Unabashed and Unapologetic — Ismat Chughtai

It’s a sad sad day. I feel lost and aimless. My thoughts dart in all directions. I feel like I’ve been introduced to a new world, yet I am painfully aware of the world I live in. I finished reading the last page of Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chughtai, this morning; and I still feel like I am stuck in time. I can still hear Lajo’s playful lilt, that made the neighborhood men swoon. And I still can feel the turmoil of India-Pakistan partition fresh in the air. That is the power of Chughtai’s narrative.

Ismat Chughtai was a progressive contemporary urdu writer during the Indian pre-independence era, up until a few decades later. Her writing is known for its rebellion, and was compared to the likes of Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander. Her stories, based in her present, revolved around the lives of women.

I had never heard of Chughtai before, until a colleague introduced me to her last week. And how grateful I am for this discovery! Why? Because she calls it as it is. She writes without pretense — unabashed and unapologetic. She writes without a care in the world, while all her sensitivity is reserved only for the characters in her story. She describes details that we as people may observe, but are too embarrassed to admit to. As I made my way through the pages, I could feel a smile creep up my face.

One can’t ignore her distinctive writing style and flavor. Most of her stories are centered on a female protagonist, who is oppressed and boxed by a prevailing suffocating societal norm. And yet, all her female leads, find a way to rebel within that little box. All of them don’t simply sit on the sidelines crying as life goes by. They all learn how to make life their own, even when shunned. It’s not necessarily an example of a beautiful life. But it’s a life that is unique and owned. They are strong-willed and knowing. Knowing of the implication of their circumstances, and knowing of the strength they harness to make the best of it.

Chugtai’s stories are ironically timeless. Though a lot is being done, and there appears to be so much change towards gender equality. The number of women being independent emotionally and financially grows by the day. Yet, the overarching opinion seems to stay unchanged. If I may dare say, not much has changed in the perception of women as per convention, their ‘non-existent’ sexual desires, their expected dependency on their male counterparts, and the prestige bubble in being a reputed honorable woman who spends a lifetime protecting her modesty. We still live in a world where sexuality and lust is a man’s domain , while decent women are expected to be devoid of any flame. But that’s what I love about Chughtai’s women. They hold a raging desire, sometimes they wear it on their sleeve, sometimes they discreetly nurse it, but desire they do.

The only thing I mutter to myself, as I make my way through the stories is, She wrote this decades ago. If it’s a smack to my head today, imagine what it must’ve been then, in the more conservative age? That too in Urdu! A language known for it’s overt respect and “tameez”. I wish I had half the guts that she had…

Ismat was even summoned to court in 1944 for ‘Quilt’, her most controversial short story. She was charged with obscenity, and was asked to apologize. She refused and eventually won the case since no such ‘obscene’ word could be pointed out! The story though, does suggest lesbianism, but her writing is so layered, that after each section I would need to stop and think, does she mean what I think she does? This ambiguity makes it all the more tantalizing.

You know what is more heart-breaking than a book that gives you goosebumps? It’s a book that gives you goosebumps and comes to an abrupt halt. I can’t wait to lay my hands on her other stories!

If a read should be anything, it should jolt you awake. It should make you wish that the book has never ending pages. It should shake you from within, and yet delight your senses. It should draw up such vivid images, that if you close your eyes, you find yourself next to the detailed out characters, sitting pretty in their perfectly described environment.

The only thing left to my imagination is her stories coming alive through the language of Urdu, as was originally written. If the stories translated in English, can move me so much, I wonder how the stories must’ve been in their native Urdu.