I had never reflected on why I was fascinated by Ismat Chugtai until I sat through a session on Ismat Chugtai at the Jaipur Literary Festival 2013. There is much to admire about Ismat Chugtai, one of the earliest feminist storytellers of India and Pakistan, born in 1915. She was one of the first Muslim women graduates of undivided India and author of numerous short stories and novels. Her story Lihaaf (The Quilt), a story about a middle class woman ignored by her husband and in sexual relationship with a female servant led to her prosecution for obscenity in a Lahore court, where she was acquitted due to the fact that her subtle storytelling relied on no word that the prosecution could cite as being obscene. These and many other aspects of her life are enough to elevate her to stardom in Indian literature.
But India is blessed with a large number of wonderful writers from 20th and 21st centuries, writing in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and yes, English. I can admire Premchand, Meghani and Tagore but none have the same hold on my imagination as Ismat Chugtai. Chugtai's middle class women are a far cry from Premchand's peasntry that have always represented "real" India to me. Meghani's prose has a power that Chugtai's subtle narrative can not match. So it has always been a bit inexplicable to me as why I Chugtai has such a hold on my imagination. It was not until I heard Javed Akhtar speak about Chugtai that I realized that it’s the idea of India that Chugtai represents rather than Chugtai herself that I am fascinated with. Akhtar talked about Gandhiji’s Hindustani that drew from classical Hindi rooted in Sanskrit traditions and poetic Urdu rooted in Persian traditions. It is the freedom to blend and choose from the best of both traditions that Chugtai represents, a freedom that many of us yearn for.
Chugtai represents an idea of the rich tapestry of South Asia where religious and linguistic diversity is woven together in a way that all of us can absorb and embrace. Ismat Chugtai’s middle class Muslim women feel like sisters of the Hindu women I see every day, her Urdu is beautiful older sister of the rather pedestrian Mumbai Hindi of my childhood. Perhaps the reason Chugtai holds all our imagination even 30 years after her death is because somehow she has come to represent the ephemeral nature of the lines dividing Hindu and Muslim, Urdu and Hindi, India and Pakistan.
January 25, 2013