Ismat Chughtai (1915 – 1991) is one of the most well-known Urdu authors of the 20th century along with names like Saadat Manto, Krishan Chander, and Munshi Premchand. Her signature style is outspoken, bold, and sarcastic.Not only did she write many short stories, she also wrote film scripts, novels, and even acted, noted for her memorable role as the grandmother of Ruth, the heroine of the film “Junoon” translated as “Passion” or “Insanity.” She was born in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh and educated at Aligarh Muslim University, a public university established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and a hotbed for Urdu intellectuals.
Chughtai was a staunch believer in the Progressive Writers’ Movement. She writes in her autobiography that Indian writers need to “develop self-confidence. And only progressive literature can produce self-confidence.” She also hoped that Indian writers would work for the betterment of the common people. She was influenced by Russian writers especially by Chekhov. She loved how he wrote stories about the common people and painted a picture of each person’s personality, no story too small. She was also influenced by Bernard Shaw, Krishan Chander, and Saadat Manto.
In her autobiography, Chughtai describes herself as “breaking chains” all her life. She says about writing, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante, a walking talking friend in my hours of loneliness. Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh, or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words. And if I feel like it destroy them by tearing them up into innumerable tiny fragments…”
Her most controversial story is “Lihaaf,” or in English, “The Quilt,” (1942) – you can also listen to a reading by Jameel Gulrays – in which a neglected wife of a nawab becomes intimate with her maidservant. Sex is a taboo topic in modern Indian literature and after the story was published in the Urdu literary journal, “Adab-e-Latif,” Chughtai had to defend herself in the Lahore Court against obscenity charges. She won the case.
She won recognition for her writing throughout her life, winning a Ghalib Award in 1974 for “Terhi Lakeer” and in 1975 a Filmfare Best Story Award for “Garam Hawa,” based on her short story “Jaren” or “Roots” which I mentioned in a previous blog about Urdu qawwali.
Krishan Chander, whom I wrote about last week, described Chughtai’s writing like “a horse race” full of “swiftness, movement, speed, alacrity.” He continuous describing her stories as “springing and moving forward with the speed of a storm.” Tahira Naqvi A writer for the Wire calls her “an unconscious feminist,” another writer, Qurratulain Hyder, gives her the title “Lady Changez Khan doubly for her lineage to Changez Khan and her bold and audacious attitude in life.