(downloaded Dec. 2004)

DAWN, Sunday Dec. 5, 2004

Ismat Chughtai: Unexplored territory

By Laila Kazmi

Tahira Naqvi is the author of two collections of short stories, titled Atar of Roses and Dying in a Strange Country, and an upcoming novel. She is also known for her translations into English of several works of prominent author, Ismat Chughtai, as well as other well-known women writers of Urdu fiction.

When I first invited Tahira Naqvi to give a lecture on Ismat Chughtai at the 'Sadaa: Voices of Women' arts festival we were organizing in Seattle, I was not sure what to expect. Though I was familiar with Ms Naqvi's own writing and her scholarship on Chughtai, I had never had the pleasure of attending one of her lectures. She informed me that though in her various talks, she had often spoken of Chughtai's work, she had never before given a lecture on her.

Ismat Chughtai's name should be familiar to anyone who has even a slight interest in Urdu literature and drama. Urdu, one of Asia's most romantic languages, is yet to be recognized as such in the West. Chughtai opened new avenues for women writers in Urdu fiction. Ms Naqvi's lecture at the University of Washington in Seattle turned out to be one of the best I have ever attended, very insightful and entirely intriguing.

Speaking to a mixed audience of Pakistani, Indian and Americans - some already familiar with Chughtai and others learning about her for the first time -Tahira Naqvi introduced Ismat Chughtai as one of the most famous writers in Urdu fiction. "I refer to Ismat as an unexplored territory because there is [still] so much that there is to know about her." According to Ms. Naqvi, Ismat was an "un-selfconscious feminist". "Ismat was doing all the things that we imagine feminists or women who are truly liberated [would] do but she didn't think she was doing anything extraordinary. That was the way she was." This was before the word 'feminist' was part of the vocabulary.

"Ismat Chughtai is considered one of the four pillars of modern Urdu fiction," said Ms Naqvi. "The other three were Saadat Hassan Manto, Krishen Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi."

Ms Naqvi shed some light on Ismat's background. Born in 1915, Ismat was introduced to books and learning through her father and brothers at an early age. She wrote many stories before she was actually published. She wrote about women's lives and daily experiences. She kept her writing hidden because it was a time when women in India did not publish work and their writing was not taken seriously. Finally, in 1941, she wrote 'Lihaaf' (Quilt) and sent it to a magazine. Ms Naqvi explains that at the time the editor of the magazine that published 'Lihaaf', assumed that the writer was a man writing under the pseudonym of Ismat Chughtai. "Nobody could believe, first of all, that a woman would venture to send a story out and second, that the story would be the story that it was," said Ms Naqvi.

'Lihaaf' dealt with the issue of women's sexual desires. When it was discovered that the writer was a woman, the story created "the most amazing furore" explains Ms Naqvi. "People were amazed and shocked and horrified." The story was charged with pornography by the government of India. "At the same time, interestingly enough another writer was suffering the same fate and who was that but Saadat Hassan Manto. He was being charged for two of his stories."

Drawing on the parallel between Manto and Chughtai, Ms Naqvi explained, "Manto once said about Chughtai, 'If Ismat had been a man she would have been me and if I had been a woman, I would have been Ismat.' That's how close they were in the way they approached writing and their ideologies." The trial against Ismat lasted four years. At the end, the cases against both Manto and Chughtai were dropped.

Ismat was also part of the progressive writers movement. It had been started in England and was brought to India. The movement drew writers like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer, Kaifi Azmi, and Rasheed Jehan. "These people were breaking into the scene of Urdu literature with completely new set of values in terms of the way the stories were written and their thinking." Rasheed Jehan, who was a woman writer, was Ismat Chughtai's mentor.

Ismat did not only write fiction, she also wrote essays on a variety of subjects. She wrote about people including Manto. She wrote on social movements, issues of marriage. She wrote about fiction and about the progressive writers movement. Ismat also wrote for films. Her husband was involved in films and she was part of the progressive writers' group, many of whom were writing for films. Several of Ismat's novels and short stories have been made into films. "The relationship between Indian cinema and the progressive writers with Urdu literature and Urdu poetry was wonderfully complex. So we have it that all these young writers of the time - Manto, Chughtai, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi - were all writing for films."

During the lecture, Ms Naqvi also showed us a couple of short clips from older Indian films, 'Ziddi', which is based on an Ismat Chughtai story, and 'Junoon' from 1978 in which Ismat plays the role of the aging British grandmother.

Coming back to literature, before Ismat, the main writing available for Indian Muslim women was a two-volume novel called Goodar ka Laal published in 1905 under the name of Walida Afzal Ali meaning 'mother of Afzaal Ali'. Being a woman, the author could not publish it under her own name at the time. Walida Afzaal Ali was an aunt of Qurratulain Haider. "The novel is full of cultural descriptions, ceremonies, rituals. That was the only novel given to women when they got married," said Ms Naqvi. After that, there were other novels for women which mainly stressed the role of 'good Muslim women', how they should behave, how they should think and talk. Most of these novels were written by men.

"So there was all this kind of literature floating around when Ismat appeared on the scene. She reads all of this - she is an avid reader. [However] when Ismat starts writing she makes a complete break from all of it," said Ms Naqvi. "But she does restrict herself to women's eyes. She takes you inside a woman's head. She writes about things that all women go through when we are growing up, when we get married, first sexual stirrings."

After Ismat Chughtai, the pattern of writing by women in Pakistan changed. They also started exploring the forbidden subjects, writing about their feelings, love, marriage, relationships and sex.

As Ms Naqvi puts it, Ismat Chughtai wrote wonderful stories and tackled many subjects. "She enabled us to see that it is possible for women to write like that. It is possible for women to explore. It is important for women to write about women." Ms Naqvi stressed that we should not just be relying on men writing about women but women themselves should be writing about their lives and their feelings.

Ms Naqvi's lecture was followed by a question and answer session with the audience and a book signing.

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