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Lifting the Veil

Ismat Chugtai's stories wrecked many taboos

Credit : The Wire

When society labeled her stories as obscene, Ismat Chugtai had replied, “In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life”. Ismat Chughtai, a marxist-feminist fiction writer. who was affectionately known as Ismat Aapa in the literary circle was one of the female writers who, despite the taboo, made her female characters shine in the crowd of patriarchal weak and repressed representation of females in our stories. It was her 107th birth Anniversary today.

Ismat was born on 21st August 1911 into a Muslim family of western Uttar Pradesh, India. She was the ninth of the ten children born to Mirza Quaseem Beg, her father, who was a civil servant. She was a fierce writer who took over the task of giving voice to the sexuality of a woman, which was repressed under the flattened surface of morality by society. Her characters varied from the Begum in Lihaaf who found solace in an emotional and sensual relationship with her masseuse named Rajjo in Lihaaf to a village woman Rani who exhibits a mole (Til) with pride and is vocal about her physical needs.

Ismat wrote Lihaaf, just two months before her marriage and had to face charges of obscenity for writing it. The story unfolds through a description of a 9-year-old girl about a sensual relationship between two women and does not make any judgment and conclusion. The plain ending of a story gives acceptance to the relationship of a woman named Begum and her servant Rajjo and cuts across the barriers of class. Her story was a one of a kind and drew attention to a same-sex desire among women and the oppressive nature of heterosexual marriage.

Imagine an amount of criticism one had to face for being a female writer, in pre-independence era, who wrote stories in Urdu featuring female characters that were open about their sexual desires, their doubts about the institution of marriages, homosexuality and much more from the list of taboos, which are still prevalent in our society. Gainda is a story about a domestic helper named Gainda who is a lower caste widow who falls in love with an upper-caste Hindu male.

Gharwali is a story about Lajjo, an orphan who comes of age to realize that her body is her biggest asset and trades it. Lajjo likes sex and does not feel guilty for it. While working as a house cleaner, she seduces her master gets married, but later refuses to be in that bond. Ismat Aapa lived life on her own terms, may it be her fight for education with her family, convincing a cousin for fake proposal to procrastinate her marriage to her decision of being creamed which was against the traditions of her religion.

Now, we definitely cannot ensure and expect that our society will plot Ismat on the positive side of our graph of morality because we live in a society, which could not even digest a film and slut-shamed its actors for playing characters that were vocal about their sexual desires. Therefore, what we can do is, read her stories, feel her characters and then maybe in some story we will find ourselves tearing those graphs of morality.