Outspoken and unapologetic, Ismat Chughtai was a writer, an educationist and a champion of women’s empowerment. She is regarded as one of the four pillars of Urdu fiction, with the other three being her male contemporaries, namely Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. But while her legacy is celebrated and commemorated by some, this daring icon of feminism has gone largely ignored within many literary circles. This overlooking has a lot to do with the controversy caused by her short-story Lihaaf which was banned in 1942 for its erotic and lesbian undertones. Lihaaf overshadowed almost the whole of Chughtai’s subsequent work, much to her chagrin. Although, this did not stop her from continuing to write fearlessly on tabooed topics and advocating for women’s rights throughout her life.
Born in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh on August 21, 1915, a young Chughtai was highly inspired by her elder brother Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai who was a famous novelist. She was educated at The Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University where, apart from the literature of the subcontinent, she was introduced to many Western writers as well. Her literary career commenced with the publishing of her short story titled Fasadi in 1938, which gained immediate attention of many contemporary writers.
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After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Isabella Thoburn College in 1940, Lucknow, Chughtai joined the Progressive Writers’ Association. It was her interactions in the Association meetings that motivated her to start using her creative abilities to advocate for women’s rights. But Chughtai’s works, which laid bare the gravest ills of the society, started garnering heavy criticism. Her story Gainda was about a domestic servant who fell in love outside the caste system. Her first novella Ziddi was a sharp critique of the sexual exploitation of young, female domestic help by their masters’ sons.
Chughtai soon moved to Bombay where she married the Hindi film director Shahid Latif. She then started contributing a lot to Hindi cinema by writing screenplays, dialogues and songs for films. In her later life, she also worked closely with stars like Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar and Shyam Benegal. But before that, in 1942, Chughtai published Lihaaf, a short-story that shook the cultural foundations of a country that was still very much conservative in its thinking.
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Lihaaf And The Obscenity Charge
Lihaaf, one of Chugtai’s most notable works, was tried on charges of obscenity. Published in the Urdu journal Adab-i-Latif, the short-story faced a huge backlash and was tried in the Lahore court. While the Crown did give Chughtai a chance to apologise in order to avoid a public trial and the hefty fine, she chose to contest the charges in court.
The controversy within the story hinged on what the narrator, a young girl sent to stay with an aunt, saw and heard: “Sometime in the night I suddenly woke up, feeling a strange kind of dread. The room was in total darkness, and in the darkness Begum Jan’s lihaf was rocking as though an elephant were caught in it. ‘Begum Jan’, I called out timidly. The elephant stopped moving. The lihaf subsided… When I awoke on the second night… I only heard Rabbu’s convulsive sobs, then noises like those of a cat licking a plate, lap, lap. I was so frightened that I went back to sleep.”
Chughtai won the case in court. Her lawyer pointed out that the text made no explicit suggestion to any sexual act or lesbianism, and neither did it mention any profane language. Yet today, Lihaaf is considered to contain one of the most beautifully woven homoerotic subtexts in Indian literature. In its premise, the story doesn’t attempt to be overtly virtuosic—it isn’t a flagbearer for womanhood or feminism, and it doesn’t attempt to contextualise lesbianism. Instead, it simply delves into desire and longing, with familiarity yet wonder.
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Chughtai was opposed to the idea of Partition, and she incorporated this resistance within her story Jadein, where the house’s matriarch could not be persuaded to leave her haveli to migrate to Pakistan, even though her family was ready to move. In her book Yahan Se Wahan Tak, Chughtai wrote about the importance of art and free press: “if writers, journalists and thinkers turn away from present-day circumstances and write merely for personal gain, their work will lack vigour, and anything that is lifeless is not meaningful.” She explored her unapologetic feminism by continuing to write on unconventional themes such as gender inequality and same-sex relationships. Her novel Tedhi Lakeer, which is regarded as her magnum opus, is a semi-autobiographical novel exploring tabooed themes of child sexuality, lesbianism and abortion.
Chughtai believed in delving into the intricacies of the everyday. She saw the sensual minutiae between the four walls of the house and the sexual politics within the private. She once simply noted, somewhat disingenuously, that her mind was “an ordinary camera that records reality as it is”. Hence according to her, if such relationships between women existed in reality, then she had to write about them.
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Chughtai was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 but was still often lambasted by critics, including some on the left, for what was seen as her preoccupation with sexuality. But then, it was a charge that she herself shrugged off as untrue and irrelevant, and insisted that the times called for honesty about “one’s own experience and observation”. And as for the allegations regarding obscenity within her works, this is what she had to say: “In my stories, I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life.” Thus, on the occasion of the 105th birth anniversary of this grande dame of Urdu literature, one should honour and celebrate her fearless and valiant spirit.
Dyuti Gupta and Anureet Walia have co-written this piece for SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the authors’ own.