Ismat Chughtai is the one author who continues to fascinate me immensely even as newer, powerful feminist voices have emerged in the last few decades in South Asian literature. Part of the reason is her language which so unapologetic and riveting that it continues to unsettle readers until this day.
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.
Expansive and prolific, I cannot make a definitive list of what constitutes her best writing. However, I have tried to compile a brief list of some of her very powerful short stories and the diverse themes they examine. I have also defined them thematically to emphasize the broad range of her writings.
1. Til (The Mole)
Themes – the stigma attached to ‘promiscuous’ women and their ‘threatening’ sexuality
The Mole narrates the story of an artist who aspires to win some money after he has successfully painted the village woman Rani. Rani is young, voluptuous and full of erotic energy. She has no inhibitions in asserting her sexual desires and she openly makes sexual advances towards the narrator.
She exhibits the mole near her breasts with pride and takes multiple sexual partners. The mole is a powerful sexual motif here. Chughtai repeatedly employs the metaphor of fire, thirst and hotness to show the body and its distinct carnality.
It is crucial to note that this language separates emotions such as love from sex but does not diminish the significance of sexual desire. Rani is vocal about her needs and is therefore, shown to be leading a contented life. The narrator, contrarily, represses his desires and the more he attempts to do so, the deeper he is hurled into unsatisfied lust and frustration.
2. Gainda (Marigold)
Themes – caste-class oppression, taboo surrounding widow remarriage, pre-marital pregnancy, female kinship and sisterhood
Gainda is a domestic helper in an upper caste household. After a brief affair with the aggressive ‘Bhaiya’ of the employer family, her fate is left hanging in a precarious balance. Gainda’s rebellion is two-fold – she is a lower caste woman who falls in love with an upper-caste Hindu male and she is also a young widow who must denounce all romantic or sexual relations.
Despite Gainda’s tragedy, the narrator – the young daughter of the employer – establishes a strong sense of kinship that cuts across barriers of caste and class with Gainda. A homo-social world is restored through the friendship between the two women.
3. Gharwali (The Homemaker)
Themes – female sexuality and eroticism, the institution of marriage as oppressive
Mirza, like other male characters in Chughtai’s various stories, dons a garb of piety. The entry of a sexually liberated Lajo as his domestic help alters his demeanour. Lajo is fierce, vocal in her demand for sex and despises wearing constricting pants in place of a free flowing lehenga.
The story is laced with dark humour and eroticism. It is an apt portrayal of human emotions such as jealousy, obsessiveness and sexual desire. Mirza’s attempts to tame Lajo into becoming a ‘good’ woman fail miserably. Through Mirza, Ismat Chughtai lays bare the hypocrisies of the polite society that on one hand, demands wives to be chaste and but lets its men philander.
The story is radical not only because Lajo defies the ‘pious’ woman archetype but more importantly because it questions the validity of conjugal unions institutionalized through marriage. Chughtai rebukes marriage as farcical, devoid of emotions such as love, founded only on the need to repress and regulate female sexuality and to glorify monogamy.
Themes – prostitution, the constructed binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, dignity of work
The story is narrated from the perspective of a woman who views courtesans with inexplicable hatred and disdain. Priding herself for belonging to the noble profession of teaching, she professes and practices conventional morality and chastity before marriage.
However, she is hurled into an identity crisis when a group of tawaifs move into the neighbourhood and try to forge a friendship with her. The story is interesting as it posits the sharp binaries of ‘ideal’ femininity and corrupted womanhood as well as of good professions such as teaching and evil ones such as prostitution.
By employing a woman narrator, Chughtai emphatically depicts that women internalize hatred towards other women through patriarchal conditioning and thus, the patriarchal power structure is upheld. The story is also unique in terms of narrative style and the plot has a O Henry-esque twist to it in the end.
5. Lihaaf (The Quilt)
Themes – Same-sex desire, homoeroticism, suppression of the woman’s sexual desires in marriage, pedophilia
Perhaps her most widely read and critiqued story, Lihaaf created a massive controversy upon its publication. Chughtai fought a legal battle, defending her writing from charges of obscenity and eventually won. Narrated from a child’s perspective, the story chronicles the tragic life of the beautiful Begum Jaan whose husband neglects her and prefers the company of ‘young, fair and slender-waisted boys’.
The relationship between Begum Jaan and her dark-skinned masseuse Rabbu is profane and forbidden as it overturns heteronormative coupling, shows the woman indulging in sensual pleasures and transgresses the boundaries of gender and class. Dark and disturbing in its portrayal of the vilified, predatory Begum Jaan, the story is nonetheless important for having drawn our attention to the question of same-sex desire among women and the oppressive nature of heterosexual marriage.
Featured Image Credit: The Friday Times