Ismat Chughtai, one of Urdu’s most accomplished fiction writers, epitomised the 20th-century women writers of Urdu: enlightened, bold, iconoclastic, progressive and feminist.
However, very few are aware that Chughtai along with Saadat Hasan Manto had to face court trial for writing supposedly ‘obscene’ content in their respective stories. Kisse Kahani-Ismat Ki Zubaani, a rehearsed reading of a compilation of her writings, allows the audience a peek into her temperaments, Chughtai and Manto’s friendship and the rather amusing way in which they dealt with the trial.
Aarti Tiwari, who will recite these writings, says that while India has produced some really good writers, men and women, very few women have written such beautiful Urdu poetry and so boldly. “That’s the reason I chose to recite Chughtai’s work,” she says. The writer is known for being one of the most powerful feminist voices in South Asian literature.
As a woman writer of the 1940s and ’50s, Chughtai was exceptionally bold and wrote about socially relevant issues when feminism was not even a known word. “All her writing was inspired by the happenings around her. Neither the society nor her family could stop her from writing such hard-hitting content. I was supremely inspired by this, and that’s the reason I chose to recite her work,” explains Tiwari.
In 1942, Chughtai wrote a story called Lihaaf that got her into legal trouble. She faced the court trial along with Manto who too was being tried for his work around the same time. Tiwari, in her recital, focuses on this court trial and the way the two writers faced it. “What fascinates me is Chughtai’s attitude towards all this and the beauty of Urdu language. She just didn’t care about opposition,” Tiwari elaborates.
Speaking of the relevance of Chughtai’s writing, Tiwari says that the Urdu writer’s work resonates even in 2017. “From lesbianism to caste divide and women’s issues, Chughtai raised these issues back in the 1940s and ’50s. These are issues we are still struggling with. That was the beauty and depth of her thoughts,” says the awestruck reciter in Tiwari.
Chughtai’s women characters cut across barriers of class and caste — from begums to sex-workers, coy wives to young maidservants. Oppression bound them together. In her stories, they struggle to break free from their environments by making their very sexuality a weapon.
Even in this day and age, writers and artists get death threats, “Why just threats, they are even killed. Gauri Lankesh is the latest example, and we have had more such unfortunate silencing of independent voices in the past. Things are rather going from bad to worse. Whatever happened to freedom of expression!” wonders Tiwari.
Narrating an incident from Chughtai and Manto’s trial that stayed with her, she says, “The judge had said ‘Manto writes obscene stuff (gandi cheeze)’, to which Chughtai had responded saying ‘Unki kahaani samaj ki sacchai hai, aur sacchai hamesha gandi hoti hai’ [His story is the truth of society and truth is always bitter (obscene)].”
“That was the broad-minded approach of the writer. People were imprisoned for their explosive writing during the British Raj, and so are they in independent India, she pointed out and thus questioned the difference between colonial and independent India. The court trial was the turning point of Chughtai’s life and deepened her friendship with Manto. Tiwari will focus on this friendship through her solo recital today.
Chughtai’s stories continue to unsettle readers as she fearlessly exposes the hypocrisy of our society. “It is important to empower people who want to write. This recital is a way of doing it,” she says, adding, “I would love to open the stage to discussion post the recital.”
The language of Tiwari’s performance will be primarily Hindi, with some use of Urdu.
ST READER SERVICE
Kisse Kahani — Ismat Ki Zubaani, Aarti Tiwari’s solo recital will be held on November 2, at 6.15 pm at Namdev Sambhagriha, Savitribai Phule Pune University