“I distinctly remember that whenever she used to come to our place, she never wore a nightie or kaftan, or something like that. She would wear a saree petticoat and my dad’s Lucknowi kurta. She would look so cool, she would roll up her sleeves and had this short hair and glasses. She would be lounging on the bed and writing. Just scribbling, scribbling and scribbling,” says Masarrat Peshimam, recounting memories of her great-aunt Ismat Chughtai. It’s easy to visualise the seminal writer as Ms. Peshimam describes her. A firebrand feminist and rebellious Urdu author, Chughtai wasn’t one to conform. Her work shook up the literary world at a time when a woman’s role in society was still dictated by patriarchal structures. Her short story, Lihaaf, has gone down in history not only because of its homosexual overtones but also for its exploration of female sexuality - a great piece of writing for which Chughtai was charged with ‘obsenity’ and arrested.
Dynamic, irreverent, iconoclast – there are many ways we can describe the Chughtai we’ve read about, but who was she to the people closest to her? “My father would say to her that ‘none of my children would read your books, definitely not the girls,’ and she would respond ‘why not?’ He said [her] writing is too vulgar,” says Salma Irani, Chughtai’s niece. “She told him to wait and took out a book. It was Lihaaf. She handed it to me and my sister and said ‘read.’”
“She used to make me write for her. She would give me dictation. She would keep talking and I’d be writing for which she would give me 50 rupees, and at that time - 1948 - it was a lot,” Ms. Irani shares. “When the shooting started she would tell me to come with her. I would go with her, and in this way she brought me into the studios. I never worried, I knew I [was] going to the studio with khala jaan, I’d be alright.” Ms. Irani went on to become one of the first female assistant directors in the Hindi film industry.
From the stories about her that they tell, it’s clear that Chughtai never hid who she was, whether in public or in her personal life – what you see is what you got. She passed on the clear-sightedness, open-mindedness and rationality that she wrote with to everyone around her, as principles to live by, making them a way of life in the smallest of ways. “I remember as kids one day we were crying for ice cream and she called us and said, ask God for ice cream. So we raised our hands and asked, but nothing happened. Then she said, ask me and we asked her. At once she pulled out her wallet and gave us the money and said go get ice cream, and we were like... wow,” muses Aijaz Khan, her grand nephew. “Other times she would sit right in the centre and make all the kids sit around her. She asked us to start telling a story. Where one kid’s line would end the other one would start and together we’d string together a tale. That’s how she would encourage all of us to think.”
Her power and impact lay not just in her words, but also in her actions and the person that she was to those around her. She was a fearless woman that others could always reach out to for help. “We had the strangest of people coming into our home – from across state and international borders (such as Pakistan). Our home was an open house in that sense, much to my mother’s irritation,” laughs Ashish Sawhny, Chughtai’s grandson. “Once a lady came from Bangalore and it was clear she was going through something. My grandmother was counselling her and talking to her, and the lady was crying a lot. When she left I asked my grandmother about her. I was told that she was a sex worker who was forced into the trade and had run away from Bangalore and come to her. She felt that ‘Ismat Apa’ would know what to do; only Ismat Apa could help in some way.”
Sawhny’s relationship with his grandmother was that of any other grandchild-grandmother. Of fun and games, love, stories and nostalgia. “We did some insane things. I used to be a difficult eater as a child and would sometimes be sitting at the table for two hours finishing what’s on my plate. The only way they could get me to finish was with Nanu sitting with me and telling me stories. There was a long-running saga about a Mirchi family – there was kaali mirchi, peeli mirchi, laal mirchi, neeli mirchi and so on!” he reminisces. “Once we were near Churchgate station and we saw a wedding procession going by. She started making up a story as we went along about how the band wallah wanted to steal the bride’s necklace. We ended up actually following the procession and gate-crashed the wedding. Somebody recognised her and we were given a full VIP treatment and dinner! I had an amazing childhood,” he adds.
Speaking about the impact of the Lihaaf controversy on her and daily life, he opens up and shares that she never expected the kind of reaction it had gotten. She didn’t expect the backlash or the repercussions. “She told me that she thought ‘who will read this story being published in a small magazine?’ The aftermath was so vicious to her. She would get letters filled with what she called ‘poison’ and she was called all sorts of names,” says Sawhny. He feels the response propelled her to become less caring and more rebellious – a streak of which she already possessed – and made her explore new areas. “She became very ‘care-a-damn’ about everything and anybody. No institution was sacred to her, not religion, not marriage and not society, least of all,” he said.
While Chughtai grew indifferent to society, society didn’t move on as easily. Saadat Hasan Manto and Chughtai were under fire for their works Lihaaf and Bu respectively and were charged and summoned for trial in Lahore. She documented the entire ordeal with typical wit in an essay titled ‘The Lihaaf Trial’. Chughtai and Manto were at the forefront of the Progressive Writers Movement in India and both became icons when it came to Urdu literature. They were friends who admired and criticised each other, though many people made their relationship out to be something other than it was.
Describing the two writers relationship, Sawhny first gives us insight into her peers and the social climate of the time. “Her friend circle comprised of Sardar Jafri – his wife Sultana and she had gone to college together so they were very close, very friendly; Kaifi Azmi and Qurratulain Hyder would come around very often. It was always very lively and chatty, she had a very healthy rapport with her contemporaries and colleagues, but there were differences as well, I am sure. I think people in the literary world made a big deal about her ‘rivalry’ with Aini khala [Qurratulain Hyder], but I never saw that. She would come over, they would play cards and gossip.”
“Manto was a great buddy of hers and her partner in crime,” says Sawhny, “They were sued together so they travelled to Lahore together, they underwent the trial together. They seemed to have had a lot of fun through the trial with each other.” Manto and Chughtai both loved Bombay, but when the time of partition came, Manto moved to Lahore in 1948, apprehensive of the growing religious animosity around him. For Chughtai, Bombay was home and where she continued to stay. As opposed to Manto, she was unsure of the religious and political climate in Pakistan, and especially as a woman, she feared it. She didn’t know if she’d be walking into more conservatism, where being who she was and writing as she did would be even more contentious.
“At Partition, all sense and facts pointed towards her also going to Pakistan, as a Muslim who should have felt the need to leave India because there was a lot of propaganda for Muslims to leave the country. She definitely missed Manto and cursed him for going to Pakistan. They had a very unique, great friendship, she was very friendly with his wife Safia as well. The obvious conclusion was that there was something going on between them but I don’t think so at all because if you read both their pieces on each other – they’ve both written shorts about each other – you can clearly see a great admiration as well as irritation. You can see all the ingredients that a great friendship has,” says Sawhny.
Chughtai was an inspiration to many but to her family what mattered most was her simply being Ismat Apa. Her daughters looked to her for support when they grew up and faced their own difficulties as single women. She became a storyteller for her grandchildren and encouraged the girls of the family to think beyond their ‘prescribed’ roles. For them, her legacy lies in her principles that have been passed down generations. These stories shine through the words of Armiya Khan, one of the great-grand nieces of Chughtai and part of the youngest generation of her family. Armiya shares that throughout her childhood she had heard of this revolutionary woman who was her great-grand aunt, one who played such a pivotal role in changing the history of Urdu literature. At that age, it had never really hit her just what an incredible person Chughtai was and the achievements she had. “That is until two years ago when I started reading her books and watching her plays, I realised her worth and what a woman she was. I really, really wish I could meet her.”
Chughtai wore many hats – from taking on powerful men, paving a way for Urdu literature and other female writers, to questioning societal norms and Islam through her work. Perhaps the most important one of all was her effortless empathy and generosity of spirit that continues to live on in everyone she touched.
This article would not have been possible without Aliya Khan.
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