I was introduced to Ismat Chughtai via her books when I was exploring Indian literature scene. Alongwith Satyajit Ray, Khushwant Singh, Sadat Hasan Manto; I found this jewel of a writer who was considered a rebel of her times.
Title: Lifting the Veil
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Genre: Urdu Literature
Publication: Penguin books
Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991) was a prolific woman writers of her time who chose Urdu as her gift of gab. There is a openess and frankness in her writing which offended the conservatives of her time who sought to persecute for it. She used to see herself as part of a very liberal Muslim family where Quran was read alongside of Gita.
Lifting the Veil is a collection of short stories, edited and translated from Urdu, and deals with very women centric issues along with the local traditions of those times. The stories seem radical as they explore female sexuality, mock the socio-economic times and sneer at the tyrannical fascists of the middle class society.
A central theme mocked by Ismat Chughtai is that of a girl’s destiny to be married off and bear children for her husband; failing which her life is over. She wrote several stories where she made fun of this notion in her literalists style. She also was disdainful of societal hypocrisy involving marital rape, male ego and class barriers.
But her most controversial story (which landed her into legal troubles) is Lihaaf or the Quilt which explores the taboo topic of homosexual urges in women. The story revolves around Begum Jan who is suitably married off to a rich man who promptly tucks her away in one corner of his house and forgets about her. He is more interested in sating his urges with “slim waisted” students on whom he showered his patronage.
“The elephant inside the quilt heaved up and then sat down. I was mute. The elephant started to sway again. I was scared stiff.” From Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai
The narrator is a young girl who has a very innocent mind and observes everything around her very diligently. She is almost molested by Begum Jan one day, unknown to her when the former asks her to massage her shoulders. Happy to please her, the young girl begins the massage and doesn’t know what to make of the Begum’s deep breathing which soon turns into moans of pleasure.
Begum Jan finds solace in her hand maid Rabbu who is quite a robust and coarse female. The contrast between Begum Jan’s gentility is highlighted with Rabbu’s rustic charms. The story takes a dangerous turn when one night the young girl sees the Quilt (in which Begum Jan is enshrouded) began to gain shape as an elephant and then starts to heave. The confused child cannot fathom why a quilt might behave in this way and is certain it’s going to eat Begum Jan. As she calls out a warning to the Begum, she hears Rabbu’s voice shushing her and realises that she too is within the confines of the quilt.
This story openly discusses homoeroticism and came under the conservationist scanner, dragging Ismat Chughtai to the court. But it is one of the most radical stories of its times and to date remains so.
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In Gharwali, Chughtai questions the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the false sense of security it brings. Lajjo is an orphaned street urchin who soon learns to use her body to please men. She sees no harm in giving and receiving love by way of sex. But her lush ways garners the ire of the genteel fraction who urge the ever so religious and a bachelor, Mirza ji and persuade him to hire her as his maid.
Reluctant at first, he agrees and brings her home. Lajjo is super thrilled for there is no woman in his house to rule over her. Soon she starts seeing it as her personal domain and will do anything to please Mirzaji who seeks the company of prostitutes. Lajjo is bewildered by this and wonders why does he waste his money on them when he could have her for free? Soon Mirza falls under her spell and all is well in Lajjo’s world.
Trouble brews when Mirza begins to feel possessive towards her and cannot stand her illicit liaisons with “others” in the community. To end her uninhibited favours, he marries her in an act of respectability.
But this turns Lajjo’s world upside down for she has no clue nor love to act as a genteel woman. She misses her freedom and soon chafes at the marital bonds by cheating on Mirza. His ire knows no ends and he divorces her in a fit of rage and throws her out of the house. Lajjo breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to being the mistress of the house by being his maid and all is well again.
Lasting Impression on me:
I have chosen the two most powerful stories out of this collection to showcase here. There are others with equally compelling narration and chosen topic to tease our minds. Her wit and humour in bringing out the perversions of the middle class is quite charming to my mind. I love her style of stating the obvious and doing away with the cloak and dagger works. She brings out the mentality of the middle class in every story and berates it from her point of view. Chughtai’s use of rich metaphors is another reason why her writing endeared itself to me. I am mesmerised by her racy narratives that don’t hold back any punches.
A super-duper 5 ***** rating for this Queen of Indian fiction writer whose bold and radical writing make for quite an honest read. I would urge you to check out her writings to read about the archaic middle class and its subversions that this writer managed to throw off in a brilliant literary manner.
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You can check out my review of the Fantasy Fiction “The Children of Blood & Bone”, if you are a fan of this genre.
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