Remembering Urdu literature’s most powerful woman writer, Ismat Chughtai

Considered the grand dame of Urdu fiction, Ismat Chughtai was one of the Muslim writers who chose to remain in India after the subcontinent was partitioned.

Ismat Chughtai

She is considered as one of the pillars of Urdu literature and on her 107th birth anniversary find out more about this celebrated writer Ismat Chughtai. A non-conformist of the 1900’s whose writing fueled the agenda, sexuality and topics that mattered to women.

This terrific writers work along with Rashid Jahan, Wajeda Tabassum and Qurratulain Hyder, gave rise to the revolutionary feminist politicking at a time where oppression was the norm of a society. It was this society that was still yet to accept that women were more than just childbearing, sexual receptors for men.

Chughtai brought women and their story to the fore with her brilliant works. Her outspoken and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice for the unheard, and she has become an inspiration for the younger generation of writers, readers and intellectuals.

Ismat Chughtai born August 21, 1915 in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh is known to be one of the most prolific authors in Urdu literature of the early 1900’s. She was one who did not shy away from topics that was suggestively taboo, making her the most controversial female writers at the time.

Chughtai used her craft of words to explore matters of female desire and the longing to experience their sexuality and also wrote on conflicts of the middle class and their aspirations.

Among the beautiful pieces of works was her short stories like ‘Kafir’ and ‘Dheet’ that were considered blasphemous and triggered outrage in conservative circles for the alleged insult to the Quran.

It was when one of her most boldly daring works, Lihaaf (The Quilt) was published in the Lahore’s literary magazine Adab-i-Latif that Chughtai found herself at the centre of a storm.

The short story, Lihaaf (The Quilt), published in 1942, exuded the character of Chughtai’s literary oeuvre essaying the sensitivities of female homosexuality in the face of a conformist social landscape that treated the idea of same-sex relationship as taboo.

It was Deepa Mehta’s 1996 film, Fire, which is said to be the cinematic adaptation of Lihaaf. The film featured Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in lead roles.

Chughtai was hit with immense criticism and later charges of obscenity were laid against her and had to stand trial.

In terms of Urdu literature, the short story, Lihaaf is just one among many other pieces of her work in terms of Urdu literature. Her works include short stories like Kalyan, Ek Baat, Choten, among others.

The underlying theme of her writing was relentless in bringing to the fore the issues of women, the desires that fuel them even under oppression.

One should take the time to read one of her most famous works, the novel Tedhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line). In what can be described as one her best pieces of work, you meet the protagonist Shama who is rebellious, headstrong and knows exactly what she wants.

It is an apt presentation of the lives of Indian Muslims under colonial rule, and explores their struggles and desires just prior to Indian independence.

During the literary movement of the partition era, Chughtai was one of the most notable beacons of the Progressive Writer’s Association- an umbrella organization of left-leaning writers with Marxist undercurrents that included writers like Manto and Faiz Ahmad ‘Faiz’.

Chughtai passed away on Oct 24, 1991 and remains an integral figure in Urdu literature. Her works continue to initiate discussions and no discussion about feminist literature or women authors are complete without her.

Watch a rare interview with Ismat Chughtai