Raconteur of a Forbidden City

Wajida Tabassum was a gifted writer, who took great efforts to fill her female characters with fire that can set the world ablaze even today

HYDERABAD : Nobody remembers the nondescript dingy house in Red Hills that once belonged to Hyderabad’s very own Urdu author Wajida Tabassum, who would turn 83 if she were alive today. The defiant writer, who explored erotica through her short stories and novels maybe forgotten in old bookshops or university libraries, she is still remembered by her octogenarian peers: scholar-poet Anwar Moazzam and his wife, the famous award-winning Urdu writer Jeelani Bano to whose house she’d often pay a visit. 

Copies of magazine Shama, published from Delhi way back in 60s, hold her stories intact in yellowing pages stacked on book shelves of certain houses where family members, especially women would devour every risqué detail in her crisp short stories that revolved around deviant nawabs of Hyderabad. The tales echoing from nooks and crannies of havelis were as labyrinthine as the lives of those living there. Post sundown, the tales tumbling between seduction and exploitation would open their eyes bringing forward the contrast of exploiting nobles and the exploited servants, females to be more precise.

In the story ‘Chutney’ one reads the sensual tension between a young nawab and a ravishing beauty employed as a servant; the same finds climax in her being raped as she brings hot pakodas for him on a rainy night. It’s not just the erotic details of female anatomy that she provides using metaphors like fluttering pigeons, kohl-lined smouldering eyes she stops at the point of being too ostentatious, instead unleashes the volcano in women: slaves or wives – they strongly claim their due often brutally hurting the royal ego of the perpetrators or partners. That’s how in Chutney we see the servant girl tearing open her dress in a gathering and challenging the nawab on his wedding day. In another short story ‘Tiya Paancha’ Wajida explores the frothing anger of a wife who publicly declares her husband an impotent when he cheats on her. 

If Ismat Chughtai was the firebrand literary star in Modern Urdu literature, Wajida was her successor which unfortunately couldn’t see her reaching the pinnacle as she deviated from her focus giving in to the demands of writing more erotica. “But she was sahib-e-asloob, an author with exquisite style who knew the strength she was filling her female characters with,” reminisces Anwar Moazzam.  But what was she like in real life? Was she, too, sued for obscenity as were Manto and Chughtai? She didn’t have to face any such legal hassles, but there were strong public protests against her in the city and she was accused of portraying her community in a bad light. 

Not many knew that she used to live in purdah and wasn’t as frank with her male counterparts when it came to conversations. “She was always jovial and spoke excitedly especially about her works when she’d discuss them with me,” remembers a smiling Jeelani Bano. Wajida had just started writing when she and Jeelani became friends. Her afsaney or stories used to be published in several magazines of Pakistan. Later, she began contributing to a literary magazine ‘Saba’ published from Hyderabad which gained her much acclaim in literary circles but not without making some eyebrows raised given the sensual content and context of her writings. Adds Anwar, “She was very confident about whatever she wrote. Her stories were tanqeed on the society she saw. She, of course, used a lot of her creativity, which is the hallmark of any writer, but that didn’t sit well with many around her.” Is that the reason her books don’t sell well in the city?

Venture into Huda book store in Purani Haveli and you don’t come across any of her famed publications like: ‘Shahar E Mamnua’, ‘Tah-Khana’ or ‘Zakhm-e-Dil Aur Mehak Aur Mehak’. Shares Zakir Hussain, the manager, “A few years ago, we used to have her books in our collection. Not anymore. But anyone who wants to read her works can place an order with us and we can get the same from Delhi.” It’s a bit surprising that she’s not read much in Hyderabad – a place where she chose to settle down before moving to Bombay. It was the strength of her writing that her short story ‘Uttaran’ was made into a television series way back in 1988 and later in 1996 a movie Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, was made with the script written by Mira Nair and Helena Kriel. 

So does that make her popularly ‘unpopular’ because she chose to write a lot against the sexual exploitation of the women of lower classes employed as servants? “Though her writings are powerful, but unfortunately she showed only one side of the story; maybe that can be the reason why denizens of the city are not much into her writings despite the fact that she was the highest paid writer of her times,” says Prof Naseemuddin Farees from department of Deccan Studies, MANUU. Whatever may the opinion of people be, she was a gifted writer, took great efforts to fill her female characters with fire who were ready to set the world ablaze. In a world of cheesy Mills & Boon one really longs for the strong themes she chose to explore through the symbolism of erotica.
saima@newindianexpress  @Sfreen

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