Writing silences[1].

Silences, silencing or silenced. While the subjective meaning of the word changes, they carry with themselves the sense. The ‘condition-of-women novel’[2] near the 1870’s was written in Urdu and became a part of the Urdu literature. These included works of Nair Ahmed and his nephew Rashidul Khairi. However, those documented by women came later in the early 1900’s through various women journals. These women via these journals would talk about the public domain and issues surrounding it which otherwise remained inaccessible for them. Moreover, Muslim women, unlike their portrayal as women of limited access and oppressed, had been accessing their agency in other myriad ways if not through speech. Begums of Bhopal were mostly popular for encouraging education and a more forward stance within the domains of purdah. However, the act of silencing which begins when the subject allow themselves to be portrayed as subjects, it further strengthened more when the reactionary or rebellion voices do not come in retaliation. At times the subject coins him or herself as the ‘other’ and internalises its existences as the silenced. For the voices to be heard there is a need to speak within ones domain, about ones domain. Following this analogy, Rasheeda Jahan and later, Ismat Chughtai can be seen as the forerunners. Both these women took the onus of writing about these silences. Before Chughtai, Jahan had already created furore with the release of Angaray and now it was Chughtai’s turn to do so. With Lihaaf she had put the idea of sexuality stark naked. Her story not only questioned lesbianism but questioned the idea of male sexuality and masculinity. Her style of writing was witty, vivid and lucid with a biographical tone. From writing about her aunt in Bichu Phuphi to her own account in Tehri Lakheer, she encapsulated not only various age groups of women but also various kinds of them, different in background, stature, situation and class. To create a whole gamut of narratives from her own lived experiences and observations, she was successful in giving a new meaning to the idea of a woman, in a colonial world as well as a post colonial one. Her engagement with the Progressive Writers though vital, had always been at loggerheads in terms of her selection of topics. This paper shall attempt to figure the same taking Lihaaf into consideration. I will also look into the position of Ismat Chughtai as a female writer in a male dominated Progressive Writers Association, especially after the trial for Lihaaf .

In Partha Chattejee’s essay Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World; A Derivative Discourse?, he talks about the nationalist discourse that had come about as a result of resistance and reactionary movement against the dominating colonial forces. For a resistance to take over, certain other resisting forces are often suppressed. During the national struggle, writing become primary force for representation of the suppressed and silenced voices. The nation and the nationalist agenda was in the outer space, while the inner domain was kept untouched from these forces. For the nationalists freedom was freedom from traditions.[3] In the process, the woman was forgotten and her struggles within the domesticity wasn’t explored. The woman had to be within the territory where she was not only protected but her role as the nurturer- as the one who would instill values in their progeny. The writer was usually a man, few were women. Women were represented through pen; however the one in the remotest margin of the outer domain- the prostitute, Dalit woman, the exploited one, was never behind the zenana. She would be the imagined one.

Ismat Chugtai

Almost a decade before the Indian independence, in 1936, the All India Progressive Writer’s Association had taken birth. In its maiden meeting at Lucknow, Premchand in his speech talks about dealing with ideas like ‘basic problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness and political subjection’ , previously in the manifesto he also talks about to ‘combat literary trends reflecting……. exploitation of man by man.’ [4] The gender is a missing component from the manifesto which later occurs in these writers’ works as a complementary form of exploitation. The association mostly devoted their writing in peasant problems, caste system where a woman’s exploitation was as I said earlier, was complementary. The upper caste woman behind the zenana was misunderstood and seen as a co-exploitator. After Rasheeda Jahan, Ismat Chugtai took the baton of putting the woman in the centre of her stories, where caste and communalism were complementary issues. She wrote with a perspective of a woman where the woman wasn’t a construction out of a man’s imagination, but as a part of a ‘lived experience’ or a sedimentary understanding of being a woman. The woman was understood through the lens of a woman. It not only gave a befitting understanding of gender related issues but the approach was able to hit the bull’s eye- Lihaaf’s trial being one of them.

Apparently, when the trial orders had come to Chughtai, she was never surprised. According to her autobiographical accounts in Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, her husband Shahid Latif, whom she had married out of her own choice, was not very supportive of her writings, and did find her guilty of what she had written. He in fact pressured to bail herself out of the unnecessary trial that “Shahid could not bear the disgrace and humiliation of a public suit. His parents and elder brother would be terribly upset if they heard of it.”[5] However, what followed hence was a successful trial at the Lahore court. They won on the grounds that no obscene content was written but was a mere conjecture on the part of the readers. The authorial intention was with the purpose of representing not obscenity but to portray reality, which is often seen but ignored; another form of exploitation that happened behind the zenana of an aristocratic Muslim household.

Lihaaf (The Quilt) begins with an autobiographical tenor of a young Ismat who was born amongst many male siblings and “was busy fighting every boy or girl that came” her way. The narrator is a young girl who is sent to her aunt’s house- the muhboli sister of the narrator’s mother, who was married to a pious, aristocrat who unlike other men of his age was never interested in other women; he never glanced lecherously at them. She describes the old aristocratic house as “there wasn’t a single child, not even a mouse of a one, to quarrel with in that house. A nice punishment for me!” The house that echoed silence was burgeoning with subversive, reactionary moments at night within blanketed spaces. The child is filled with horror when she sees shadows of elephants coming from the blanket. The itch that Begum Jan carries with herself is that of an unconsummated marriage. Her sexual itch is fulfilled by Rabbu, her maid, who cures her itch with her oils. Rabbu would eat and sleep alongside Begum Jan. “Rabbu and Begum Jan were topic of amused conversation at social functions and public gatherings”, however in the narrative Nawab Sahib never comes as a topic of amusement in the same gatherings. On the contrary, his position as a benevolent benefactor of many young fair skinned Muslim boys is seen as a deed. The young eyes of the narrator do not miss the sexual exploitation that happens with these boys. The tone of the story is not only innocent but brings with it the baggage of exploitation that such upper class domestic spaces carry. The exploitation carried forward is not capitalistic or bound with the thread of caste; it is gender which plays a crucial role in forming a chain of exploitation. While the Nawab Sahib is the outright perpetrator, Begum Jaan herself becomes complicit in the entire act. Husband’s ignorance of hiswife’s sexual needs, leads her to find her fulfilment through the house maid Rabbu, who being subservient to this lady, ‘massages’ her. She cools her itch by oiling her. The young girl narrates, that she had never seen her aunt without her itch and without Rabbu as well. However, when Rabbu takes leave for a few days, the violence extends to the young narrator herself who is made accomplice to fill the itch. She is directed by the aunt, and what follows are a series of attacks made on the girl. Chughthai does not give a moralistic standpoint but on the contrary she portrays the layer of exploitation that occur within domesticities that are upper both by class and caste. Here the class and caste struggle ceases which on the contrary AIPWA stresses; on the contrary gender struggle becomes a burgeoning issue that Chugtai was reprimanded for in her stories.

She mentions in Kaghazi Hai Pairahan[6] “The Progressives neither appreciated nor found fault with me. This suited me well.” The neutrality observed, though worked well for Chughtai, like Manto, she found no direct support from her Party. She was often criticised by the left critics themselves for her engagement with sexuality in her work. She says in her essay titled “Progressives Literatures and I”:

“For instance, when the policy of the Party rigidly concluded that Progressive literature is only that which is written about the peasant and the labourer, I disagreed. I cannot know and empathize with the peasant class as closely as I can feel the pain of the middle and lower class. And I have never written on hearsay, never according to any set rules, and never have I followed the orders of any party or the Anjuman [Association]. Independent thinking has always been my nature and still is.”

For her the essential idea for writing a ‘progressive’ account was about one’s own lived reality and observations. In PWA itself she would often account of having debates over ‘legitimate description of sexuality’ and obscenity. Eroticism and obscenity by that point of time was seen as almost equivalent. She believed writing about obscenity was about representing the lived reality that often gets lost in the process of labelling it as obscene, hence hidden. She thus, reiterated sexuality in ways as it was- in its crassness. Be it the New Woman in the turn of century that belonged to an upper-middle class or the one already in the public space but in the minority. Some of her best examples being that of The Crooked Line, which comes both as a part of her lived reality as well as observations.

Ismat Chughtai, unlike her contemporaries wrote short stories even before Partition. Her stories had a sense of familiarity which was brought through use of idioms and metaphors within a limited framework. By creatively articulating myths, symbols and abstraction she was able to bring about a sense of social realism.

Ismat Chughtai’s involvement with women and their myriad issues, though it became the centre point of all her stories, came merely out of observations and her lived experiences. Not only did she uncover scenarios of women sitting in the inner courtyard and chatting, it was significant in the way barriers and purdah works in forming their psyche and social reality. It also determines the fate of their daughters and the education that they would receive in the years to come. Interestingly, when Ismat’s own elder sister was about to be sent to an all girls boarding, the mother herself had contested the father’s wishes. She believed that it was better to send ones girl to prostitution than educate her. And few years down the line Ismat, became one of the few Muslim women who had a degree in BA from Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow. Her education and rebellion had not only allowed her to give voice to women, their need for freedom, as well as find ways to uncover the ‘Lihaaf’ in their lives.

(The paper was presented at Lucknow University on account of birth centenary seminar on Ismat Chugtai)


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Gopal, Priyamvada. Literary Radicalism in India-Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independance. India: Routledge Research in Postcolonial Literatures, 2005.

Malashri Lal, Shormishtha Panja, Sumanyu Satpathy. Signifying the Self Women and Literature. New Delhi: Macmillan India Ltd, 2004.

Negi, Manjulaa. Ismat Chughtai A Fearless Voice . New Delhi: Rupa.co, 2003.

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[1] M.Asaduddin. Introduction to Ismat Chughtai A Life in Words. Memoirs. Penguin Books, New Delhi. pp xiv


[3] Bhattacharya, Baidik. Domain, Domination and Domesticity: Nationalism, Gender and Women’s Writing in Colonial India

[4] 1st Manifesto of PWA, adopted in the Foundation Conference 1936. It has been reprinted by the South Asian Peoples Forum UK to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the foundation of the PWA.

[5] M. Asadudddin, Ismat Chugtai- A life in words, Memoirs. Penguin Books New Delhi. 2012.

[6] Ismat Chughtai M. Asaduddin (Translated)A Life in Words Memoirs. Penguin Books, New Delhi, pp 25.