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Torchbearer of a literary revolution

Ismat Chughtai, enfant terrible of Urdu literature, has been accused of having a limited choice of subject matter. That is true, for she wrote of only what she knew at first hand. But within these limits she perfected her art, giving the greatest shock that an artist can ever give her readers, says RAKHSHANDA JALIL.

A BOLD and unconventional woman, Ismat Chughtai was the enfant terrible of Urdu literature. Always one to take delight in her own wantonness and the many apocryphal stories that grew around her, she spearheaded a literary revolution. Startling readers with her uncompromisingly fierce honesty, her writing was laced with an acerbic wit and an astonishing frankness. Because she dared to raise the veil of hypocrisy that covered much of genteel, middle-class society, she came to be known as a rebellious woman - a label that amused and entertained her.

Ismat: Her Life, Her Times is a tribute to Ismat Apa. First in a series of Katha's Approaches To Literature In Translation, it attempts to put a writer's entire body of work in its correct socio-cultural, political and historical perspective. Edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadique, this volume contains extracts from Ismat's essays, letters, interviews as well as critical writing, assessing Ismat's ouvre, family photographs and memorabilia. A bit of stringent editing could perhaps have taken care of the many tedious repetitions and overlaps and a "too literal" translation of some of the extracts. There is enough here to whet the appetite of any budding Ismat Chughtai acolyte. But what is truly bewildering is the complete absence of even a scrap from her stories; stories that were the life and blood of Ismat the writer and Ismat the woman.

In all of the hype and hoopla that surrounds her persona, one often tends to overlook the fact that Ismat Chughtai happened to be a darned good storyteller and an excellent writer. He craft was, in many ways, like a storyteller's in the oral tradition - one who was accustomed to narrating stories to a live audience. In her stories (and the marvel is, even in some of the translated ones) she "talks" and the reader "listens". Her stories speak just like her - they talk of bittersweet things, they laugh and chatter and gossip. Sometimes they admonish, sharply, like a rap on the knuckles. At other times, they gush and gurgle like exuberant teenagers. Ismat wrote in a language that was at once vibrant, colloquial and down-to-earth. It was the language of real people who spoke a pungent, idiomatic, often ribald, richly layered and multi-textured dialect. Her narrative has tremendous in-built momentum, hurtling along at breakneck speed to bring us to a jerking halt in the end to a denouement that is either poignant and sobering or startling in its complete unexpectedness. Ismat herself admits this tumbling haste: "I am not used to writing in privacy because I never got a chance to do so. There would be a din all around, the radio would keep on blaring, children would continue to have fights, and I would keep on writing. That is why my writing has acquired a certain raciness, there is always a chaotic hurry."

A compulsive desire to share all her experiences lies at the heart of her writing. Everything she saw and heard, every morsel of titillation she could glean from old family retainers, any stray bit of recollection from her voracious and very eclectic reading - everything was grist to her mill. Ismat had a near photographic recall of childhood memories, of eavesdropping on the conversations of grown-ups while hiding behind a takht, of having endless gossip sessions with dhobis and sundry others who visited her typical, middle-class Muslim household. Most of her stories are written in the first person. This explains the intense realism of her work and the true-to-life quality of her characters.

Ismat has been accused of having a limited choice of subject matter. That is true. She wrote only of what she knew well and knew at first hand. But within these limits she perfected her art. In her hands, the begumati zabaan, a peculiarly feminine sub-dialect of Urdu spoken in the Badayun-Aligarh belt, became a powerful tool. It could be razor sharp in its depiction of hypocrisy and exploitation, or gently humorous of lesser, forgiveable human foibles. She had a deep and abiding preoccupation with the lot of women, their cultural status and role in Indian society. Her stories abound with nubile young girls, middle-aged matrons, careworn widows, cantankerous grandmothers, sisters-in-law who produced a baby every year, obese beauties clinging to a long-past youth, a stream of Bachcho Phuphis, Achchi Bis and Begum Jaans. As critic Varis Alavi rightly notes in "Some Aspects of Ismat's Art": "One is continually amazed to find that these characters already exist in our midst - as our old grandmothers, aunts, sisters, sisters-in- law and uncles. Ismat gives us the greatest shock that an artist can ever give her readers - the shock of recognition and identity!"

In the course of her voracious reading, Ismat was greatly impressed with the work of Tolstoy, Dosteyevsky, Somerset Maugham and Premchand. From them she learnt the craft of the short story, of it having a beginning, a middle and an end and most notably a sting in the end. Ismat has written some of the most tender and sensitive stories to be found in contemporary literature such as "Til", "Gainda", "Bhool Bhullaiya", as well as scripts for films such as "Ziddi", "Garam Hawa" and "Sone ki Chidiya". Yet she is most remembered for the infamous "Lihaf" - the story of a lesbian relationship between a bored begum and her female servant which created a furore in 1942 when it was first published and even landed Ismat in a court on charges of obsenity. In her autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, she writes: "(Lihaf) became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight".

Ismat had decided, rather early on in life, that she would sail her own boat. Her dream was to soar beyond the horizon, taut and stretched like a kite. In that she was a true blythe spirit, free, untramelled and undaunted. But she was also, in Manto's memorable words, a "woman through and through".

Ismat: Her Life, Her Times, edited by Sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadique, Katha, February 2000, Rs. 395.

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