Ismat Chughtai. Fascinating, vivacious and versatile. A rebel with a fiercely individualistic way of thinking ...
One of the foremost writers of modern Urdu literature, she spearheaded a social and literary revolution, startling readers by her iconoclasm. Her acerbic, lashing wit exposed the double standards of a patriarchal society existing behind a facade of refined gentility. Unfettered by any labels, yet believing firmly in the ideals of feminism and secularism, she lived life and wrote of life itself, suffusing her writings with an effervescent understanding of human nature.
This book brings you idiomatic translations that have the immediacy and wit of their originals. It highlights different aspects of Ismat Apa's forceful and multi-faceted personality - what she thought of herself and how her peers - critics and authors - perceived her. Interesting photographs and mementos, intimate essays, deep critical insight, and memorable extracts from her own works, make this volume an absorbing and compulsive read for scholars and layperson alike.
Sukrita Paul Kumar has been involved in the study of modern Indian literature for many years. Formerly a fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, she is also a recipient of the Shastri Indo Canadian Faculty Research Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, and a British Council visitorship. Widely published within India and abroad, some of her books are The New Story, Man Woman and Androgyny Breakthrouah (ed), Mapping Memories (ed), Conversations and Modernism. She has published three collections of poems in English - Oscillations, Apurna and Folds of Silence. At present, she is working on a research project on Partition and Cultural Reorientations, supported by the University Grants Commission.
She held a solo exhibition of her paintings at AIFACS gallery a few years ago. Of late she has also been involved in Translation Studies and has conducted a number of Translation Workshops and courses for Katha. She teaches at Zakir Husain College, Delhi.
Sadique was educated in Ujjain and Aurangabad. At present a Professor of Urdu in the University of Delhi, he also served as Secretary, Urdu Akademi, Delhi. An established critic and poet, Sadique has talent in drawing and his sketches have been published in several books and magazines. He is deeply interested in literature in Indian languages and has been an editor of Aiwan-e-Urdu, an Urdu journal, and also Umang a children's magazine.
He has published two books of criticism - Taraqqui Pasand Tehreek aur Urdu Afsana and Adab ke Sarokar. He has three collections of poems and is a recipient of the Ghalib Award for his first collection, from Madhya Pradesh. He received the Kalashree Sammaan, Lucknow and later, the Nishan-e-Sajjad Zaheer.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Katha Academic Publishing Programme with Ismat: Her Life, Her Times. The first series, Approaches to Literatures in Translation, hopes to bring together research into the sociocultural, the political and the historical backgrounds to our various literatures.
India has, as we know, many thousands of years of experience in translation. It is said that Kanchi University of the early years of the twentieth century not only had translation as part of its programme but also numerous women scholars and students who seem to have been competent in many languages. Today though, translation acquires a new meaning and urgency in India as a gloriously multilingual and multicultural country is in the process of lapsing into monolingualism, and the culture of silence begins to pervade places of learning. Also, the coexistence of people from different cultures in a fast globalizing economy has brought the need to understand cultures quickly and well- and what more enjoyable way can there be than through fictions? Literature is enjoyable. It helps us understand ourselves or "manage ourselves" as Peter Drucker would have it. And it can serve as a tool for transformation of the self, of society. We need to restore to the story the primacy it has always had in India.
This series is a small effort to help us understand our shared literary traditions, who we are, our aspirations, our dreams. Language becomes interesting and identifiable because of various literatures. And literature acquires its very identity from the culture it brings to life. These books will bring together old and new thinking on translation theory and practice, as well as present literatures in translation, to help readers to theorize for themselves. It hopes to look closely at texts, help students, scholars and teachers across disciplines to engage deeply with our many literatures, so that we may give back to our fictions, our poetry and our narratives their rightful place in the vast history and geography of Indian ideas and creativity, in the physics of life that governs us today.
I thank Krishna Sobtiji, Professor Satchidanandan, Professor Malashri Lal and Dr Sukrita Paul Kumar for their guidance, their ideas and their spontaneous support. I also thank all the teachers and students as well as my friends in Katha for being with me on this exciting venture, for their faith in me, their support.
Ismat Chughtai wore no purdah. And her pen worked as an instrument to shear the purdah behind which the whole world of middle class Muslim women vibrated in gossip and scandal, desires and urges, jealousies and tensions, rituals and traditions, repressions and little rebellions. The begumati zuban, the distinctive language of the ladies of the house, excelling in its proverbial idiom, metaphor and lacy diction, found place in Urdu fiction for the first time through Ismat's writings. Ismat used her own lived experience, her own language and characters from her own family to fearlessly unravel a world behind the veil - so far totally silent and absent in Urdu fiction, being dominated as it was by male writers - with the energy and dynamism of a crusader.
There is an easy intertextuality evidenced in Ismat's stories, her autobiography Kaghazi hai Pairahan, and her novels Terhi Lakeer, Ek Qatra-e-Khoon and Dil ki Duniya. There is virtually no distinction between the actual life experience of Ismat Chughtai and the fiction she created. The members of her family, the servants of her household, and her friends, became the characters of her stories, sometimes with the same names. The episodes and relationships that I she went through became the content of her fiction and the society in which she lived, the context. At times the same episodes are narrated in her autobiography, her novels and then her short stories. Ismat's acerbic wit, her linguistic prowess and her smart sense of humour combine to make her writings racy and extremely readable. Ismat's real life gets carried into her fiction just as easily as fiction slips into the text of her life. That is why some of what she states in her autobiography, her critics maintain, does not corroborate with the facts of her life. But I believe what is important is how she perceives the fact of her life, however imaginary it may be. After all, truth is what is realized, not what may get projected superficially as action. And imagination too is founded in some truth. Ismat's person, her life and her fiction, merge into one another. To know one of them, inevitably means having to know the other as well.
How much of Shamman is Ismat herself? This is an intriguing question.
Shamman's childhood fantasies and urges described in the novel Terhi Lakeer; available in English translation under the title, The Crooked Line, are strongly reminiscent of Ismat's own childhood. And interestingly, here itself germinate several other stories of Ismat.
Those who read Ismat's fiction in English have not so far had access to Ismat's autobiographical writing in English. This book contains some chapters from Kaqhaz: hai Pairahan, Ismat's autobiography. "In the Name of those Married Women" is one of the chapters translated and included in this book. It narrates the story of the court case against Ismat regarding her story "Lihaaf." "It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight," she writes. Talking about the letters she received in reaction to this story, she describes in her characteristic style, how she read envelopes that contained snakes, scorpions and dragons. To write about the case and the reactions, seems to have been therapy for her.
In the Introduction to The Crooked Line, Tahira Naqvi draws a parallel between Ismat Chughtai and Simone de Beauvoir, and shows how in Chughtai's fiction there are fictionalized prefigurations of Beauvoir's description and analysis of childhood playacting and fantasy In fact, Chughtai's works also reveal how in writing about herself, Ismat churned out from her memory, such incidents and fixations which actually shaped Ismat's consciousness. Her sense of self evolved as she confronted the reality of some significant incidents from the "formative years" of her life. She records at least two such experiences in "Caravan Dust," another chapter from her life story - the haunting experience of the crackling fat cane coming down on the fingers of a small child who is sobbing helplessly. And her exposure to the painful image of the arrow stuck in the throat of Asghar Ali. Her progressivism prouted and grew from such experiences of injustice and exploitation rather than from any theory or political alignment.
While Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and others discussed the ideology of Progressive writing as much as creatively worked progressivism into their writings, Ismat Chughtai did not consciously have to formulate any theory. Whatever she wrote, was filtered through her progressive convictions. In her reportage entitled "From Bombay to Bhopal," she says, "Pruning the leaves and branches of trees is sheer folly when it is the roots that require a change. Only when the roots change, will the leaves and branches emerge." This is when she goes to attend the Progressive Writers Conference at Bhopal in 1949.
Ismat's article "Pompom Darling" is an example of a hypersensitive Progressive's reaction to a modernist - in this case the rising star of the Urdu literary world, Qurratulain Hyder. Ismat rants against the rich upper classes rather than offering critical insights about the literary output of Qurratulain Hyder. In her article, creatively and rather chaotically, she spills images of superficial people going round and round in a merry-go-round, creating a world of fossilized characters and the spectre of nothingness. Ismat makes a scathing attack on the modernists, slashing her tongue and exploiting her linguistic skills. This outburst is, however, no serious critique of Qurratulain Hyder - it sounds more like an eccentric and emotional reaction. Much later, after Ismat died, Qurratulain Hyder wrote a piece, "Lady Chengez Khan," on Ismat and said, "In the battle-field ofUrdu literature, Ismat was a Chughtai, an equestrian and an archer who never missed the mark." "Pompom Darling" demonstrates this very spirit.
Respecting Ismat's own self-consciousness about her Chughtai lineage on the paternal side and the Chishti and Usmani on the maternal, this volume includes Ismat's genealogy. Whether in her stories "Bachho Phuphi," "Mughal Bachcha," or in her autobiography, Kaqbazi hai Pairahan or then in her interview with Yunus Agaskar, Ismat Chughtai repeatedly mentions the role of the Chaghtai and the Usmani blood in the making of her personality as well as in the shaping of her sensibility. Ismat's brother Azeem Beg Chaghtai was a well-known writer, a satirist of repute. And Ismat's earlier education was under his care. He made her take up translation exercises and got her to read a lot of fiction like Hardy and the Russian writers. Azeem Beg Chaghtai played a significant role in arousing Ismat's sensibilities as a writer. She shared a love-hate relationship with him.
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