Aamer Hussein reviews Ismat Chughtai's Short Stories

Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi (Women Unlimited New Delhi, 2013)

In a recent essay in The Independent novelist Kishwar Desai described how, in her search for 'iconoclastic writers who challenged social and moral attitudes but had roots in the east', she first came across Ismat Chughtai's collection of stories, The Quilt. Along with her contemporary Manto, Chughtai had a 'seminal impact' on Desai: she carries about 'these rebellious lives with me...like a talisman.' Desai was in her thirties then; Chughtai, who had been acknowledged as one of the leading Urdu short story writers since the '40s, had only been translated into English in 1990. (She died the following year.)

Chughtai was born in 1915 (or possibly 1911, according to recent research). She insisted on a university education at a time when respectable Muslim girls studied at home or at best attended secondary school. After graduation, she taught at girls' schools in several cities for about three years, before taking a further degree and then becoming an inspector of schools, which took her to Bombay, where she married in 1942, gave birth to two daughters, and lived for the rest of her life, supporting herself by writing in a variety of genres.

Inspired by the left-wing Progressive Writers group—and in particular by their only woman member, the gynaecologist Rashid Jehan, who wrote bold, raw and transparently ideological fiction—she began to publish plays, stories and essays in the late '30s. In 1945 she produced one of the finest novels in the Urdu language, The Crooked Line, which, when translated into English fifty years later, was compared to The Second Sex for its stringent analysis of gender and sexual politics. It is, however, a novel and not a treatise; it gains much of its power from its portrayal of a woman who is almost—but not quite—Chughtai's fictional mirror-image. In one of the novel's significant deviations from the author's life, its heroine, Shamshad, never shows more than a passing interest in literature; thus the book remains the portrait of a young woman who breaks rules, not of a young artist, and is all the more realistic for its omission. Another deviation is in its depiction of Shamshad's marriage: her husband is an Anglo-Irishman who goes off to rejoin World War II when, in a fit of anticolonial rage, his wife insults and rejects him.

In real life, Chughtai had found her partner, the scriptwriter Shahid Latif, by the time she published the book. By her own account, she told him: 'I'm a troublesome woman...I have broken all the chains in my life and I would never be able to stay bound in them. To be an obedient wife was a role not suited to me.' Apart from an obscenity trial for her infamous, lesbian-themed story 'The Quilt' in 1944, when she was still looking after an infant daughter, Chughtai settled into an uneasy domesticity while she produced a stream of successful writings; although there were no more scandals in her lifetime, her reputation as the enfant terrible of Urdu literature, maintained on the page and in her level of rhetoric, never abandoned her—her writing remained fearless even while her life was quiet.

Her marriage seems not to have been very happy, and Latif, who probably resented her fame, appears to have receded from her life, but she never wrote of him as anything other than a companion, an equal and a friend. For a writer who constantly wrote on the boundary of fact and fiction, memory and imagination, it is surprising that Chughtai never wrote about her married years in any depth, in factual or fictional form.

Famed for her stunning evocations of women's lives 'behind the curtain' and for tearing that curtain away, Chughtai began increasingly, in her longer fiction, to focus on the lives of Bombay film stars with a boldness that even today is shocking: the casual prostitution, exploitation of flesh, and profligate use of drugs and alcohol prefigure works like The Valley of the Dolls, without, somehow, lapsing into sensationalism or tastelessness.

In her short stories, too, she alternated between the middle class Muslim settings of her early fictions and stories of modern urban life. Take, as an example of the double track she followed in the '60s, the two novels she published in 1962, both available in English. Masooma is a roman à clef set in Bombay, following the life of a young woman from an aristocratic Muslim family whose mother monitors her career as movie star and glorified call girl. The Heart Breaks Free, which disproves the critical contention that Chughtai's best work dates from the first decade of her career, uses her characteristic detached first-person narrator to tell the story, over many years, of a young woman who is abandoned by her husband but escapes, by staging her own death, to live in illicit happiness with a male relative. It is set in a fictionalised version of one of the small towns of Chughtai's childhood. Interestingly, it is the conventional woman who finds happiness while the actress, a model of freedom at the time, is consumed by the flesh trade. The two novels signal the dichotomy in Chughtai's writing: the iconoclast and the girl who, though she broke her chains, was never able to forget the homes and the women she left behind.

Though Chughtai shows her mastery of the difficult novella form in The Heart Breaks Free, and in spite of the virtuoso performance she delivered in The Crooked Line, there is a general consensus that she was at her best in shorter forms. In a literary culture that prizes the short story and has produced several masters of the genre, Chughtai remains, to this day, one of its two most renowned practitioners, along with Manto; her reputation has outlasted that of Bedi, Krishen Chander, and many others. Although she continued to live in India and only visited Pakistan, which after its creation in 1947 became the new official home of Urdu literature (and many of its writers, who migrated there), her reputation transcended national boundaries and, to this day, is as great in Pakistan as it is in India. Added to this is the all-India reputation that grew after her death—English is the link language between the regions—with the numerous translations by Tahira Naqvi published by Women Unlimited, followed by Penguin India, often with variant versions of the same classic stories.

The original edition of The Quilt, published in England by the now-defunct Women's Press in 1991, includes, among fifteen stories from various parts of Chughtai's career, the title story for which the author was dragged into court in 1944. Despite its attendant lawsuit for lesbian obscenity, it is actually about a noblewoman who, abandoned by her husband who prefers young men, finds comfort in the arms of her masseuse. It's narrated by the young woman she attempts to seduce. Compared to her best stories, it's a weak effort, and even, in places, mildly homophobic; odd, then, that much of what has been written about Chughtai by feminist and LGBT critics rests on it rather than on her magisterial feminist novel, The Crooked Line, which candidly explores homoerotic subtexts in all-female environments such as boarding schools.

In Vintage Chughtai, an edition of eighteen of Chughtai's best stories which includes six fresh translations, 'The Quilt' has been dropped, along with two others, a decision of which the author would approve, given her later comments on the story. In its place, there is 'Gainda', one of Chughtai's earliest published works. Here, the I-narrator tells, in an elliptical fashion, the story of a servant who is her childhood playmate; widowed at the age of about thirteen, she is seduced by the narrator's brother and gives birth to his son, while he's packed off to study far away. In just a few pages of fragmented dialogue and reflection, with a minimum of description and exposition, Chughtai manages to evoke issues of gender and class without the self-consciousness that mars some of her later work, like 'A Pair of Hands', the story of another illegitimate child and the low-caste man who accepts it as his own. This latter story ends with an encomium to poor labourers—'these hands were neither legitimate nor illegitimate; they were only hands, living hands that wash away the filth from the face of this planet, that carry the weight of its aging. These tiny hands, dark and soiled, are illuminating the earth's countenance'—that, in the trite phrase with which it culminates, instead of redeeming them from poverty, seems to condemn them to it. What surprises today is how mature and subtle 'Gainda' seems in contrast to some of her more obviously didactic work, and just how early in her career Chughtai discovered her strengths, though she remained restless and continued to experiment with voice and form almost to the end of her long career, when the onset of Alzheimer's silenced her in the late '80s.

Examples of her later style are the stories 'Alone Again' and 'The Third Hand'. Both, in Chughtai's characteristically deft fashion, depict family, social and romantic relationships against a background of economic and historical change. In the former, one of Chughtai's few portrayals of an independent woman artist, she follows the fortunes of Shehzad, whose snobbish family prevents her from marrying a man of promise because of his inferior pedigree. Years later—now a very famous artist who reflects 'the beautiful values of her country in her art' and imbues her colours with "the sound of temple bells and the echoes of the azaan from the mosque'—Shehzad meets Dilshad, her former suitor, with his English wife; their conversation ranges over Partition and its diasporas, expatriation, homelands and the multiple sense of belonging to which Dilshad, like many of his contemporaries who have links with India, Pakistan, and Europe, lays claim. At the end of the encounter, Shehzad is left alone in a world of sound, colour, and memory. She soliloquises:

'My creativity, my captivity, is my own desire, my own longing, and I have control over it. And the rooms where my paintings hang, I have a connection with them as well, these tall temples, the museums where sculptures are exhibited, towers, children playing on the street, birds in flight, lush green fields, sighs, laughter, the lightning far away....I have made them all captive with my brush and embellished them on my canvas.' Only art can resolve her loneliness and the memory of desire. She 'picked up her brush and dipped it into the orange paint.'

In the latter story, Chughtai returns to the small town milieu of her early life, only to show us a changed canvas—one by one, the Muslim families that inhabited these places have left for Pakistan, leaving behind a diminished community, decaying aristocratic homes, and young women with inadequate educations obliged to make their own way in an economic wilderness. Set within this narrative is the story of an orphan boy brought up by the heroine's family who, as the story develops, emerges as the unlikely candidate for her affections when she gives him a mental makeover involving an Elvis Presley wig and a pair of Tom Jones jeans, and persuades him to change his image in real life as well.

Social crossovers and transgressions of class barriers, seen here as an outcome of internal displacement in a diminishing minority community, always existed in Chughtai's work, as can be seen by two of the most enjoyable stories retained here from the previous selection. There's 'Kallu', in which the eponymous poor relation is flung out of his temporary shelter with a foster family who are actually more like employers, for a tiny misdemeanour. He comes back to court the daughter of the family who mistreated him; he's metamorphosed into a bright, handsome, young civil servant, and not to be scoffed at. There's nothing that education (and money) can't achieve in the social world, especially when allied to a good, if forgotten and marginalised, pedigree, as the snobbish clique that once rejected him admits, covertly or overtly.

The exquisite long story 'Lingering Fragrance' takes us into an almost exotic world of aristocrats and their decadent ways, first glimpsed in 'The Quilt'. Here we see an archaic custom: young women are acquired from poor families to serve as concubines for the young men of the house, and how in one case the norms are shattered when a young scion of the nobility refuses to be separated from his concubine and pays the price. Yet, in his shabby clothes and newfound poverty, the young man, who becomes a tennis instructor while he completes his studies, seems happier than he would have been in the luxury he abandons.

These Cinderella stories combine humour, romance, and satire in a way that only Chughtai can, and confirm that, while her best material came from her youthful memories, she was able to adapt herself and this material to her present. ('Roots', 'Quit India' and 'Saviour'—stories not included here—deal with national independence, partition and the Indira Gandhi years in a tight, pseudo-documentary fashion that some critics have found unsuited to her strengths, but nevertheless reveal her constant ability to keep in step with the world around her and analyse its foibles with her unique blend of compassion and cynicism.)

There is also a series of portraits of women and marriages that span the entire spectrum of Chughtai's experience: 'The Veil', about a beautiful, Miss Havisham-like bride who remains a virgin because her husband refuses to unveil her; 'Eternal Vine', about a very young wife who watches her elderly husband's energies drained away by his fears about her youth; and, most memorably perhaps, 'Wife,' about an ebullient servant whose employer marries only to find he can't contain her libido or her energies. Two of these stories have been unforgettably staged, among others, by the leading Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah with his wife and daughter, in English and in the original Urdu.

Chughtai is remembered by many readers for portraying the world she left behind, a world that disappeared long ago: an irony, as it wasn't a world she wanted to see preserved, but which would have been lost to future generations if she hadn't depicted it. A self-avowed disciple of the great French and Russian realists, she said she turned to Chekhov if ever she was blocked in the process of writing a story, but her fiction shows no obvious influences at all, apart from her own memories and observations. On her deathbed, her grandson remembers, she wanted to be taken 'home' to the places of her past, which, even when she rejected them, had remained the most fertile source of her imagination. Without her stories, it may also have been impossible to judge how far we subcontinentals have progressed in the world; at times, though, we can still see how close the world that Chughtai shut the door upon lies to our own.

There's also the question of her style: the inimitably colloquial mode of telling, musical, snappy, brisk, and enticingly digressive in turn, probably almost untranslatable. It's impossible for the bilingual critic to compare the quality of the translations with the original without a level of bias; occasionally, as in the celebrated story 'The Wedding Shroud', a highly symbolic passage in which a young women is molested by the cousin she has fallen in love with becomes almost incomprehensibly dense. But these translations—including The Crooked Line, which is kept in print in the United States by the redoubtable Feminist Press—have introduced Chughtai to a much wider readership both at home and abroad than she had in her lifetime, and enhanced the reputation of modern Urdu fiction.

But as her younger contemporary and at one time archrival Qurratulain Hyder said in her obituary, 'her remote ancestor, Chengez Khan, lived in a mobile tent which had a golden dome. His army on wheels and horseback was called the golden army, 'Urdu-e-mutalla', because their tents had golden canopies. The word Urdu is derived from this. Ismat inherited the special Urdu inherited by ladies—sharp, witty and picturesque. She used it spontaneously in her stories. That particular inimitable style, which was Ismat's own, has passed away forever with the passing of Ismat Khanum, Lady Chengez Khan.'