Sexuality in Urdu writings by Ismat Chughtai and her relevance today.
Volume: 11, No: 11 ; November-2017
Ismat Chughtai was a renowned Indian author, who wrote primarily in Urdu and was known for her bold feminist face and open writings in spite of the fact that she belonged to an illustrious Muslim family that may not have been orthodox, but surely would have adhered to the values of early 1900s of pre-independent India that surely was quite orthodox, at least in openly taking about sexuality.
After the independence of India, when the country was partitioned on the basis of religion carving Pakistan for the followers of Islam, Chughtai in spite of being a Muslim writer chose to be in India or that she senesced that India could be a country that would give her all the freedom to be creative and that she as a scholar will not question for her works. She was quite vocal in her works that centered around sexuality, specially feminine sexuality in relation to conflicts in India, specially that of post 1940s or let’s say post independence. Ismat was in fact a very outspoken author who did not blink and ensured the voice of unheard, was heard loud and clear. It will not be wrong to say that the youth of that generation was inspired immensely by her and she was quite popular among the writers, readers and intellectuals of that age.
Though she was born in Badayun, a small town in Uttar Pradesh of a Civil Servant father posted in Rajasthan thus grew up in Jodhpur. She always was in love with Lucknow, specially the liking that she developed for its language and styles. This brought her to Lucknow where she Joined Isabella Thoburn College (IT College) for graduating. This period actually played a pivotal role in her writing. Lucknow was quite an open society even then comparatively and IT College of Lucknow was one of the marks of feminist education and an open environment for young women to live and think freely. In her college days she started writing secretly as the extended family and others around her were apposed to her gaining education and then also higher education. Her higher education in Lucknow and Aligarh did shape her liberal life and this is also proven by the fact that her own daughter, nephew & niece were married to Hindus (quite unthinkable even today). In her own words, Chughtai said she comes from a family of “Hindus, Muslims and Christians who all live peacefully”. She had not only read the Islamic religious book, Quaran, but also the Hindu text of Gita and Christian holy book, Bible, imbibing all the best from each with an open mind and free thinking.
Chughtai’s short stories reflect the cultural legacy in which she lived. This is especially notable in her story “Sacred Duty”, where she deals with social pressures in India, alluding to specific national, religious and cultural traditions.
One of her remarkable works, ‘Lihaaf’ proves her openness about sexuality and how she was vocal about it way back in 1940s, when it was so hard to think of this subject, leave alone writing about it, that too for a Muslim woman. If we analyse this particular work, we rather find our own society so rigid and regressive now in 21st century.
Lihaaf, is an account of sexual desires that were often not fulfilled due to Indian society being rigid about this fact. This story written in 1942 was and still is controversial due to representation of sexual desires in many forms. Though a careful look will reveal that this is a story of sexual exploitation rather than being a story of sexual preference or expression. Of course it is one fine work that very delicately handles both the subjects well, exploitation and suppressed expressions. A young girl Ismat, is sent off to her well to do aunt, who lives in a large haveli and is married to a wealthy nobleman. Begum Jaan, Ismat’s aunt is actually a neglected wife, whose husband has a liking for young boys rather than women and to fulfill this desire, he shows as if he is involved in their education, though not really. The neglected wife chooses to find solace in a masseuse. All these vigorous activities happen under a quit, giving this story its name, ‘lihaaf’ meaning quilt. Ismat is actually a witness of all that goes on under the quilt as she shares the same room as her aunt’s, the movements of the quilt are so vigorous that Ismat as a young child remembers it as an elephant inside.
For Ismat to have attempted to write this subject and to bring out the hypocritical society to fore, was in itself a bold enough move for a Muslim woman in 40’s. Nobility and the upper middle class that was seen as a benchmark of the society had darker stories than thought or preserved. There was repression that resulted in hidden expressions of sexual desires, only that all of it was behind the curtains, inside the quits then and no one talked of it.
Has the society really moved on since after 80 to 90 years ? it seems, ‘no, not at all’, if we see all the present controversies that come up today, with regard to all the creative works and art or all the issues that still occupy the newspaper headlines.