Remembering some of Ismat Chughtai’s most controversial stories on her 107th birth anniversary
Today’s Google Doodle commemorates what would have been Indian writer, Ismat Chughtai’s 107th birthday. Born in the small town of Badayun, Uttar Pradesh, Chughtai is renowned for being one of the most contentious albeit inspiring writers of her time. Since the 1930s, her work offered frank depictions of women’s lives while exploring topics of sexuality, femininity and class struggle, which are indeed pertinent to today’s reformist ideals. Chughtai has elevated the eminence of Urdu literature, and the feminist movement immortalises her progressive consciousness.
Here’s a look back on some of her most evocative pieces.
1. Lihaaf (The Quilt)
Conceivably Chughtai’s most provocative piece, Lihaaf grapples with ideas of homoeroticism and the suppression of a woman’s sexual desires. Considered brash and illicit, the text was banned in South Asia, and Chughtai found herself amid a legal dispute which she ultimately won. The story is written from a child’s perspective and illustrates the life of a young woman named Begum Jaan. Begum Jaan’s husband habitually neglects her, and instead averts his attention to “young, fair and slim-waisted boys.” Robbed of her husband’s affection, Begum Jaan finds solace in her masseuse, Rabbu, and their relationship turns sexual. Lihaaf is notoriously disconcerting in its portrayal of Begum Jaan and forces us to consider the consequences of practising sexuality, shamelessly.
Vocation is a cleverly written tale of a woman who vilifies her neighbours, assuming they are prostitutes. The protagonist deems her profession as a teacher to be far more respectable, using it as leverage to cast judgement on those deviating from so-called normalcy. Later, she discovers that her neighbours in fact hail from the aristocracy, and is left bemused. Accordingly, Vocation is a shrewd allegory that highlights the pretence of morality and the duplicitous ways in which women perceive one another.
3. Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line)
Set in India’s colonial past, Terhi Lakeer chronicles the life of Shaman, a spirited, middle-class Muslim girl who seeks to revolt against any traditional upbringing. Shaman, however, is sent away to boarding school by her family. The story aptly underlines the confusion and juvenile outbursts of a girl attempting to navigate her way through India’s fight for independence. Chughtai toys with concepts of fluid masculinity and femininity, allowing us to dissect the social constructs of gender roles in the height of imperialism.
4. Gharwali (The Homemaker)
This iconoclastic story by Chughtai implies that the institution of marriage is redundant, as the relationship between the two main characters, Lajjo and Mirza, dispels any myth that fidelity is only realised through a legally binding union. Lajjo does not shy away from sexual pleasure. She has minimal regard for social status and views everyone as an equal. Perhaps promiscuous, she is desired by many, including Mirza, the owner of the house in which she is the live-in maid. Mirza tries to tame Lajjo on many occasions, but her care-free soul remains unshackled by any conventional guideline of love.