Memoirs of a rebel in a mans world

Written by Nistula Hebbar | Nistula Hebbar | Updated: Apr 15 2012, 07:47am hrs
Ismat Chughtai, along with Qurratulain Haider, was a doyenne of Urdu literature since before independence and for much of the period after. A writer of the progressive school, the defining moment of her career was the obscenity trial she underwent for her short story Lihaaf, which had lesbianism as a theme and comprehensively went behind the purdah, or in this case the lihaaf (blanket) drawn over the cloistered world of Muslim women.

This memoir translated from Chughtais Urdu rendering, called Kaghazi hai Pairahan, does dwell on that episode, but only as a small part of Chughtais colourful life. The hilarious description of the trial, held alongside a similar trial of Sadaat Hassan Manto, is well recounted, but is not the core of the book. That is obviously the description of the large, rambling Chughtai family (proud descendants of the Mongols) in all their eccentric glory.

The ten Chughtai siblings, each more irrepressible than the other, are a delight. Chughtais descriptions of their family outings, daily life, her own struggles for an education and the absolute contempt siblings feel for each others precious dignity make one long for a time when such large families were the norm.

Quite a few skeletons of the Chughtai family closet are laid bare, but in inimitable style. For example towards the end of the book, her fathers second marriage to Rahat aunty is revealed in a very matter of fact way. That storm passed over the Chughtai family, with Rahat aunty fading into the sunset, but the seriousness of the incident could not prevent it from becoming another subject for the Chughtai familys robust and subversive humour. When Chughtais brother Shamim is denied dinner by the matriarch for failing to do some chores, he appeals to the father to marry again, Just see! She only has curses and harsh words for me. If it were Rahat Aunty... to much laughter from the rest.

It is not a one off thing, therefore, that the obscenity trial against Ismat Chughtai was dealt with in the same subversive manner.

The book, unlike the usual style of memoirs, is not linear or chronological, a fact acknowledged by translator, M Asaduddin, in the introduction of the book. The jump cut narrative also means that some stories are repeated at least twice in the book. An example is Chughtais description of her distress at a public assembly (majlis) where a graphic description of Ali Asgharas death was recounted in a traditional Marsiya and Nauha. The incident is recounted both at the beginning and at the end of the book.

Stories about Badhshahi Puphi, engaged in a long feud with her brother (Chughtais father) are also recounted twice. In fact, some of the stories, like that of Hashmat Apas unfortunate marriage, appear as a work of fiction in the story Chauthi ka Joda, later in Chughtais body of work.

The stories go from Chughtais childhood, to her struggles for an education, which she manages not least due to the progressive forces unleashed by the freedom movement, to her encounters with Islamic orthodoxy.

Her light touch in dealing with Hindu-Muslim relations in British India, her experiences at womens only educational institutions, where a Muslim woman was a novelty, of small town life in Aligarh, Agra and Lucknow provide a window into a world which no longer exists.

Chughtais voice in Urdu literature has been associated with boldness. That boldness was bolstered by very determined efforts by a section of the Muslim community to improve the lot of women. Radical publications like Angaarey provided a voice to a non-orthodox view, which now appears radical in a post-Taliban world, as they did in colonised India. For those who talk of the silent moderate Muslim, there is much to gain by reading this book.

The book, a little disconcerting in the jumps in chronology, nevertheless, has several gems in the sketches and descriptions. Even an English translation of a book written in the sensuous language of Urdu cannot take away the pungency of Chughtais language and description. And it owes as much to Asaduddin as Chughtai that this is so.