The Short Stories

10 Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

An Analysis

           The Author and her Milieu

Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai are rightly considered to be the four stalwarts of Urdu Literature. Of these, Chughtai’s name stands out as being of the author who led her readers into the secret world of women and scratched the surface of respectability to lay bare the agonies, the frustration, the longings, the exploitation of the women especially in Muslim households. Radical in her views, outrageously bold in her choice of themes Chughtai talked about subjects which had been forbidden hitherto. She brought into sharp focus the sexual exploitation of women that was going on in almost every household. Though it could be the topic of conversation even amongst women, yet it was not anything that one could write about. Especially if a woman wrote about these things it would be further transgressing the bounds of morality and respectability. Chughtai was appalled by the state of things and in choosing to write about these forbidden topics she took up the cudgels against the oppressive, stifling and exploitative patriarchal structure which for centuries had determined social patterns and behaviour. 

A woman's voice now expressed a woman's point of view about women issues -- not timorously or hesitatingly but with boldness and with full faith in her endeavour. She wrote about a young girl who is sexually teased by her cousin during the summer vacations in ‘Fhasaadi’ (The Laggard). Then in ‘Gainda’ she wrote about the servant girl who becomes pregnant by her employer's son but when the fact is discovered she is punished and badly beaten up while the son who is responsible and guilty sent away to Delhi. She wrote about a middle class girl whose mother’s efforts to get her married reduce the family to absolute penury while the prospective suitor merely enjoys the hospitality and finally leaves to marry another girl. The wedding garment ultimately turns into a shroud for the unfortunate girl in ‘Chauthi ka Jora.’ While stories like ‘Badan ki khushboo’ exposed the sham respectability of Nawabi families and the sexual exploitation of servant girls in these families, those like ‘Til’ focused attention on female sexuality and the sexual needs of a woman. Choosing to write about such subjects and such themes Chughtai understandably called upon herself the wrath of the so-called custodians of public morality. She was dismissed as a sex crazed writer and declared indecent. But Chughtai fought against this censure and doggedly pursued her efforts to expose the seamy reality beneath the mask of apparent respectability. Her personal circumstances right from the childhood days when she had to fight in order to be educated was enough of a preparation to take the world head-on when the need arose.

Born in Badayun, a small tour in western Uttar Pradesh, Ismat Chughtai was the ninth child of her parents Mirza Qasim Baig Chughtai and Nusrat Khanam. The date of her birth is placed at August 21, 1911 but as pointed out by Asaduddin. There is some controversy about the year of her birth. She always gave it as 1915. But all other evidence almost conclusively suggests that it was 1911. One possible reason for this quite uncharacteristic action on her part could be that she wanted to make people believe that she was really younger to Shahid Latif, her husband who was born in 1913. Ismat's family name was Ismat Khanam Chughtai and her siblings and other family members called her Chunni. Later she came to be known as the Ladies Chengiz Khan in the literary circles, not only because of her martial-like aspect of her confrontation with the oppressive patriarchal world but also because she traced her lineage to the legendary Mongol conqueror, Chengiz Khan. As she revealed in an interview: ‘among my forefathers were the two sons of Chengiz Khan i.e. Halaku Khan and Chughtai Khan. My people, especially those from my mother’s side, used to say that Halaku Khan was a great swordsman whereas Chughtai Khan’s strength lay in his pen.’ Asaduddin rightly observes that ‘she was the worthy inheritor of this composite heritage of martial courage and literary sensibility.’ It was only Chughtai Khan's eighth or ninth generation that moved to India during the Mughal rule.

Mirza Qasim Baig Chughtai was a well-off man being a judicial magistrate who served in various capacities in places like Agra, Bahraich, Jaipur, Kanpur, Lucknow and later Jodhpur. It was a teeming household with a number of aunts and uncles and cousins making up the number in addition to Qasim Baig's immediate family. Ismat had six brother and three sisters. Since her sisters were all much older than her, Ismat’s grudging playmates were often her brothers and their friends. Thus her past-time was never playing with dolls or doing embroidery but riding bicycles, playing football or gilli-danda, climbing trees and so on. At times when she was left to her own she tiptoed to the servant quarters in the compound of her rambling bungalow. This is how she came in close contact with women from the lower strata and her friends became 'the washerwoman's daughter, the sweeper’s daughter, and the watchman's daughter. Obviously her family didn’t approve and taunted her saying that she has been born into an aristocratic family by mistake. Ismat’s fiery spirit was quick to respond and agree with them rather than be cowed down by their censure. Her close acquaintance with the servant girls, however, opened her eyes to a different world that existed alongside her own world with all its trappings of tradition, religion and respectability. Yet, listening to the experiences of these servant women she realised how sham the professed respectability of their polite society was and she was to draw upon her memories and her experiences later to write about them in her stories, and peal the mask off.

Right from her childhood Ismat learnt to demand her right and fight for them too. She hatched up an ingenious plan with a cousin to avoid being married off at the age of fourteen to a boy whom the family declared suitable from all accounts. She wrote to her cousin Jugnu, informing him about her dilemma and imploring him to write to her father about his wish to marry her. Jugnu complied, Ismat’s other engagement was broken off as Jugnu seemed a better choice being the son of Nusrat Khanam’s brother and so Ismat was able to ward off an early marriage. The next step too was another battle for being allowed to study. When her parents refused to send her to a hostel, she threatened to run away and convert to Christianity and enter a mission school. Her father saw that she was capable of doing that and thus relented and sent her to Aligarh where she studied till F.A.  Muslim’s in general were not in favour of educating their women and as against five thousand boys in the university there were just six girls. It was here that Ismat read the path-breaking, radical, almost scandalous stories of the thin volume book, Angare that shook these girls out of their complacency and forced them to rethink and relocate their notions about sexuality and obscenity. It was a hard-hitting book exposing things one would want to wish away. Ismat knew from her early conversations with her friends from the servant quarters and from her recollection of gossips she heard in the women's quarters, that events that occurred in the stories were actually happening in households. They could neither be denied, nor be wished away. They could only be brushed under the carpet as had been done for so many years. These radical writers had been courageous enough to challenge the taboos and talk about forbidden things with brutal frankness and unnerving honesty making people squirm in their sham respectability. Rashid Jahan, who was one of the four writers of Angare, was to become Ismat’s role model for writing.

After Aligarh, Ismat moved to Lucknow to Isabella Thornton College to complete her Bachelors degree. Ultimately however, she could obtain her degree from only the Aligarh Muslim University. Having worked briefly as a teacher in Bareilly she went again to the Aligarh Muslim University to train as a teacher. Even here she found she had to face gender discrimination. She and six other girls had to persuade the principal to let them do the B.T. course. The course had no provision for girls but seeing their determination the principal agreed only on condition that they attend classes behind the purdah. Thus Ismat, along with six other girls sat behind a curtain at the back of the class. Ismat completed her B.T. in 1939 and joined the Raj Mahal Girl's School at Jodhpur where she taught for two years. In 1941 she moved to Bombay as the inspector of municipal schools and the same year she married Shahid Latif whom she had known from Aligarh. He was a short story writer who wrote stories and dialogues for films. He introduced Ismat to the film world. The couple had two daughters Seema and Sabrina. Around this time Ismat had taken up her writing once again. She wrote the story 'Lihaf' two months before she married Shahid Latif. Her play Fasaadi and her short stories ‘Gainda’ and ‘Neera’ had already been published some time before. As she got increasingly involved with her writing and with her growing family, Ismat gave up her job as inspector of schools and made writing a full time career. She even wrote stories and dialogues for some films like Ziddi, Buzdil, Arzoo, Fareb, Soney ki Chiriya and the famous Garam Hawa on the theme of partition.

Ismat belonged to The Progressive Writers Movement and considered herself a part of that group. The movement was formally launched in 1936 and aimed at being non-conventional and reactionary focussing on issues of immediate relevance. Of the group of these writers it was Rasheed Jahan who proved to have a lasting influence on Ismat and who is Ismat’s words ‘shattered all the marble images’ that she had idolized thus far and ‘made life stand before her in its stark nakedness.’ A doctor by profession, Rasheed Jahan was immensely interested in writing about women from the woman's point of view and was equally critical of husbands who treated their wives either as glorified servants or as child-bearing machines and also of those women who adhered blindly to traditions and allowed men to swamp their personalities in the name of religion or superstition. She always made time for her writing from her demanding schedule and wrote a number of short stories and plays. Ismat remained under her influence throughout her writing career.

Though Rasheed Jahan was a member of the Progressive Writers Movement, Ismat was soon disillusioned and disenchanted by it when she saw that the same patriarchal oppression of female sensibilities sought to stifle her point of view and her manner of expression. At a conference which declared that only those who wrote about farmers and workers were the real writers, Ismat had the temerity to ask whether she was not a writer because she did not write about this class? She was told in an off- hand manner that she was not a writer any way! The movement had become too uncompromising and rigid for Ismat's liking and being by nature a spontaneous and uninhibited person she refused to be dictated to and carved her own path. She drew her themes from middle class family life and explored its oppressions and the workings of sexuality in common homes. She foregrounded the issue of female sexuality in most of her stories and highlighted women's oppression and exploitation related to it. She recreated a whole way of life of Muslim households complete with its customs, its religiosity its superstitions in all their minute details so much so that she has been called ‘an ethnographer's delight.’ At the same time however, in story after story she exposed the hypocrisy of this apparently respectable society and revealed its cruelty, its inhuman treatment, and its unjustified suppression of the female sex. All this she did with a razor sharp wit and an unmatched aggressiveness. Ismat was even hauled off to the courts for obscenity in her writings but she fought her battles to the finish and won. The end came for her on October 24, 1991. She remained controversial even after death because she had wanted to be cremated rather than being buried according to Muslim Customs. Her family honoured her last wish and she was quietly cremated.