In the first few pages of Ismat Chughtai’s novel, Terhi Lakeer, her heroine Shama, headstrong and rebellious, is introduced for the very first time to reading. It is not a happy meeting; the book, whose pages have been sewn together by her older sister, appears to Shama a useless object whose meaningless hieroglyphs for “alif” and “jeem” arouse a frustrated anger. When her sister leaves the room, the angered little Shama examines the book; in the English translation of the novel, the scene appears thus:

“Her teeth began to tingle again. She tugged at the piece of thread at one end of the seam and, like sutures on a wound, the sutures unraveled nearly all the way at the end of the seam. It felt good, as if she were hastily skipping down the staircase. Soon the pages were scattered all over the place.”

Ismat Chughtai died 21 years ago, this October 24, 2013. Her acidic explorations of the inner realms of women’s lives, captured in books like Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) and so many others, remain as probing and pertinent as when they were first penned. There is no trite recipe for emancipation, no paving bricks on the path to an educated enlightenment, but rather questions and complications left untouched by those who then and now believe liberation to be a slogan instead of a slog.

In Terhi Lakeer, touted to be the most autobiographical of Chughtai’s works, the reader is first introduced to the woman-centered world of Indian Muslim women living in purdah. The lassitude of their condition is everywhere and represented in everyone, from the careless Amma, who births Shama as a late baby left to the care of older siblings, to the prematurely widowed Bari Apa, who deftly uses pity as her currency in the market of family obligations. The women of this world wield an indirect power over their men, one recorded in Shama’s observations at the wedding of her cousin. She says: “But when the bridegroom started walking away with Noori, Shama had this feeling in some corner of her heart that Noori hadn’t been sold, but that instead this man who had clasped her to his breast was about to place chains on his existence. This very Noori, this young experienced girl, will dig her claws into his beings in such a way that he will abandon the world, and handing her his reins walk on the path she chooses for him. How unfortunate that men think of women as a man’s shoe, a creature with weak intellect and God knows what else. But when this same shoe strikes them on the head their ego is shattered.”

The world of purdah, gradually disappearing as Shama grows up, is one poised on manipulation, where women’s lives are determined by the quality of control they wield over their men. At the same time, the world of modern ideas, of easy mixing between men and women, of education and progressive politics, does not provide the emotional or intellectual fulfillment that it seems to have promised. If anything, the rules are ambiguous and few know how to navigate them. The grownup Shama, one of the few educated Muslim women, finds herself alienated from her family but also quite unable to buy into the totem and trinkets of modernity. In her friends, we see the casualties of a changing world. The college friend Alma, who has a child out of wedlock, is unable to love it fully nor obtain the abortion she had imagined was the answer to the situation. In Bilqees, the femme fatale, we see a woman surrounded by men yet unable to figure out whether to choose one based on compatibility, attraction, love, or simply money.

In other words, if the women within purdah were confronted with limited or no choices, the women who have emerged into the world seem ill-equipped to make them. Poised in this limbo, the teachers at the school where Shama finds employment as a headmistress, use their workplace as a kvetching session for gossip about evil mothers-in-law, inattentive husbands, and meddling sisters-in-law. Littered with these relational concerns, the staff-room of the school, with its noble intent of educating girls, may as well be the courtyard of her childhood, where women still maintained purdah and dissected largely the same subjects. Dejected, Shama wonders aloud at the value of trying to preserve such a system of education: “She should go home, get married and increase the number of impoverished and beleaguered human beings: this is her national legacy.” The monologue with herself is interrupted; but, wracked with doubt, Shama does not leave.

Chughtai’s feminism, then, is not prescriptive but poised on its capacity to disturb and to jar. The turbulent dimensions of Shama’s sexuality provoke the reader into acknowledging their strength. The female emerges as strong and willful thus – not in the clichéd modularities of becoming highly educated and consequently completely fulfilled, but rather as a product of her complications and contradictions. Women are central, because it is their thoughts, their questions, and their predicaments that drive the narrative. Shama’s intense fixations on women early in her life, rife with romance and passion, present the question of whether men and women can ever love each other in a segregated context. After all, emotional bonds are borne of familiarity, impossible when the two inhabit different worlds.

Ismat Chughtai’s literary contribution is this presentation of conundrums – pulsing, passionate, and personal – in a voice that lives with the reader. The tragic fate of her stories is the contemporary evaluation of their relevance on the scales of nationalism, whether they be pinned to India or to Pakistan. Their curse is also that the conundrums dredged up in the sufferings of her characters remain as real and costly today, but are largely absent from Pakistan’s contemporary narrative.

The girls of the Pakistani middle class still digest much Austen and Dickens and Blyton and many sayings of this or that leader, but are largely denied the literature that mirrors still the conflicts of femininity, the poverty of a borrowed progressivism or a self-destructive extremism. To read Chughtai in 2013, nearly one hundred years after she was born, is to regret the loss of such insight, available and yet ignored.

Listen to Ismat Chughtai's autobiography:

Read this blog in Urdu here.



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