possibilities of female kinship. In Til (The Mole), Chughtai busted the stigma surrounding ‘promiscuous’ women as the young Rani owns her mole — the signifier of her erotic agency — near the breasts with pride.
Chughtai and freedom of press
Scholars of Chughtai’s writing have gushed much on the strain of “wry humor” or wit in her work — a wit that not only shines through the mundane realities her prose attempts to depict but also places her in a league of her own. Wit has been traditionally a preserve of masculinity, and women writing fiction have been expected to toe in the lines of decency and decorum. But Chughtai’s irreverent humor rejected patriarchal modes of literary production and criticism. She delighted in projected ‘incivility’ that laid bare the hypocrisy of a genteel society.
In her book Yahan Se Wahan Tak, Chughtai wrote about the importance of art and free press: “If writers, journalists and thinkers turn away from present-day circumstances and write merely for personal gain, their work will lack vigor, and anything that is lifeless is not meaningful.” One doesn’t need to be told how this rings true for our present-day realities. Here’s to the forever defiant, forever “bad girl” of Urdu literature on her birth anniversary.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)