A fiery and controversial writer Ismat Chughtai appeared on the Urdu Literary scene during the heyday of the progressive writers’ movement. Considered the subcontinent’s foremost feminist writer she was always instinctively aware of the double standard that governed the position of women in the largely feudal and patriarchal society of the time. She did everything in her power to expose and subvert it.
A life in words the first complete translation of her celebrated memoir Kaghazi hai pairahna provides an authentic and delightful account of several crucial years of Ismat’s life. Presented along with the vivid and high energy descriptions of her childhood years are the conflicted experience of growing up in a large Muslim family during the early decades of the twentieth century. We learn how she fought relentlessly and successfully to get an education. Most struggle to find her own voice and depict with passion and precision the visible and subtle tyrannies of contemporary society. A life in words is a searingly honest and compellingly readable memoir of the life of one of the most significant Urdu writers of all time.
M.Asaduddin is an author critic and translator. His work has been recognized with the sahitya Akademi Prize, and the Katha and A.K. Ramanujan awards for translation. Among the books he has published are the Penguins book of classic Urdu Stories Lifting the Veil selected writings of Ismat Chughtai for freedom’s sake Manto, Joseph, Conrad: between culture and colonialism and (with Mushriul Hasan) image and representation stories of Muslim lives in India. He is currently Prof. department of English Jamia Millia Islamia.
Ismat Chughtai (1911-91) has remained Urdu Literature’s most courageous and controversial writer and its most resolute iconoclast. Appearing on the scene during the heyday of the progressive writers’ movement which changed the complexion of Urdu literature in significant ways Ismat remained a progressive in the true sense of the term throughout her life even thought the movement dissipated shortly after independence in 1947. Among her fellow fiction writers Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Saadat Hasan Manto she was distinguished both by the themes she dealt with and the style she developed to treat them. As the subcontinent’s foremost feminist writer she was instinctively aware of the gendered double standard in the largely feudal and patriarchal structure of the society she lived in and did everything to expose and subvert it. She lobbied relentlessly—and successfully—to get an education, struggled fiercely to find her own voice and wrote with passion and panache to depict the visible and subtle tyrannies of contemporary society and her conflicts with the values that made them possible.
Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (henceforth, KHP), generally known to be Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography, is a curious piece of work. It is certainly written by Ismat Chughtai, and it is about her life, her family and her growth and development as a writer. But it is not a straightforward autobiography inasmuch as it does not record the author’s life story—from her birth to the point of writing the book—in a chronological order. It is fragmented, jagged, written in fits and starts when spurts of memory propelled her to record her reminiscences, without consideration for chronology, repetition or narrative coherence. Perhaps it is not realistic to expect a traditional autobiography from such an individualistic, temperamental and radical writer like Ismat Chughtai, who never moved on a straight or predictable path, much like the heroine, Shaman, of her autobiographical novel, Terhi Lakeer (Crooked Line).
The fourteen chapters of KHP, written for the Urdu journal Anj Kal, were published from March 1979 to May 1980. The general tenor of the chapters and the manner in which they were written is illustrated by the following note from the author to the editor of Aaj Kal when she sent in the second installment:
The writer did not have the opportunity to take a second look much less edit what she had written because of other preoccupations and her failing health. It was at the imitative of the editor of Aaj Kal that the installments were put together as they appeared in the journal where they were published as volumes in Urdu in 1994 three years after her death. The editor at his own initiative also added the opening chapter Ghubaar-e-kaarwaan written much earlier in the same journal in a series that went by the same name in which many Urdu writers reminisced about their writerly lives. This underlines the fragmentary nature of this autobiography and raises significant questions about the motivation and intention of the author and about the notions of authorship, representation selfhood and subjectivity the answers to which will help us understand the peculiar tension between public and private realities that underwriters women’s writings.
The span of the volume is limited to the years between when Ismat Chughtai entered high school to the time of writing her controversial story Lihaaf. In order words the autobiography records the events of only a couple of years of her life. Even with the addition of the opening chapter there are silences and gaps that cry out to be verbalized and filled up. however within this limited timeframe we find encapsulated vignettes that point to the multiple and richly tapestried cultural matric that went into developing Ismat Chaghtai’s artistic sensibility.
The real absence in KHP is any vignette from her married life even though her husband, Shahid Lateef figures in many places. One gets just a fleeting glimpse in the chapter in the name of those married women it is a matter of speculation as to why a brutally honest and outspoken author like Ismat Chughtai shied away from talking about her married life. Was this reluctance to talk on admission of the failure of her married life? Or did she set herself a limit on how much she would reveal since some facts are too personal to be chronicled even in an autobiography? Was she exercising her individual freedom to be selective much as the iconic black feminist writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston had done in her autobiography dust Tracks on the road? These questions will tantalize readers as they go through the pages of the volume.
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