Urdu literature has seen a drastic shift in its story-writing in the course of the last one century. This progression, we owe to the few authors who suffered a great deal of ostracization, fatwas, social angst and isolation in order to bring this to happen.
Here are five groundbreaking, unconventional and ‘bebaak’ (bold) stories, as they would call it – that are responsible for this shift in our books and our minds as well. The list explores stories that depict the plight of women within the institution of marriage in different forms. Starting from Rashid Jahan, to Qurratul Ain Hyder, all these authors have played a huge part in the development of Urdu short story the way it is today.
1. Parde Ke Peeche by Rashid Jahan
Published in 1931, Parde Ke Peeche (Behind the Veil) was one of the two short stories contributed in, ‘Angaare’ (Embers), a controversial collection of short stories by authors Sajjad Zaheer, Sahibzada Mahmuduzaffar, Ahmed Ali and Rashid Jahan. While the book in an entirety was received as a shock by the society for its open treatment of sexuality, Jahan’s stories were received even more badly, since she was the only woman author amongst four other male writers.
The story revolves around a woman, namely Mohommadi Begum, who has been giving birth to children since she got married at 18. She is 32 now but looks double her age due to bearing her husband’s voracious ‘needs’ from his wife, wherein he rapes her repeatedly. “Doesn’t matter if it is night or day, he wants his wife. And not only his wife. He goes the rounds to other women (sex workers) too.” Begum, through conversation with another woman tells us that she has to regularly get herself ‘tightened’ so he’d have the same pleasure as from a new wife, but now her husband wants to remarry a young girl because he’s no more ‘satisfied’ with her.
Through this story, Begum showcases the plight of Muslim women who are forced to become slaves to their husband’s desires in the name of marriage, hence having unwanted children and ultimately losing their health and free will. It brings to light the social issues of second marriages, marital rape and child marriage. The story, Parde Ke Peeche showcases what happens behind the curtains, by lifting them for a while.
2. Do Haath by Ismat Chughtai
With Angaare as a role model, Ismat wrote various stories exploring the female sexuality without a hint of shame. From Fasadi (the first play she wrote) to the Lihaaf controversy, the list of stories is long. She openly wrote about topics that were shushed during that time. These themes were enough to make people uncomfortable. With her desire to bring to the public eye the hidden desires and reality of a hypocrite society, she wrote her (lesser known) stories, ‘Do Haath’ and ‘Gharwali’.
Do Haath (‘A Pair Of Hands’) deals with the life of an Indian housewife, Goribi who is married to Ram Avtar. Initially in her marriage, she tries to resist Ram Avtar who is supposed to leave the house for his job but, “then, gradually, the length of her veil begins to diminish.” After Ram Avtar has left, Goribi is started to be seen as an ‘indecent’ woman by the society and even by her mother-in-law, who even though is forced by the society, refuses to send her back because she has (literally) bought her for Rs. 200 and needs her to survive old age. In the story, her mother in law describes her as, “she not only warms my son’s bed, but also works the capacity of four people.”
Throwing light on the perception that single women living without male companionship are bound to be deemed ‘indecent’, it also showcases the misery of the Indian housewives who are in most cases exploited to do as much work as possible, almost becoming slaves to the in laws in the name of matrimony, the amount of unpaid and undervalued work of households, how women are treated as objects of sexual pleasure for their husbands, and as workers to serve the in-laws.
3. Gharwali by Ismat Chughtai
Gharwali (meaning house maid or house-maker) revolves around a housemaid, Lajjo, who has an affair with her employer. Lajjo is an orphaned girl, and she openly uses her body to make money. After an intense affair with her employer Mirza, he proposes to marry her.
They both get married but soon Mirza loses interest in her. Now Lajjo is a girl who doesn’t know how to repress her sexual desire, so she ends up having extramarital relationships with various men. Ultimately, Mirza finds out about it and is taken by shock. He beats her blue and black and drives her out of the house, showcasing his ‘power’ over his wife’s body and physically abusing her. The story ends as they both realize that the arrangement that they previously had, outside the bounds of marriage, was the best.
Lajjo is a bold girl who’s in touch with her sexuality and is never afraid or ashamed to use it the way she wants. Ismat Chughtai has succeeded in bringing many women in contact with their sexuality with her bold stories. This story, through the plight of Lajjo, makes us realize that the institution of marriage often becomes a tool to control female sexuality and desires. The story also points to the prevalent domestic violence which has been normalized to a great extent.
4. Sita Haran by Qurratul Ain Hyder
Hyder was a contemporary to Chughtai, lovingly referred to as ‘Ainee aapa’. In the words of Amitav Ghosh, “Hers is one of the most important Indian voices of the twentieth century.”
In Sita Haran (‘Abduction of Sita’), as the name suggests, Hyder has portrayed the condition of her central character very similarly in jeopardy like the Indian mythical character, ‘Sita’. The tragedy that women suffered post the partition is brilliantly showcased through the character of Dr. Sita, a modern day Sita, who has lost her battles and fallen into the hands of the modern day Ravana(s). Not just one, several of them in the form of men who only want to devour her.
In midst of all this, she is also fighting for her son’s custody desperately to have something from her past. Dr. Sita is trying to find an ideal partner for her who would provide her with the necessary protection and safeguard her against the vulnerability of the society. She goes from one man to another in search of love. This depicts the condition of women, who feel that only the institution of marriage can provide them with safety which is otherwise a fundamental right of all human beings.
She has no fixed home, and being a woman, she must have a constant fear of being sexually exploited throughout the novella, which forms its central theme.
5. Sau Candle Power Ka Bulb by Manto
Manto was known to always be in trouble because of his countless stories on sexual desires, sex workers, and for telling the harsh truth of the aftermath of partition. He openly uses words like, ‘breasts’ in his stories as sexual organs at a time when even women only whispered these words. Chughtai became friends with him while they were both fighting charges of obscenity in Lahore.
In Sau Candle Power Ka Bulb, (‘A Bulb With The Power Of 100 Candles’) we are confronted with a husband who forces his wife into sleeping with men in order to earn some money.The husband, previously introduced to us as a pimp goes looking for customers on the road, finally leading them into his own house and to his own wife.
One of the customers, who has been led into the house similarly hears the conversation which goes on something like this: He orders her to get up, to which she replies, “Kill me, but I can’t get up. For God’s sake, take pity…” upon hearing which the pimp/husband tries to coax her by saying, “Rise, my love… don’t be so stubborn… or how shall we live?” pushing her into something she’s clearly uncomfortable with. On being rejected for the second time, he immediately starts hurling abuses at her, “You haraamzaadi, you daughter of a pig!” In the end, it is hinted that the wife finally does get up, but only to kill her husband, thus rejecting to be exploited by him and asserting her right over her body.
It’s important to note that Manto is somebody who has, through various other stories introduced to us bold women in the form of sex workers, who are in charge of their own bodies but here in this story, we’re shown a different shade of sex work, wherein the woman’s autonomy is completely taken away. Marriage is shown as a tool to control women, not giving them rights over their own bodies and it is conveyed as the wife is being trafficked into sex work. It is a breach of her fundamental rights, and this is the idea behind Manto’s story.
All these stories are examples of courage and hold great significance in the development of the Urdu story and for bringing to our notice the misery of the average Indian woman. A new era of Urdu stories has taken birth that not only acknowledges the issues of women inside and outside of house, but also openly deals with ‘immodest’ and ‘indecent’ themes such as sexuality.