Isrnat Chughtai (1911-1991) was Urdu's rnost courageous and controversial woman writer in the twentieth century. She had a special place among her illustrious contemporaries in the field of Urdu fiction-Rajinder Singh Bedi,Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander-inspite of whom she brought into its ambit areas of experience not explored before. Her writings have transformed the complexion of Urdu fiction in significant ways by bringing about an attitudinal change in assessing the merits of literary works. Moreover, the freshness of her language-pert, racy, colloquial and idiomatic with a liberal sprinkling of words specifically used by women-makes her an immensely readable author.
It is a pity that such a powerful writer has remained largely unknown beyond the confines of Urdu-Hindi readership. Although she was a spirited member of the Progressive Writers Movement in India, she also spoke vehemently against its orthodoxy and inflexibility. She does explore the forbidden terrains of female sexuality which is her special forte, but she also explores other dimensions of social and existential reality. In trying to strike a balance between different facets of her literary preoccupations and assessing them in their proper contexts and perspectives, this monograph offers a much needed corrective to a monotonic and reductive understanding/ representation of the writer.
M. Asaduddin, Professor of English, is Dean, Faculty of Humanities & Languages, Jarnia Millia Islamia, Delhi. He is also Director, Jamia Centenary History Project and Officiating Director, Centre for Comparative Religions and Civilizations. He is a polyglot having command over languages such as Assamese, Bangla, English, Hindi, Urdu, French and Arabic. He has several books to his credit, including, Premchand in World Languages: Translation, Reception and Cinematic Representations (2016), Filming Fiction: Tagore, Premchand and Ray (ed., with Anuradha Ghosh, (2012), A Life in Words: Memoirs (Translation of Kaghozi hai pairahan by Ismat Chughtai), (2012), Penguin Book Of Classic Urdu Stools, (2006), New Urdu Fictions (ed), (2004), Lifting the Veil: Selected Writings of lsmat Chughtai (ed), (2001) and For Freedom's Sake : Saadat Hosan Manta -Stories and Sketches, ed. & tr (2001). He has won the Crossword Book Award (2013) Fulbright Fellowship (Sr) to the USA(2008-9() Sahitya Akademi Award (2004), Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship to U.K.(2000) Dr A.K. Ramanujan Award, (1993, for translating from more than one Indian languages into English) and KATHA Translation Award, 1991 and 1992.
Ismat Chughtai is a significant name in Urdu literature as well as in the larger context of Indian literature. Her unique contribution forms an integral part of that body of Indian literature which represents feminine consciousness and female subjectivity. By the time she had started writing, Urdu short story had already established itself firmly as a literary genre through the pioneering works of Premchand, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Saadat Hasan Manto. There was also a tradition of women's writing in Urdu, going as far back as 1898 when Mohammadi Begum started the journal Tahzeeb-e-niswaan. She was followed by such writers as Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Begum Nazar Sajjad Hyder and Dr Rasheed Jahan. However, Ismat Chughtai had a special place among these writers - male and female -inasmuch as she brought into the ambit of Urdu literature areas of experience that had not been to. hed so far. She registered the presence of women in uncompromising terms and boldly portrayed them in their multifarious dimensions, most notably, the hitherto unexplored and unmentionable dimension of female sexuality. "Lihaaf', written quite early in her career, became a focal point of controversy among orthodox readers and even literary connoisseurs and critics because of its alleged 'obscenity'. It also indicated her artistic proclivities and the direction her literary career would take in future. She is not a feminist - not a radical feminist in any case - in the sense it is usually understood. Mostly, she casts men and women in the traditional, sexually defined roles, but within this limit she highlights the subjugated status of women and advocates their rights in unambiguous terms. She feels that Man and Woman are complementary to each other though their spheres of activity may not always be the same, and envisages a relationship based on the principle of equality and mutual interdependence.
Yet, it needs to be underlined that though her central concern was women's life as it was lived during her time, she goes beyond that and treats issues that are of common concern, impinging on the life of both men and women. Undue emphasis on one facet of her literary engagement at the cost of the others has resulted in lopsided judgements about her works thus hindering a deep understanding of her literary pre-occupations. The sexual aspect of her work has been blown out of proportion by critics resulting in misplaced emphasis, false expectations and questionable judgements. To a large part of the reading public she has remained a writer who deals with sex to provide titillation to her readers and dabbles (in her art, of course) in lesbianism and other 'deviant' sexual practices. Needless to say, this image of the writer needs correction. Her merit should be judged on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of her entire output. It is only through such assessment that her actual status in Urdu literature (and by extension, in Indian literature) can be determined.
Care has been taken. in this monograph, to strike a balance between different aspect of her work. The largely personal nature of her work necessitated an exploration of the biographical facts of her life. However, in my analysis of Ismat Chughtai's work I have avoided a strictly biographical approach and have used, with an open mind, insights from other approaches and ways of looking at literature. In other words I have first situated the texts in their appropriate contexts and then subjected them to the kind of readings they, naturally, lent themselves to. The monograph has been divided into three sections. The first section deals with the author's biography and the possible influences on her. The second section consists of a study of her select novels and novellas. The third section has been devoted to a consideration of her select stories and sketches. Ismat Chughtai also wrote some plays and reportage. They are not in the same league as her fictional works. In a postscript I have treated them briefly.
There is no definitive edition of Ismat Chughtai's works. There are also small variations in some versions of her short stories. Moreover, her works are now scarce in India. I have used, wherever available, Saqi Book Depot, Maktaba Urdu Adab and Naya Idarah, Lahore editions of her works. For the rest I had to depend on sundry editions of her work brought out by publication houses both in India and Pakistan.
Ismat Chughtai was known for her lack of chronological sense and her lack of regard for actual dates and years of occurences. Even in her unfinished autobiography. Kaghazi hai pairahan she mentions dates just once or twice. In her interviews or memoirs, wherever she had to mention dates, the phrases that most frequently occur are 'about', 'round about' and so on. Her statements such as - 'When I was three or four years old' or 'That was in 1941-42' etc. carry a latitude and flexibility that makes it difficult to arrive at exact or nearly accurate dates and figures. Utmost efforts have been made to collate dates from different sources to achieve some reasonable accuracy.
English translations from the works of the author, unless otherwise mentioned, are by me. In the titles of books, stories and sketches in Urdu I have capitalized the first letter of the first word while for books in English I have followed the standard form. Transliteration of non-English word has been done so as to approximate, as far as possible, the sound of the original.
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