In 2014, Dedh Ishqiya brought Ismat Chughtai’s infamous short story Lihaaf to the screen for the first time. The story of a lesbian couple, a begum and her maid, was written in 1942 but even in the 2014 film, the reference was fleeting enough for no one to take offence. The film couldn’t possibly be pinned down for obscenity, and neither could Chughtai, but in her case it wasn’t for the lack of trying. Which is not to say she wanted to be, but she had a no holds barred attitude, and wrote despite the standards of modesty that were placed on women in her time.
Chughtai is described often as the subcontinent’s foremost feminist writer. Her writing is affable for the honesty with which she writes.
A rebel from the outset with a sharp eye, ready wit and humour. She strategised getting an education beyond school, wrote despite being criticised by her own family, swayed her cousin to ask for her hand in marriage to avert being married to another man, these are among the better known legends from Ismat Chughtai’s life. Her outspoken-ness was almost out of her control as she describes here:
"In the beginning I did not know how people reacted to my work. I wrote only for Saaqi, and the letters that came for me were thrown away by the editors of the journal. Unfortunately, Lihaaf was the first story that was published immediately after my marriage, and thinking I would be responsible enough, Shahid Ahmed Sahib handed over all the letters to me. The tone of these letters was so frightening that initially I broke out into a cold sweat."
"Thoroughly chastened, I reined in my pen, and as far as I know, I haven’t slackened it afterwards. But I bore the curse of the environs in which I was brought up. I could not give up the habit of speaking my mind. And when people, annoyed by my forthrightness, stooped to name-calling, I did not take it as personal affront. I was accustomed to squabbling and fighting bitterly, and then making up. I enjoy teasing people and if, in return, anyone hurls stones at me, I do not hold it against him."
- A Life in Words, M. Asaduddin’s Translation of Ismat Chugtai’s Autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan
For someone of her stature it is weird that her birthday remains unclear. Some cite her as being born in 1911, and others as 1915. The date of her birth may be 21 July or 15 August or 21 August, different books quote different dates and Chughtai herself was not too keen on dates in her autobiography.
Part of the progressive writers movement, her writing was perhaps scandalous for its times. But her personality more so. In this rare recording of a radio show she calls the burden of modesty placed on women suffocating.
Read this account of her receiving a summons from jail and being, even if playfully, excited about it. Her peer Manto was undergoing an obscenity trial alongside her and they both made a good time of it in Lahore. Chughtai even says that she said a little prayer for the government for providing them this “opportunity”.
I read through the summons but could barely make any sense of it. My story Lihaaf had been accused of obscenity. The government had brought a suit against me, and I had to appear before the Lahore High Court in January. Otherwise the government would penalize me severely.
‘Well, I won’t take the summons.’
‘You have to.’
‘Why?’ I began to argue as usual.
‘What’s up?’ This was Mohsin Abdullah, sprinting up the stairs. He was returning from somewhere unknown, and his body was covered with dust.
‘Just see, these people want to inflict this summons on me. Why should I take it?’ Mohsin had passed his law exams with a first class.
‘I see. Which story is this?’ he asked after reading the summons.
‘It’s an ill-fated story that has become a source of torment for me.’
‘You’ll have to take the summons.’
‘Don’t be stubborn,’ Shahid flared up.
‘I won’t take it.’
‘If you don’t, you’ll be arrested,’ Mohsin growled.
‘Let them arrest me. I won’t take the summons.’
‘You’ll be thrown into prison.’
‘Prison? Good. I’ve a great desire to see a prison house. I’ve urged Yusuf umpteen times to take me to a prison, but he just smiles. Inspector Sahib, please take me to jail. Have you brought handcuffs?’ I asked him endearingly.
– A Life in Words, M Asaduddin’s Translation of Ismat Chugtai’s Autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan
Chughtai worked in Bollywood too, writing for Garm Hawa and Junoon, and even acted in the latter.
The woman was a trail blazer. And a humanist entrenched deeply in the society she was operating out of, and subverting it through her sharp observations and fiction. The original bad girl who couldn’t help being just that.
(All excerpts used with permission from A Life in Words translated by M Asaduddin. Copyright 2013. Published by Penguin India)
(This story was first published on 24 October 2015. It is being republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Ismat Chughtai’s birth anniversary.)