ISMAT CHUGHTAI: A talk with one of Urdu's most outspoken woman writers

Mahfil  8,2-3 (Summer-Fall 1972), pp. 169-188

[[169]] Mahfil: You are considered a pioneer in the formation of the Urdu short story. Could you first describe some of your earliest writings briefly, and secondly, describe some of those early short stories which have given you such a prominent place in Urdu writing.

Ismat: I don't believe in this gradation business, in giving grades to things. What do you mean by "prominent" anyway? When I started writing, there was a trend -- writing romantic things or writing like a Progressive. When I started to write, people were very shocked because I wrote very frankly. In the beginning, people thought these pieces were by my brother, Azim Beg Chughtai,/1/ but under a different name. He was also shocked and said "Who's writing in my name and in my style?" Our styles were similar because we were brother and sister.

I didn't write what you'd call "literarily." I wrote and do write as I speak, in a very simple language, not the literary language. You know the difference between literary and spoken language. I used to write grammatically incorrect sentences, because while speaking, you sometimes speak incorrect sentences. I used to write this way. You know, my Urdu was very weak because all the subjects at Aligarh where I studied were in English: history, geography, mathematics -- everything in English, so that my Urdu was not my mother tongue, and in a sense, I found it difficult to write in it. All the time I had to write English, so I had little time to look after my Urdu. Urdu was not important then. Being our own language, we did not give any importance to it. My Urdu was very weak and full of defects, but I started writing anyway. It was not my language that gained notice. It was the way I wrote that did, the frankness I wrote with.

Mahfil: Well, tell us about this frankness.

Ismat: It comes from my family. We were all frank, my father, my brothers, all of us. We never used to sit in separate groups, women in one place, men in another. My father was very progressive and very broadminded. He believed in education and gave me equal chances with my brothers. Horseback riding, everything.

[[170]] Mahfil: How many brothers and sisters were you?

Ismat: Ten all together. Six brothers and four sisters. I was the ninth; there was another younger brother. We were given full rein. Every Sunday we used to shoot and ride, one by one, and I never thought myself to be inferior to any boy. I used to speak as boldly as my brothers. I used to climb trees with them and used to go everywhere with them. I never felt any inferiority complex. I never had the feeling that, being a woman, I should be shy and nervous. Because of that upbringing, I am this way. And we discussed sex freely; even in those days sex was not a taboo subject for confersation in my house. We freely discussed it. In some places, people didn't even discuss pregnancy, but we openly talked about how our sister-in-law was pregnant and how her stomach was protruding. We knew the facts of life very simply and very easily because they were openly discussed. That was a peculiar thing and we were all considered quite mad. Peculiar, mad people!

Mahfil: This was in Aligarh?

Ismat: Yes. My father used to be a deputy collector, and he used to go from place to place. Agra is a very backward place, I recall, but we stayed there only two years and then came back to Aligarh. My father never cared for any criticism. We were all considered bold, rude and quarrelsome.

Mahfil: This frankness, then, was part of your personality and it found its way into your writing and, as a result, you made your name very quickly.

Ismat: A very bad name! My first piece was a drama for the magazine Saqi ["cup-bearer"]. I wrote it for school. I used to write little things for school, small dramas for cultural gatherings. This one was published in '38. Then I wrote my short story, Gela ["idiot"], then I wrote two or three more. After these, I wrote Lahaf ["the quilt"]./2/  You know, when I first wrote Lahaf this thing [lesbianism] was not discussed openly. We girls used to talk about it and we knew there was something like it, but we didn't know the whole truth. I had not read any book or any literature on it, so when I wrote this story, I showed it to my sister-in-law who was my own age. She recognized certain characters and said "This is So-and-so, and that is So-and-so." She didn't say it was dirty or anything. Then I gave it to my niece, who was fourteen, to read. She was very fond of reading my stories, but after she read this one she said, "What is it, I don't understand what you've written." I told her that I couldn't explain and that she'd understand when she grew up. When I wrote on this subject, I thought -- how stupid of me! -- that this was something only women did. I thought that men always went to prostitutes, but because girls can't go to prostitutes, they do this. Really, I was [[171]] very stupid at the time. I didn't know about it because no one ever discussed it. They might discuss sex, but not this aspect of it, perversion. So as soon as I wrote this, oh, it really was like an atom bomb exploded. People started calling me bad names. Nobody knew my address, so they could only write me through my editors.

Mahfil: Which magazine?

Ismat: Adab-i-latif ["belles-lettres"] and Saqi. Lahaf was first published in Adab-i-latif. People said that it was a very, very dirty story and that I was a very dirty person, coming from a very dirty family. They all said lots of bad things about me. Then I got married. When I first used to get these sorts of letters, the editors never sent them on to me. They would open them, and considering that I was a girl, would destroy the letters with obscenities in them. But when I got married, they said that I was a responsible person, so they sent me all the letters. I was married just after Lahaf was published; I wrote it in '42 and got married two months later. Then I received these huge bundles of letters, such dirty things! I never was so frightened and I never wrote that way again; I never repeated this mistake. If you look at my writing, you'll see that I then became very cautious in using frank, open words. Whenever anyone mentions the word Lahaf, I become very nervous.

Mahfil: But the story was certainly a breakthrough in Urdu short story writing --

Ismat: Then some supporters came through for me; they said that the story was all right. But I was sorry I wrote it. I said that I was sorry.

Mahfil: Who were among those supporting you?

Ismat: First Majnun Gorakhpuri wrote a piece about it; I still haven't read it. Then Krishan Chandar, and then, of course, Manto./3/

Mahfil: Manto, of course. Then, of course, you went on to other things. What were these? What did you write during the War?

Ismat: During the war I wrote my novel Terhi lakir ["crooked line"], a big, thick novel. I was sick then, pregnant with my daughter. But I was always writing that novel.

[[172]] Mahfil: When did you first get involved with the Progressive Movement? I spoke yesterday to another Urdu writer who said that he was minding his own business, writing, then all of a sudden, he discovered that he was called a "Progressive" and there he was, inside the movement. He never joined it formally, but there he was. What about you?

Ismat: When I was doing my B.A. in '36, I attended the first meeting of the Progressive Writers in Lucknow which Premchand attended. I didn't understand much then, but I had read Angare ["coals"]./4/ Then, of course, there was Rashid Jahan. She actually spoiled me. That was what my family used to say. The spoiled me because she was very bold and used to speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her. She influenced me a lot; her openmindedness and free-thinking. She said that whatever you feel, you should not be ashamed of it, nor should you be ashamed of expressing it, for the heart is more sacred than the lips. She said that if you feel a thing in your mind and heart and cannot express it, then thinking it is worse and speaking it better, because you can get it out into the open with words.

I was with the Progressive Movement from the start. But I was much too frank to be trusted; I was too openhearted and too bold for any party to make me a member. They wouldn't make me a member because I used to talk all sorts of nonsense. I am not afraid of talking any nonsense, not even into this [pointing to the tape recorder], because I don't think that anyone's name can be smeared or some good name can be spoiled. I don't think that I have such a very good or huge name that it can be spoiled or that anything can happen to it.

Mahfil: You say that you were a member of the Movement from the beginning. How did Progressives view your stories? Krishan Chandar appreciated them, you mentioned.

Ismat: Most of these people were my friends. More than my relatives, even. Friends. So sometimes they would praise me and sometimes they would condemn me. I didn't take it very seriously in any case. Neither the praise, nor the condemnations.

Mahfil: Would you say that the Progressive Movement is still a viable force in Urdu literature?

Ismat: It lived long before we gave it a name. I think that Bhakta Kabir/5/ was a Progressive writer. I think all people who have said something good and nice for the good of humanity are Progressive writers. And they didn't start in '35 or '36 only. They've existed in the past, only this name was not applied to them then. And they'll go on existing forever.

[[173]] Mahfil: You're taking the term "Progressive" in a very broad context, that is, literature that is somehow concerned with humanity, social awareness, a humanism, you might say. But what about this Progressive literature that is spoken of in the context of Marxism, Socialist Realism, Stalinism, etc. I am referring specifically to all of those highly political types of writing in Urdu during the '30s and '40s.

Ismat: But you can't separate these two. The two have always existed, politics and literature -- both what Dickens wrote and what Russian writers wrote after the Revolution. However, if you want to talk about the Progressive Writers organization, okay. As an organization, it was good. It helped us to meet each other and to give us an excuse to talk and learn the new values of life. We learned what was happening in the world. I never used to take any interest in politics, and without reading too much, I could through these meetings learn a great deal. At that time I did not study any of the serious literature, but I learned by talking to people, attending lectures, meeting people, learning about life and about Communism. Of course, Communism. I got interested in Communism through Rashid Apa [Rashid Jahan], and then I had to read about it in classes at I. T. College, Isabella Thoburn College of Lucknow University. There, the professors were very broadminded, and even in those days they were very sympathetic towards us and the Freedom Movement. There I learned about what the English had done to Indians. There I joined a class in comparative religion where there were also very broadminded teachers. They were the first ones to teach me about Communism.

There is much good in Communism, of course; but there need not be in Communists. Communism is an idea, just like Islam, like Christianity. But you can't say that all Muslims are Muslim or all Christians are Christian; nor are all Communists Communist.

Mahfil: Do you feel that this movement enriched Urdu literature greatly?

Ismat: Yes.

Mahfil: Do you feel that there was as much good done for poetry by this movement as for prose?

Ismat: Poetry suffered a great deal --

Mahfil: The real contribution of this movement seems to be in the short story. Would you agree?

[[174]] Ismat: The poets are very emotional people. They are what you'd call nara-bazi ["slogan-mongering"]. They are easily carried away and they express themselves in those fiery sentences which would look very artificial in prose. If you translate the same things into prose, they would look very artificial, but in poetry, you can do it. Poets are highly emotional. They get drowned in their emotions and yet they changed very quickly in the movement. Often the poets took back their words. So many of them have since had to edit their works because they've changed their minds about the movement. I have not taken back so much as a single word!

Mahfil: The amount of good prose that came out of the movement is impressive. Is there an equal amount of good poetry?

Ismat:  In those years, the poets were very young and not very mature. I'm speaking of the revolutionary poets. There were exceptions like Josh Sahab, and then Majaz,/6/ who died very early. He was sick and could not write. The other poets were not mature. This slogan-mongering was a curse on them.

Mahfil: But what of prose? There are, of course, many good short stories; but as for novels...

Ismat: Writing novels requires very hard labor, and most of the writers don't have the time to write, so they can live off their writing. A writers is very poorly paid. Only in films does a writer get properly remunerated, so most of the good writers go into film writing. They earn through films, then they write for pleasure. How can they do two jobs at once and really produce anything worthwhile?

Mahfil: Then it's simply a matter of time, and economic considerations, you feel, that keeps Urdu writers from writing better novels than they do.

Ismat: Yes. When they get some time, they write a short novel. Novels are being written, though. Whether they're good or not is something else.

Mahfil: Do you feel that there is any adverse effect on writers who get involved in film writing? Do you think that there is any problem in producing something for large mass audiences --

[[175]] Ismat: They're writing for bread! Naturally, they can't do much else in terms of better writing. How can I put this... their living is their bread and how can I say anything against films because it's through films that we've been fed!

Mahfil: I understand.

Ismat: Besides, people don't want to read long novels. Here they go and see films instead. What's more, the educated class in India prefers to read English novels. It's not at all fashionable to read Urdu literature. Only very few people read; the masses do read, but very cheap novels. They don't read serious-type literature. Just find out how many copies of Ag ka darya/7/ have been sold. Nobody can buy a Rs. 9/ novel. They buy a one-rupee novel, though. For the price of one good novel, you can go and see three films. These cheap novels don't take much time to read, either, in these small pocket editions. Even educated women -- college graduates -- don't believe in reading long, deep books; they read the smaller, lighter ones. They believe in reading comics. Comics are interesting, I suppose; they entertain you and they don't take too much time.

Mahfil: Then this leaves the Indian writer in a terrible lurch. In a sense, then, he's writing for himself and for a small group of friends.

Ismat: Besides, the publishers are terrible cheats. They'll say that they can't even sell a thousand copies of a book.

Mahfil: I do understand that there are publishers who take bribes to publish books, and what they sell, they keep for themselves. This is indeed unfortunate. Perhaps this is a good case for government patronage.

Ismat: And just who do you think will get this patronage? The very ones who can't write! That's who'll get the government's help. Who's to say!

Mahfil: Well, Qurratulain Hyder just got some government help.

Ismat: The government cannot patronize anything. They've been patronizing Hindi, and look what they've done with it. What a poor condition Hindi is in! Everybody hates it. Why? It's got the best script in the world, I think. It's so easy and phonetically correct. Urdu script is very bad; the letters are so confusing. My daughter refuses to study it. She says it's a rotten script. "How can I remember the letters? All the lines are lying down with only dots around them." The only difference is dots. I think the Hindi script is the best. But patronage has been given to Hindi; the other languages feel slighted. Why this patronage, people ask. See, suppose a mother loves one child more than her others, then all the rest [[176]] start hating that child. Even if that child is nice and good, they still hate him. So we hate Hindi because it's the government's ladli ["pet"]. Suppose the government started patronizing Urdu. That would be the best way to finish the language off. How can they possibly patronize writers, then? By giving scholarships? Or the Sahitya Akademi prizes? Besides, they don't give cash; they give bonds you can cash in after twelve years.

Mahfil: Let's pursue this matter of Hindi and Urdu. What do you think is going to happen to Hindi? What is going to happen to Urdu in India?

Ismat: Urdu will remain the tongue in people's mouths. People will go on speaking this language. Did you notice the difference between Pakistani Urdu and Indian Urdu? There are more Sanskrit words and Hindi words in Indian Urdu, and more Persian and Arabic words in Pakistani Urdu. That's the only difference; otherwise, it's one simple language which everybody understands and everybody speaks, with incidental differences. That language nobody can kill because that language was not created by any group. It took years to make this language; people have made it. No one is going to touch it. But the Urdu script will die because our children are not learning it.

Mahfil: Would people accept Urdu written in Hindi script?

Ismat: Yes. All the poets such as Ghalib and Mir have been translated, or I guess a better word is transliterated.

Mahfil: Then Hindi, as you see it, is just an artificial language patronized by the government which no one speaks.

Ismat: Only Akashwani/8/ speaks it. No one else. Everybody turns the radio dial when such people start speaking. They should have a simple Hindi, or that language that is spoken by everybody. Such a language should be the official language; the script should be Hindi and it should not be forced on the people.

You know, one thing is wrong with our leaders. They don't have tact. If Gandhi-ji, for example, said one word, we would listen to it and believe it as if it had been the word of God. Whatever Jawaharlal said, we also believed. When these people in office now say something, we don't listen. They don't use their brains. They don't have the beauty of language in what they say. They can't even tell beautiful lies. Couldn't they hire some good writers to write speeches for them? One language is not bad. One script is very good. If people would like to adopt it, they will; it should not be forced on them. As soon as this government came and said that you have to master Hindi in three months or you'll lose your job, of course people hate the government. Supposing they said that in three months you master Hindi and so much [[177]] would be your salary increment, or you get Rs. 3000/. Or, if you master it within two months, you get Rs. 6000/. Everybody would have tried to learn Hindi. They would have no need of more police to beat us and cram Hindi down our throats. They wouldn't have to force us, or humiliate us. It's humiliating for someone to be told: "You'll be out of your job if you don't learn this language." It's humiliating when you are a certain age and considered the head of a family and everybody is laughing at you -- study HIndi, otherwise you lose your job. Isn't that humiliating in front of your children? Now, a good man at the age of forty-give who is about to retire in a few years is supposed to learn Hindi or lose his job! That's a stupid way of going about things. Now take Gandhi. In '35 I attended one of his lectures, and really, I was very much thrilled, and from that day, I started wearing khaddar, you know, home-spun cloth. I threw away all my good saris. I gave the others away to my mother or my cousin-sisters. Khaddar was very expensive while very good foreign cloth was very cheap. Khaddar was expensive, but we used to bear it. We didn't even want to buy English medicines because we understood that by doing this, we could defeat the English. We could finish off their trade. We understood this point, and we followed what Gandhi said. Now, whatever the government says, we want to do just the opposite. Something is wrong with the government's methods, particularly their way of saying things.

Mahfil: Was the Progressive movement really a Communist movement, or simply a part of the Independence Movement, a facet, you might say, of this larger movement for freedom? It seems that the communist influence in this group is not such that the members were card-carrying Communists or that they believed fully and truly in everything Stalin or such people said; rather, the idea in the minds of the Progressives, it seems to me, was that India must be free and that the British were their enemies and so must leave.

Ismat: The Progressives were very concerned with inequality. It was the inequality among men that they wished to put an end to.

Mahfil: Would you say that the true nature of things in the movement was, in fact, more anti-British than pro-Communist?

Ismat: The Communist domination of the movement came to be strongest after the British left, after we got freedom. At first, the movement was certainly anti-British, then afterwards, later on, after '47, we found that the people in power were the henchmen of the British. Nothing had changed. We were thinking before that as soon as the British left, we would have a heaven here. It didn't come. It hasn't yet, either. So people are disappointed.

[[178]] Mahfil: Some people, particularly older people who have lived under the British, seem to think that maybe it was not such a good idea for the British to leave.

Ismat: For them! Very very few; a small minority. My uncle used to say that it was very bad that the Moghul Empire came to an end. He said that if the Moghuls were still in India, they would have done a great deal for India. A thing which is gone is gone. The British did nothing for us. They have not even done anything for their own country either. They hated everything Indian when they were here. They still don't think much of Indian culture. They adopted British culture here in India wherever they could.

Mahfil: But there were groups of British people and others who were the first to write about Sanskrit, Pali, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam in India; some of the first serious scholarship about India was done by the British.

Ismat: They wrote these things just for their own country; not for us. Look at our courses and our curricula. What sorts of things were we supposed to become; what sorts of things were we supposed to read. We were supposed to become clerks. Those things you mentioned were not written for Indians; they were written for foreigners, Britishers.

Mahfil: They brought the English language.

Ismat: The English language, indeed! ...and forced it on us. They didn't know that we'd read books and learn through their language and eventually throw them out. They wanted to teach their language, their culture. They believed that their language was the best and their culture the best. When we learned their language, we read many, many books; we even read Russian literature. We learned about Communism. They taught us about Communism. They taught us how to throw out foreign powers. When we threw them out, they were very angry about it, yet they gave us the means.

Mahfil: Let's talk about Urdu writers. Did you know Mirajii?/9/

Ismat: Yes, I met him. He was a very dirty man; he never used to take a bath. Full of complexes and very, very shy, very nervous. They said he was a pervert; they used to say rotten things about him. But he wouldn't talk. A very quiet man. As a poet, he wasn't very thrilling, not really. But I was very young at the time and I had not read very seriously in literature.

[[179]] Mahfil: Tell us about Manto.

Ismat: Technically, he wrote beautiful stories. He was bold and people thought that he was a debauchee. He was a very sweet, home-body person. His writings expressed his suppressed desires. This is what he wanted to be, those people in his stories. He wrote about sex, he made it look very attractive and sometimes repulsive. You read his things and you will find that his characters don't give you pleasure or a thrill. They jar you. All romance is killed. There's no romance in his writing.

Mahfil: His story Thanda gosht,/10/ for example, the very famous story --

Ismat: A horribly written thing! Technically, fine; but full of dirty words. But he is clever and he's written it very cleverly. It's a fine story, I suppose. You can feel the heat, the smells...

Mahfil: I look at that particular short story, for example, this way: the "obscenity" and the "dirty words" in it are what he's trying to express about the massacre of the Hindus and Muslims. The real obscenity is not in what is going on between this man and woman, or between the Sikh and the dead girl; rather, the obscenity is what is going on between India and Pakistan, the murder, the rape, the looting.

Ismat: He's writing about what happens when you sometimes rape!

Mahfil: Well, okay. But I prefer to look at it symbolically and I read the story as the people of India raping India, and in the end, getting killed themselves.

Ismat: I've never noticed anything symbolical about the story. Manto was a very sweet man, not at all vulgar-minded, I think. He was very sweet-looking, innocent, like a saint. I used to tell him that and he'd feel very bad. He used to say, "I'm not a saint; I'm a very bad man."

Mahfil: When did you first meet him?

Ismat: In '42, I think. In Bombay. Within two minutes of meeting, we started fighting. At some point or other, he said, "You knew what was going on in Lahaf, didn't you. You wrote it purposely." I answered that, of course I had written it purposely. It was only recently published then and we all were discussing it and fighting about it. He was a very frank man.

[[180]] Mahfil: What was the occasion of your writing your essay Manto, mera dost, mera dushman, "Manto, My Friend, My Enemy"?

Ismat: When he died. There was an issue of Nuqush ["designs"], the "Manto Number." Oh, how the man suffered! On the 18th of January of this year, they were celebrating his death anniversary in Pakistan, so they asked me to write something. I have written a letter asking them why they are celebrating it. I didn't write an article, but asked the chairman of this group why they're celebrating Manto's death anniversary. In every age, in every city, in every country a Manto is born. Bad people, irritating people, people who hurt you, who are so proud of themselves, though you don't believe them. They think they are great artists, great men, and they are shocked that you don't believe them. They want you to give them money or whatever whenever they want; they think you should be happy to help them, that you should feel privileged to give them money. They want you to entertain them because they are great. They are mean; they lie and cheat; they don't even take a bath. They are what you might call "hippies" and they fight and hurt other people and think that they are great. If you don't give these people money, they abuse you. They give you a dirty tongue. Then, one day, such a person dies, as Manto did. You've hated him and you've avoided him. He's exploited you. But one day he dies. Then all of a sudden you realize that he was, in fact, a great person. [a faltering in the voice.] That's what happened to so many people -- they're hated and tossed aside. Mirajii was another one like this. Now they praise them. Mirajii is now a great critic and a great poet and people write beautiful articles about him. I remember when he was in Poona, he was starving. He too wouldn't take a bath for months. They hated him, avoided him because he would ask for money. They thought he was exploiting them. As soon as he died, they started worshipping him. What sort of nonsense is this! Worshipping dead people!

Mahfil: Would you read the letter you wrote to the people in Pakistan about Manto? [She leaves the room and returns shortly.]

Ismat [reading in Urdu]: "It was in 1944 when the Imperial Crown filed suit against Manto and myself. The charges were obscenity. In those days, the elder and civilized people considered it their duty to abuse Manto and they thought that their action was part of their faith. People thought they would attain redemption by abusing Manto openly. Every day he received letters filled with threats and abuses. I was, however, immune from all these calamities because, except for a few editors, nobody knew my address. Moreover, I used to tear up these letters and throw them away after going through the first couple of lines. I would soon forget them altogether. But Manto would read these letters again and again and would also read them aloud to his friends. They put an end to his peace of mind. One day, just to tease him, I said, 'Manto, when you die, people will worship you and call you a standard-bearer of all greatness. People will permanently attach the word "great" to your name. They'll call you an expert psychologist and a national reformer.' [[181]] Manto got very mad at all of this and began to shout while trying to scowl at me as best he could with his very large eyes. 'By God,' he said, 'if that happens, I'll come out of my grave and haunt them.'

"Have you visited Manto's grave recently? Have you looked it over closely? Did you find any cracks in it? I don't know. His grave has been constructed with so much grandeur. It's a marble grave, and it was his misconception that he would come out of it after death. After death, a man becomes entirely helpless, whether his dead body is burned and his ashes scattered here and there, or whether he is buried under loads of earth, or whether his statue is put up on a main road so that the kites and crows have a place to leave their droppings. Where were you when he was alive, when the newspapers and magazines were unloading baskets of dirt and filth upon his head? When he was in a mental asylum and saw ghosts and apparitions around him? Perhaps you were very young at that time; but ask those who were clearly not young in those days. Ask them what they were doing. Didn't they know anything about him? Where and what was he searching for? At what turning point in his life had he come? Didn't they know anything? Couldn't they do anything for him? They why are you holding all these functions in his name? From whose hands are you trying to wash off the dirt? In the dark recesses of whose conscience are you trying to alleviate the shame of this scandal? Did you ever think about it? What happened to Manto and why did it happen? And now, by having this anniversary and by expressing your grief at his death, can you ever compensate for all those things that happened to him? Will centuries of breast-beating ever pull out the arrow which has pierced the throat of Ali Asghar?/11/ Would those innocents who are breathing their last in Viet Nam ever come to life again by having one such grand ceremony? Can the pieces of bones pulverized in Hitler's pestle ever be put together again into people? Is there any court which is competent to cross-examine those who are responsible for Manto's tragedy? Is there anyone so courageous as to come forth and admit his fault? Indeed, you were not born twenty years ago, but was no one else born at that time? Manto lived in a lonely jungle where there was no one to help him. Can you tell me why a human being is left alone like that? Why did the people around him cease to exist? Why did they go to sleep, turn blind and deaf and then into stones? And the entire blame of this lonely man's death is thrown upon Death itself. And after Death has conferred its great benediction, people all start to yawn, then to off on their separate ways, each now convinced of his greatness. These people now write forceful articles in praise of him; he becomes famous. His anniversary is celebrated with all the pomp and show possible. Thus, the person who leaves the world, who dies, becomes the beloved in the eyes of those who live on.

"Manto always hated artificiality and hypocrisy, and I really feel frightened to talk about him in a roundabout manner. If ever I face him again, he might quarrel with me. How great a story writer he was! I [[182]] am not at all impressed by this fact, nor am I impressed as to how great an artist he was. He was a human being, the father of children, the husband of some woman. It is not enough to be a human being, to live in this world? Pardon me, gentlemen; your function might have already occurred, and whatever I am writing is neither an article, nor a eulogy, nor has it any beginning or end. It is a very naive protest against the obduracies of life. What is the use of having all these functions and gatherings for him? I can assure you that if Manto were born twenty years later, or if you had been born twenty years earlier, it would have made no difference. There is no use putting every blame upon Birth or Death. And remember, gentlemen, what I tell you: even after twenty years, Manto would still strike his head against the bars of a prison, as he in fact did, and people would still have death anniversary celebrations for him after he died, as you in fact are. But during his lifetime, people would still kick him down. Look carefully to see if there is any Manto among you. Is there anyone among you who talks nonsense, who is extremely sensitive, who makes lots of silly mistakes and blunders, and who says things that no one understands? Is there anyone among you who thinks that no one understands him, who goes on showing his obstinacy, who sticks like a thistle on the hem of every passerby until he becomes unbearable? Is there anyone among you who thinks he's a great writer, but nobody is willing to admit it, a pauper or beggar who asks for money, properly and improperly, someone people try to avoid because he is alone? Beware of such a fraud, for if he dies tomorrow, you might have to bow your heads before him. You might be compelled to write articles; you might be compelled to hold gatherings in his honor. But these things cannot compensate for Death, and the arrow which has pierced Ali Asghar's throat may continue to irritate the throat of your conscience." [several moments of silence.]

Mahfil: Would you care to make some critical comments on some of your fellow writers? What about Annie [Qurratulain Hyder]?

Ismat: She's really growing up, really coming into her own. Her writing style was always very attractive, only the contents were sometimes boring, sometimes the characters too. Now she is getting deeper into these aspects of writing.

Mahfil: According to one Urdu critic, her Ag ka darya is perhaps the greatest novel written in India. What do you think of such a statement?

Ismat: It could be... I don't know. It also has some defects. It is beautifully written, though. The whole conception is very good. One thing, particularly, is that it is very readable. I couldn't get through Mere bhi sanamkhane ["my temples as well," 1947] and that Sitaron se age ["beyond the stars," 1949]. They were boring, I thought. No matter how many pages you read, nothing happens. Only beautiful sentences; beautiful, beautiful sentences. She's got good raw material in this Ag ka darya; she's got good story material too. Incidents and happenings. It's great.

[[183]] Mahfil: What about this recent collection that just won the Sahitya Akademi prize for her?

Ismat: It's much better than her past stories, I haven't read her new novel that's coming out serially in Guftagu ["conversations"]. It's called Akhir-e shab ke hamsafar ["night's end for the fellow-travellers"]. She's been telling me to read it. I told her I don't like to read novels in installments. I don't want to read one section and then wait for three months for the next. I forget. I plan to read it when it's finished.

Mahfil: What of Bedi?/12/

Ismat:  He's got style, and characters too. What's progressive about his characters? What's more, why should they be progressive? His Ek chadar maili si is a beautiful and integrated picture of a human being. His language, some say, is very defective, but I find it very attractive. The story has the forcefulness of a thunderbolt.

Mahfil: It's translated into English. The translation leaves a great deal to be desired...

Ismat: Unless a thing is translated into English, it doesn't have any value. And if it is translated, it is not translated very well! Is that what you're saying? In English you can't get the real thing. Why?

I like to see my things translated. But you can't get the nuances of Urdu into English translation. Once Patras had something to say to me about wanting my stories translated into English. He asked, "Why? Is English literature any the poorer without your stories?"

Mahfil: Let me answer that for you: definitely, yes it is!

Ismat: There is one story I'd really like to see translated. It's about this woman who gets wives for her husband. She gets him two more wives. One is much younger. Now the older wife knows that the husband goes out and spends money on women. She's a politician and an economist, so she decides that if she brings in another wife, that wife will be working in the house as a servant and it will also save the money the husband would spend on other women. So she gets her husband another wife.

The husband is flattered and he's now obliged to the elder wife. So she gets a young girl, who's really quite ugly, but still, young. She gets pregnant and then becomes the husband's favorite. The elder wife is alarmed, so she tells her husband that he must have another [[184]] wife, because pregnant women are not good for a man's health, particularly his sexual power. He's frightened, the fool, so he gets another girl, after a little protest. Now the eldest wife has two women to rule over. She makes them do embroidery and sells it. The younger wives have to look after the eldest one, giving her baths and massaging her feet. She has a very nice time and the old man is happy. She sends a younger wife to the man each evening. If she's displeased with one of them, she'll send the other to him, or will threaten to sell the one she's displeased with. This story got quite a reaction from the politicians. Everybody praised it and was happy with it. It's called Mojza, "Miracle." The first wife is the miracle in this story. It's in the collection Do hath.

The title story from the collection is interesting too. It's about a boy, a sweeper, who goes to war and comes home after two years and finds that his wife has had a child while he was away. He is happy about it; so are his mother and grandmother. No question about the child being legitimate or not; they value it because he's a male child. Actually, a cousin is the father. The sweeper's father chastizes his son for accepting the illegitimate child. The lad answers, "What can I do? He's our own blood."

You know, I'm not a critic. If I like a story, I like it. I don't care whether the writer is an established one or a young one. If the story is good, I like it. The writer is a greater person for that story. THat's why I'm not keen on saying that So-and-so is the best this, or So-and-so is the best that. I don't like this business of giving grades, as I said when we started. I will say, though, that the younger generation of writers are very conscious of who are the old writers and who are important writers. Nobody is important or unimportant. You yourself alone can give grades to yourself.

Mahfil: You don't look upon yourself as a great writer?

Ismat: No. I haven't got greatness; I have something else.

Mahfil: Some people have called you great.

Ismat: They might have, but I don't think do. I care more for my house and my children. They are more important to me than Urdu literature.

Mahfil: Do you read Indian writing in English, such authors as Raja Rao or R. K. Narayan?

[[185]] Ismat: Their writings are like the writings of English people who wrote in Urdu. They're very nice, even good sometimes, but nothing more. As modern novels, their works are not so powerful. In comparison to great Western novels I am always reading, they are not quite up to the mark. It's probably because of the language. And the topics aren't so very intense either.

I think that the writing in Indian vernacular literature is much superior. Do you know Chemeen?/13/ It's like The Old Man and the Sea. A great novel.

Mahfil: What do you think the future of English is in India?

Ismat: Those in power know no other language than English, so they want to keep it. But it won't last long. The way the standard is falling is terrible; it's falling every day. Within twenty years, it has gone down very much. In nearly every school or college, they allow the vernacular, and students write their answer in the vernacular. I have seen in Bombay where the medium of instruction is English and the standard here is much better than in the North, where the standard is very low. The best English is spoken in the South. Students in the North start English from the sixth class, and when, after four years, they do their matriculation, their English is rotten. What students elsewhere are learning in the tenth class, here in Bombay students are learning in the fifth.

No, English will not last very long. English should be retained as a subject of study; it should be for people who want to study English. But some people want us to be cut off from the world. The world's literature is in English. You know, though. how many really read literature? People read True Romance and such things. Most people read this sort of thing. Real literature doesn't interest people who read comics, and those absurd, obscene books. Anyway, English should remain as an elective subject. Those who really want to study it should do so; it should be used to translate books from other languages and from Indian languages. As you know, there is very little translation work done here in India.

Mahfil: How do you go about writing a short story? Do you make a sketch or an outline, or does it come to you all at once?

Ismat: Sometimes I find a little piece of a story and I may not have an ending for it. Sometimes I have the middle, but not the beginning. Somehow or other, I get another idea. And it is very receptive to the first one, and I find it growing, and then I forget it. I see another incident, the end sometimes, and I add this to what I already have written, and I hurry to put it all down on paper. You take things out of your memory. I have this capacity for retaining actual dialogues that have taken place long ago. My first writings were like this. I told you I came from a very large family. The women used to speak a particularly beautiful language. When I was studying, I found it difficult to concentrate if there were any noise. If there was a distraction, I would very quickly write down what various people were [[186]] saying, two or three full pages. I would then read the conversation to these people aloud and they'd become very interested in what I had written. Soon the whole family would come around me and would guess who said what in what sentence. "You said that," someone would say; "No, I never did," that one would answer, and so on. I used to write all this argumentation down as well and again, when I'd read it, they'd all deny having said any of it.

I write about people I know or have known. What should a writer write about anyway? Why write about somebody or something you don't know about?

You know, I did write a story about the Bombay film stars. They all got very angry with me. I was the first person to write about this "black" money in films. Film people got angry with me when I wrote the story Shama ["candle"]. I even used to pay black money when we were producing films in those days. So I told how these people take black money; then we made a film of it. It was Sone ki chiriya ["the golden bird"], which tells how film heroines are treated. My husband suffered in a way because of this film; the film producers and music directors were all angry at us for this film. How greedy they all are.

Right now I am writing a novel about... Oh! don't mention his name! Once I wrote a story using the name of the actual person; I had forgotten to change it. Even now I remember his name... you know, I can remember things back to the time I was two years old! People find that amazing. But anyway, somebody told me of a Dr. So-and-so who had an English wife and how he actually had taken her F.R.C.S. degree, taken her name off it with chemicals, and put his name on it. I wrote a story about this and used his name. I was fined Rs. 200/ and then he sued me for Rs. 2 lakhs for damages. Of course, it was then Rs. 2000/ in an out-of-court settlement. It was even announced over the radio; that was two months ago only. I still haven't paid. They announced that I had lost against a man and was fined Rs. 2000/. Since the Times of India published this story, he is also suing the Times of India.

But anyway, back to the original point. I am working on another novel about films and in it I show what cunning people these film people are. Do you know the expression chamcha ["spoon"]; the expression translates as "spooning a person," or So-and-so's "spoons."

Mahfil: Toadies, or lackeys maybe.

Ismat: It's not as beautiful as chamcha. Anyway, this novel is about this film producer who dies; he commits suicide. I go into why he commits suicide, why girls run after him and big producers like him, and the hell they make for these men and for their wives. After this starlet he's helped becomes a big star, she leaves him and goes off. She leaves him and the poor man is in a lurch. This happens in Hollywood, do you think? But let me ask you something. What's all this business about a sexual revolution in America --

[At this point, the interviewee begins to interview the interviewer.]


/1/ Azim Beg Chughtai: leading Urdu satirist and humorist; his major collection is entitled dozakh ["the damned"].
/2/ For a translation of this story by Surjit Singh Dulai and Carlo Coppola, see page 195 of this issue.
/3/ Majnun Gorakhpuri: senior literary critic and esthetician who, together with Ehtisham Husain and Al-e-Ahmed Suroor, has set the foundations for modern literary criticism in Urdu.
    Krishan Chandar: b.1914; leading Urdu novelist and film writer; very active in the Progressive Movement and committed to ideals of socialist realism; translated widely in major Indian languages, as well as English, Russian, German, Hungarian, Danish and Chinese.
    Manto: Saadat Hasan Manto, b.1912; major Urdu short story writer and translator; a close friend of Ismat's; his story Thanda gosht, literally "cold meat," like Ismat's Lahaf, was judged obscene by contemporary literary standards and was the subject of a great deal of literary controversy; this story appeared in Mahfil 1,1, 13-19, under the title "Cold, Like Ice," in a translation by C. M. Naim and Ruth Schmidt; his story "Urinal" appeared in Mahfil 4,2, 22-24.
/4/Angare: literally "Coals," a volume of short stories and essays by such young writers as Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan, and Mahmooduz Zafar; published in the early '30s from Lucknow, this volume suffered from an over-expression of rebellion; its satire and contempt for contemporary morals caused it to be confiscated by the government; it is often thought of as the first piece of modern Progressive writing in Urdu.
    Rashid Jahan: a member of the Angare group, the first Urdu woman writer to give expression to the sensibilities of the newly emerging modern Indian woman; her collection of stories is entitled Aurat ["woman"].
/5/ Bhakta Kabir: medieval Indian mystic poet who espoused, among other things, the equality of all men, the unity of God, and disparagement of organized religion; for some translations of his poems and a bibligraphy of English sources for the study of his work, see Mahfil 1,1, 19-21.
/6/ Josh Sahab: Josh Malihabadi, b.1894; senior Urdu poet who deeply influenced many younger poets during the early years of the Progressive Movement; often referred to as the "Poet of Revolution," he is particularly known for his bombastic style; he presently lives in Pakistan.
    Majaz: b.1911; Progressive poet with a strong romantic bent; his poems Rat aur rel ["night and train"] and Awarah ["the vagabond"] are particularly well known; his poetry is collected in the volume Ahang ["melody"]; he died in 1955.
/7/ Ag ka darya: literally, "river of fire" (1959), a novel by Qurratulain Hyder (b.1928); one of the first novels, and the most successful novel, to use the stream-of-consciousness technique in Urdu; Miss Hyder was awarded in 1967 the Urdu Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection of stories Patjhar ki awaz ["voice of autumn," 1967].
/8/ Akashwani: official Hindi name of All-India Radio; literally, "voice from the heavens."
/9/ Miraji: b.1912; well-known Urdu poet who made many valuable innovations in the form and technique of modern Urdu poetry; he was deeply invluenced by French Symbolists, notably Baudelaire and Verlaine; he wrote extensive criticism of both Indian and European poets; he died in 1949.
/10/ See note number 3.
/11/ Ali Asghar: according to Muslim tradition, a six-month-old child who, during the battle of Karbala, which was fought over the succession to the Caliphate, was taken by Husain, the rightful heir, to the would-be usurper, Yazid. Husain pleaded for the child's life; the answer to the plea was an arrow shot through the child's throat.
/12/ For an interview with Rajinder Singh Bedi, see page 139 of this issue.
/13/Chemeen: Malayalam novel by T. S. Pillai, awarded the Sahitya Akademi Prize in that language in 1957; it has been translated into English by Narayana Menon and published by Jaico (Bombay, 1962).

Slightly edited for clarity, and typos corrected, by FWP. Diacritics from the original have been lost. The interviewer was Carlo Coppola; as C. M. Naim has verified for me.

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