Last week, while Pakistan and India both celebrated their respective birthdays, and the nationalist fervour that is considered requisite on such occasions on both sides of the border hogged the attentions and emotions of the public, another birthday slipped by.
Ismat Chughtai, one of the most renowned and astute literary voices of the subcontinent, was born on Aug 15. As is the case with most of the subcontinent’s contested history, the year of Ismat Chughtai’s birth is in question, with some records showing it to have occurred in the year 1911 and others dating it to 1915.
Ever mischievous and provocative, Ismat Chughtai did little to remove the confusion regarding her exact age. Perhaps as a writer of fiction, she meant it to be an illustration of the subjectivity and elusiveness of the truth itself.
Instead, Ismat Chughtai’s commitment to the truth was of a far more fervent and passionate sort. In her essay In the Name of Married Women, she speaks of her visceral reaction to the romanticised writing of another contemporary writer, Hijab Imtiaz Ali.
Other than Ismat Chughtai no other female Sub-continental writer can claim to have excised the myths heaped on misogyny
Reading the latter’s rose-hued descriptions of the lives of young women and girls, Ismat rankled. In protest, she wrote her own story, a comparison of her own childhood against the halcyon one memorialised in Hijab’s writings.
Ismat’s recollection was violent and disciplinary, its centrepiece her being beaten by the maulvi sahib for her inability to memorise certain verses of the Holy Quran by heart. The editor of Tehzeeb-i-Niswan, Mumtaz Ali, rejected the essay and sent back a stern reprimand chiding her insolence.
The essay, entitled Bachpan (childhood), would be published later but it would not be Ismat Chughtai’s only altercation with authority, nor her only rebellion against the romanticism of the writers of the time.
As literary critics have noted, Ismat Chughtai was a ‘photographic’ writer; her aim was to capture the caustic and corrosive realities of a society caught in the claws of change. Hers was not the task of stringing together words that would substantiate the status quo, the dreamy purity of the girls enjoying life behind purdah or the selfless mothering of women who gave birth every year.
Instead, she revealed the dissolution and despair of women whose only access to the world beyond was through their artful manipulation of men.
As she recalled in her biographical essay, Dust of the Caravan, her own mother was largely fed up of child-bearing by the time Ismat came along, leaving the child’s upbringing to servants and siblings who were often distracted and sometimes cruel in their temperamental attentions. The result was the ferocious, slightly feral little girl, immortalised in Terhi Lakeer, a literary counterpoint to the submissive, sweet and eternally happy little girl of the more frequent fictive constructions of the time.
Now, almost a century after Ismat Chughtai’s birth, no other female Sub-continental writer can claim to have done the same with the same — to have excised the myths heaped on misogyny to make it acceptable, even welcome, to women. It was Ismat Chughtai who wrote with blunt honesty of her own mother’s opposition to her education. In Dust of the Caravan, she quoted her mother as saying: “This is a man’s world, made and distorted by man. A woman is a tiny part of this world and man has made her the object of his own love and hatred.”
Women, living in a patriarchal society, she thus revealed, internalised the mores of men, hating themselves and resorting to deception and manipulation and becoming obsessed with trivialities and pettiness. In many of her stories, female characters are accessories to the injustices of men, willingly enforcing male-imposed restrictions on their own.
Those were the tragedies of the time when Ismat Chughtai lived and wrote. The challenge of Muslim women then was of subverting a two-headed colonisation. There was the larger theme of overthrowing the British Empire, whose divide-and-rule policies were well known to have mired Indian Muslims in a quagmire of self-detestation and apathy.
In addition, and exclusive to Muslim women, was the task of throwing off the oppressions of segregation and purdah which left them inert and disconnected from the public sphere.
Embracing the independent future required unshackling Muslim women from both, a washing away of the sinister sorcery of the British, whose mirrors showed the natives as ignorant, unwashed, brown, and barbaric; and then a second disinfecting from the equally insidious aspersions of men, who made them instruments of their own subjection.
It was perhaps too tall an order, for even the passage of 100 or so years had yielded little progress. Ismat Chughtai passed away, taking with her the acid reductions with which she distilled a hypocritical feminine reality, the sharp instruments with which she dissected the denials that perpetuated patriarchy.
It is true that the British are gone now, but the direct subjugation they imposed has been replaced by the more attenuated but just as oppressive machinations of new imperialisms packaged in presents of aid and aeroplanes. Just as it was then, many a man rails and rallies against them, and just like then few provide a recipe beyond the paeans of marches and meetings, promises of new eras that fizzle and fade with the dying day.
The task of freeing women from hatred of themselves remains just as undone; a survey done by BBC Urdu this month reports that 43pc of Pakistani women believe it is a man’s right to beat them if they disobey him. Willing participants in their own ruin, the women of now and the women of Ismat’s stories are hence united, their fates and futures tragically unchanged, connected still by the words of a woman born a century ago.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.