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Book Review : Ismat Chughtai


Ismat Chughtai

Kali for Women

By Manju Kak

SIMONE de Beauvoir’s assumption that a woman isn’t born but becomes one didn’t apply to Ismat  Chughtai.  She rebelled against any stereotypical cast.  Brought up within the folds of a purdah-ridden middle-class society, she thrust herself volcano-like out of this stranglehold.  It is difficult to read her and not be conscious of the individualism and fire that spit through each page.  Her fierce need was to be honest to herself and her innermost thoughts.  A need which brought her (and Manto) to the Lahore High Court on charges of obscenity for Lihaaf – also published by Kali as The Quilt and Other Stories.   In discussing the sexual nuances of a closed society, she opened it up.  We are talking of times when a women’s spirit died before she did.  It is befitting that Kali for Women publish her again, for she spoke the language of women long before the word feminism was coined.

Ismatisms abound.  It is said she loved to shock.  When her husband Shahid’s amour complained about him, instead of losing control, she laughingly remarked that now there were two of them up in arms against him.   At another time when a prostitute yearningly told her she wanted to settle down in marriage she asked her why would she want to be kept by one man when she could have many and her independence too.  This mind gave the film world Ziddi, Arzoo, Junoon and Chauthey ka Jora – it became the award-winning Garam Hawa.

That there can be two opinions on Chughtai’s stories is unlikely.  These two novellas, translated ably by Tahira Naqvi, are unstoppable reading.  Such is the power of Chughtai’s metaphor and scintillating dialogue that one is instantly transported into a world in which much was forbidden.  Yes in a word, forbidden is what these stories are about, forbidden love and lust, that is and was so much of middle class society then.  But unlike much feminist writing, here it is both men and women, Puran along with Asha, Qudsia and Shabir, who suffer the onslaught of social taboos.

Both stories are electric fare.  In both there is a mela, or fair; in both the suitors are in themselves weak men; their contenders more macho; and yet the women are attracted to the weaker.  But their endings are diametrically opposed.  In The Heart Breaks Free, Qudsia discarded by her foreign return husband for an English mem finds comfort and sympathy in her mother’s home as long as she languishes hopelessly, blaming her kismet.  The moment she makes a grasp at love and consequent divorce, all hell is let loose.   While in The Wild One, a spoilt, emotionally volatile landlord finds his world of education and books standing him in poor stead against family obduracy when he wants to marry  Asha, a lower caste maid.  Though the story makes an ironic comment on family honour and Chughtai is biting in the manner in which she  whips off social hypocricies, it is the first story that is more compelling reading.  The reason lies in the parallel story of Pathani Bua, “if she hadn’t been slightly demented, Bua was fit to be weighed in gold”.  Her own debacle is a reversal of roles with Qudsia.  The writer peels off the film of Kind Acts by society’s vain do-gooders to reveal mindless cruelty.

Narrated from the perspective of a child, the story unfolds Amma’s efforts to bring Bua back to sanity through the hakim’s ministrations till she ends up as a wreck of her former self, weak, unattractive, albeit sane.  But when she can no longer do even household chores, she is discarded to live in the cow-shed to stink and rot as an aborted experiment while attention is turned to other affairs of the house, her tragedy perceived only by the sweepress and the child.  These two all along know what the other women don’t, that Bua’s fearlessness is her strength, which gives her the elixir to be more than men, the same strength that other women envy.

In the end it is the women who conspire to bring her down to their own cages of sanity.  It is this insightful tale that lifts the work to great heights.  The end, perhaps a realistic account, stilts the otherwise flowing narrative by knotting up loose ends which could even have been left unexplained.

Naqvi’s translation does justice to the nuances of idiomatic Urdu, catching its cadences, a hard task considering the remoteness of the English idiom.  While reading, native speakers can recall the original phrases simultaneously, which surely should be a point of applause.  Sometimes sadly, translations per se become an exercise in power, the translator being unable to keep herself out of the work, enfeebling the voice of the original.