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Ismat Chughtai

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    Ismat Chughtai

    A Profile of Ismat Chugtai
    by Farzana Versey


    Where are they - these women of substance, who are quietly chipping away at the huge barricades waiting for the walls to come tumbling down? The ones who come out occasionally to fight against the Personal Law do not interest me.

    I like the fire-and-brimstone kind. Call me elitist, but it is they who can show the world that the only fruitful activity is not merely looking to get out of a cage but how to preen your feathers, do a little pirouette, fly, free-fall.

    You don't find many of them around. There are a few who might fool you with their seductive adaabs in high society salons, champagne kissing their lips. But do they really know who they are, what they want to be?

    I have to do a little rewind and only one name leaps out at me. Of a woman so spunky that she had her way even in death, when she wanted her body to be released into the sea so that the fish could savour it.

    Ismat Chugtai was the kind of woman who despite the risk to limb and reputation you could trust your life with. Because she was a thinker, a person with feelings that ran deep and yet she had laughter coursing through her veins, as I discovered years ago.

    "I don't know what the hell my parents wanted from me. All I know is that I enjoyed more being with my four brothers than with any of my sisters. I also wanted to read English like them. My mother was so worried, she didn't know whether I was a girl or a boy or something in-between!" And Ismat Chugtai laughed as she related this.

    For someone who is remembered as a literary figure, her writing had begun on scraps, with curses jotted down against her brothers! And her inspiration came from romantic books. "But my knowledge of sex came from the servants and the way they described it, I found it all horrible. But my books were something different. The girl was always very beautiful. I always thought she was me. And she was always sick. The hero was a handsome doctor. This character emerged from the fact that our family doctor was fat and ugly. These stories I preserved in a box. And finally, when I was I3, my first story was published in an Urdu women's magazine. The heroine I again imagined to be me and, because it was a romantic story with the couple kissing, I requested that my name should be left out."

    But her ambition grew and she wanted to write for men's magazines. And did. This time her name was mentioned, but luckily for her the family had forgotten it! "I was called Chhuni at home. They did not realise it was I till the money order came and I was discovered. Then I got an award of Rs. 10 from which I bought a chiffon saree for six rupees."

    Soon chiffons were to be replaced with controversies. "In `Lihaaf' I wrote about an eight-year-old's view of lesbianism. They were discussions I had heard, though I did not know what the words meant. I knew what two men could do but not two women. A case was filed against this story in Lahore. Apparently, the people had understood it, though I hadn't!" She rejoiced at having shaken the citadels of false morality. And she even won the case.

    Without being tagged with the label she was a feminist. "I did not know if I was doing anything for women," she admitted, "I was expressing my own anger, clearing my own mind. And I often discussed it with writer friends like Munto, Bedi, Kishenchand and Ashok, all men. Of course, their writings were different. Their heroines committed suicide. My heroes did!" And then she wrote about older women, younger men. "Why not?" she had exclaimed then. "Why should men always be the bully? To deceive man is important. I know women think like that," she was convinced.

    For a woman who was a pioneering feminist, she wondered at the portrayal of the self-sacrificing woman of today. "The greatest revolution they show today is that a woman marries according to her wishes. But I don't think marriage keeps you from things. I married traditionally. (She was married to film director Shaheed Latif). It is the brain that's important. But now most of the stories are about the sacrificing woman. I don't know how the hell they suffer like that. Why don't they make others suffer presuming that to suffer is in vogue."

    Even today reminiscing about her I find her words breathe fire and her cigarette spews smoke. "These people pity prostitutes, I envy them."

    Years ago, she along with women from the Congress House, had gone to a brothel to ask a woman there to give up the 'dhanda'. "I was so fascinated when the woman fearlessly started abusing us. I quietly went again to meet her and realised that her boozard husband was the cause of her state.

    Prostitution, I feel, is a man's profession, not a woman's."

    Though her writings gave rise to storms, she was given awards - the Ghalib award, the Nehru award, and various state awards.

    But is this the yardstick for success? Can this ensure timelessness? "Perhaps... but wait, I don't think it can work when a minister is a patron. Things tend to get misused then."

    Ismat is one person who may have stopped kicking up a storm, but the ripples are still evident. How did she feel being recognised - elation or resignation, the feeling that I-have-seen-it-all-and-couldn't-care-less? "I don't feel anything. Or maybe I feel all right. At least I am not a freak any more!"

    Her days had not been spent in penury, like a fading prima donna's. In a well-appointed apartment, she showed me the rooms, including her grandson's where a sticker screamed "I love girls". Grandma was indulgent to such things. "His friends come and watch dirty films sometimes and they ask me to join them. I tell them that I don't want to get spoilt now. I think it's important to have an open attitude. I did not obey anyone and I don't expect anyone to."

    And she missed nothing from the past because she knows she could recreate it. "I cleared my confusions long ago." Though she sometimes did get confused, but about something different. About society. And she watched films on video. "Some of them are so irritating, but I have to watch to know what's happening."

    And to know that not all things change for the better. Which is why she is still like a beacon of light because she understood darkness.


    I have conversed with Farzana on the message board,she isnt right all the time.

    First i dont know how can a muslim be an ideal muslim living in a hindu society .They can be secular muslim of a different kind.Not that they are not muslim but they can hardly qualify as our role model ,b/c there behaviour activities & motivation will always remain suspect due to the fact that they actually are not only not free to practice the true islam thanks to compulsory hegemonised culture sort of claimed to be a mixed but radicalist claim it to be Hindutva.

    Ismat chugtai first of all married not only non muslim but Farzana is either lying or misinformed ,she willed that her body be creameted.

    She wrote sexually rebellous books & stories as if she was a man trapped in womens biody.Had she consulted proper endocrinologist she could have been a hermophrodite or xy chromosommally instead of real woman xx.

    Who as a woman always fantasizes about other womens husband as she did in katran ??
    P.S. Kompressor plz post the url as a routine ,i think moderetor would want that invariably

    Woh afsaana jise anjaam tak, laana na ho mumkin
    Use ek KHoobsoorat moR dekar, chhoRna achha

    [This message has been edited by FYI (edited August 03, 2001).]


      FY, you are very right. It is very difficult indeed to be a proper muslim while living in a hindu society. Rather even now, when we are not living in a hindu society, I see deep impact of that society here in the lives of muslims in Pakistan ,although over half a century has lapsed since partition.Here most of the people are secular muslims even now.I already knew Ismat wished her body to be cremated. But I never knew she married a non muslim.It is very strange that great art has always been produced by people who were abnormal in one or more ways. They had weird ideas and hence weird ways of life.Almost all of them are alienated from religion, they mock social values and do not consider wrong to indulge in activities like taking alcohol and entering into sex outside marriage etc.Yet, no matter how bizarre they are,they have very superb ability to encompass various aspects of human life very very elaborately in their works.
      FY, which URL should I always post?

      [This message has been edited by kompressor (edited August 09, 2001).]

      [This message has been edited by kompressor (edited August 09, 2001).]


        Thank you Kompressor bhai ,

        I know but i dont think you have to ACT abnormal in order to prove yourself genius.There are some of those too ,like Rushdie,I heardv about NFH drinking binges,& so on.

        On the other hand there are talented shair like Hali ,Meer ,Shakeel bada yuni Iqbal who never did it.
        Prersently Dilip Kumar ,Mohommed Ali ,etc Yusuf Islam are talented & yet believing artistes.

        Bu url i mean what web site you pasted it from.Just paste the blank space on the browser (the top blank space on top of web,that we we can go to the site also to read more .

        Talk to you later


        Woh afsaana jise anjaam tak, laana na ho mumkin
        Use ek KHoobsoorat moR dekar, chhoRna achha


          this is way too long to read i'll read it someother time since ismat is one of my fav writers....but right now i just wanna say that i took my custom title from one of her stories :--)have any of you read it? "ChiRRi ki dukki"??


            Oh yes indeed...this is way too long. But then life is short,the art long (opportunity fleeting ; experience treacherous;judgement difficult)
            And this is the site where it came from:



              Thanx for the url.It helps to know it ios published from Mumai group of publications which are not particularly good for muslim(i mean not muslim friendly.)

              When a mujahdeen dies fighting unwanted forces in Kashmir ,Indian muslim say he is just a terorist who happens to claim to be a muslim.

              By the same logic ,as a MAN,i like to say for all muslim men worth there Imaan & islamic knowledge that yes,she must have been a remarkable women in the eye of hindus ,MAVERICK & whatever ,who was just like hindu woman ,who claimed to be muslim!!

              I didnt even make her criminal by calling her immoral permissive & prostitute fantasizing low life with gift to write in Urdu ,.Is urdu writing gift a MUSLIM or imaan??


              Woh afsaana jise anjaam tak, laana na ho mumkin
              Use ek KHoobsoorat moR dekar, chhoRna achha