GOOGLE today dedicated its doodle to famous Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai on her 107 th birth anniversary. Ismat Chughtai (1911–91) was most courageous and controversial woman writer of the twentieth century. She carved a niche for herself among her contemporaries of Urdu fiction writers—Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander—by introducing areas of experience not explored before.
Her work not only transformed the complexion of Urdu fiction but also brought about an attitudinal change in the assessment of literary works. Although a spirited member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India, she spoke vehemently against its orthodoxy and inflexibility.
Often perceived as a feminist writer, Chughtai explored female sexuality while also exploring other dimensions of social and existential reality.”
The themes her stories delve into are perhaps just as significant today as they were when they were originally penned. Faced with charges of obscenity for Lihaaf, she continued to write on issues that sent shockwaves in a culture steeped in patriarchy.
Her women characters cut across barriers of class and caste – Begums and wives of decadent Nawabs, sex-workers of the common market, coy wives and young maidservants inside a middle class household. The thread of oppression binds them together. They are stifled and they struggle to break free from their claustrophobic environments. They are victimized because of their sex but they make sexuality their weapon.
Chughtai’s stories continue to unsettle readers for writing all that is considered tabooed, compunctious and obscene to the civil society. She viscerally and specifically exposes the hypocrisies behind hegemonized conventionality and conformity.
In 1942 she emerged on the literary scene with a bang as her short story ‘Lihaaf’ appeared in Adab-i-Latif, a literary magazine published from Lahore. Its central theme was female homosexuality. Themes related to sensuality have never been a rarity in Urdu literature, especially in classical poetry, and a few Urdu masnavis (longish poems, often narrating a romance) are known for being too explicit. Male homosexuality had not been a taboo subject in Urdu poetry but somehow female homosexuality was not approved of, except for rekhti, a genre of classical Urdu poetry that depicted female homosexuality, mostly in implicit and symbolic terms. In the subcontinent’s conservative society these covert and occasionally overt expressions of sensuality were thought to be offensive but were quietly smiled upon.
‘Lihaaf’ sent tremors across the subcontinent and Chughtai had to bear with scathing criticism for it. ‘Lihaaf’ is about two women, one of whom is deprived of her husband’s love and the other is the maid servant. It is strange that ‘Chai ki pyali’, Muhammad Hasan Askari’s short story that had covert gestures to female homosexuality, published in the January 1942 issue of Adabi Duniya (Lahore), and later included in the collection of his short stories titled Jazeeray, did not invoke as much criticism as did ‘Lihaaf’; neither did rekhtis written by the male poets. In fact, Askari’s story was not taken much notice of, for reasons not known. On the contrary, Chughtai’s story was considered more offensive, perhaps because of her gender. ‘Lihaaf’ brought Chughtai much notoriety and she was even summoned by a court for the alleged ‘obscenity’. Ironically, it was exactly this kind of attitude of a male-dominated society that Chughtai used to scoff at.