Ismat Chughtai, one of the most provocative and rebellious writers in Urdu wrote voluminously until she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1988. Her formidable body of work comprises several collections of short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage, radio plays, as well as stories, and dialogues and scenarios for the films produced by her husband, Shahid Lateef, as well as others.
Her outspoken and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice for the unheard, and she has become an inspiration for the young generation of writers, readers and intellectuals.
Rakshanda Jalil, writer, critic, and literary historian has recently edited a book, An Uncivil Woman on Ismat’s collection of reflections from a variety of scholarly and other sources, especially people who knew her personally. It brings together literature on Ismat Chughtai that had been scattered — many of it even out of print — into a single volume.
Lady Chenghez Khan
By Qurratulain Hyder
On the evening of 24th October, Padma Sachdev phoned to inform me in a choked voice, ‘Ismat Apa has passed away.’ ‘Passed away’ is a solemn phrase that has been rendered meaningless from overuse. That is to say, it is as though human beings merely pass through from this world.
Ismat Chughtai, too, made an appearance in this world, performed a sensational role in a tumultuous period of social and literary revolution and left.
The next morning, the newspaper reports only mentioned her story Lihaaf. Nowhere was it said that she had been one of the pioneers of the Progressive Writers’ Movement and one of the founders of the new Urdu short story. Her exceptional short stories, Nanhi Ki Naani, Chauthi ka Joda, Bichhu Phuphi, Bhedein are examples of her profound humanism.
According to Dr Sughra Mehdi, towards the end of her life, Ismat Apa was extremely distressed by the fact that people remembered her only for Lihaaf and ignored her other short stories depicting the plight of old helpless women and the oppressed. As if Ismat Chughtai and topics related to sex had become synonymous.
Ismat Apa was my cousin Azra Hyder’s classmate in Aligarh Girls College, perhaps around 1938. In those days co-education meant that a screen was placed in the class and the girls attended the lecture from behind it. Ismat Apa’s short story Parde ke Peeche about this period, was a rather innocuous sketch of the fun and witticism that went on behind the screen. Very soon Parde ke Peeche became a metaphor for Ismat Apa’s work.
I met her for the first time in Bombay in 1956, when she and Shahid Lateef were at the peak of their film career. Sometimes I would call her ‘Lady Chenghez Khan’ because in the battlefield of Urdu literature she was a ‘Chughtai’ — an equestrian and an archer who never missed the mark. Her remote ancestor, Chenghez Khan, lived in a mobile tent which had a golden dome.
His army on wheels and horsebacks was called the golden army, ‘Urdu-e-Mualla’ because their tents had golden canopies. The word Urdu is derived from there. Ismat Apa inherited the special Urdu spoken by the ladies then — sharp, witty and picturesque. She used it spontaneously in her stories. That inimitable style, which was Ismat Apa’s own, has passed away forever with the passing away of Ismat Khanam, Lady Chenghez Khan.