Ismat Chughtai is one of the great, pioneering writers of Urdu fiction, a woman who gave Urdu a unique feminist perspective and whose writing has influenced generations of others. Her lively and vivid autobiography, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan: The Paper Attire, translated by Noor Zaheer, gives an important context to her bold, outspoken writings which portray so fearlessly the conservative, hypocritical society in which she grew up.
However, it remains uncertain why the cover for an English translation should be emblazoned with the words Kaghazi Hai Pairahan — a phrase which has no resonance in English whatsoever. True, it is followed by the words “The Paper Attire” but in much smaller letters, almost as an afterthought. Worse, in the list of contents, Chughtai’s creative memoir is simply listed as Kaghazi Hai Pairahan without any translation at all. This begs the question: exactly what is the point of a translation? What audience does the translator hope to reach?
Zaheer’s book and indeed, her ‘Introduction’, appears to be aimed entirely at those already familiar with Urdu literature, its history and the social ambience to which Chughtai belonged. The book would have benefitted greatly from more precise supplementary information. Furthermore, while Zaheer’s Introduction provides many insights into the new directions Chughtai forged in Urdu short fiction, she makes no attempt to place Chughtai’s work in the wider context of Urdu women’s writing. There is no mention of the word “feminist”, although Chughtai was the first Urdu writer to portray women, their psyche and their inner lives with such an unflinching eye and such veracity. She remains a profound influence on feminist Urdu women’s writing. Also, she belongs to the revolutionary, universal feminist literary movements of the 20th century. This emerges with great clarity in Chughtai’s own narrative Kaghazi Hai Pairahan which is profoundly shaped by her awareness of gender and is constructed through a series of memoir essays — each as powerful as her fiction — which were originally published at different periods in time.
Reading the life and times of Urdu’s pioneering female writer
The patriarchal attitudes which bedevilled her as a writer emerge in her chapter ‘In the name of those brides’, a sharp, penetrating and witty account of the famous trial of Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto on charges of obscenity for their short stories ‘Lihaaf’ and ‘Boo’ respectively. Both were subsequently exonerated, but the stigma and the violent reaction that ‘Lihaaf’ evoked, continued. On a subsequent trip to Lahore, her publisher Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi introduced her to the writer M. Aslam. She records: “We had not even finished greeting each other when he [Aslam] started reprimanding me. He attacked my naked portrayals, to which I also replied like a woman possessed. Shahid Sahib tried to stop me, but I rose to the challenge. ‘What about you? You have written such filthy sentences in your novel Gunah Ki Raatein (Nights of Sin)?’‘It is different for me. I am a man.’”
Chughtai’s creative memoirs weld the past and present with great skill. This includes portrayals of her extended family and its network of family politics, rivalries and intrigues, although at times the labyrinth of relationships becomes rather confusing. One of the central themes that run through the book, however, is the crisis of a little girl/young woman with a quick, enquiring mind and a tendency to ask questions in a society where unquestioning obedience is equated with good behaviour. Chughtai’s inability to conform leads to frequent punishments, nightmares and low self-esteem. She says she never did come to know why people sing the joys of childhood. To her it was “just another name for dependence and deprivation”. Her memories of childhood include gruelling lessons in scripture and Arabic where “slapping, boxing and whipping” by the mullaniji were the norm. At one point, her three older sisters started “disappearing” every morning while she was “left in the care of a maidservant and would keep screaming and shouting for them” — they had joined the Karamat Husain School in Lucknow. These schoolgoing days, however, proved to be short-lived. There was a great outcry among “the whole clan” expressing fears that the girls were being “converted to Christianity” and would “no longer be eligible on the marriage market”.
Chughtai belonged to a family of 12 siblings. By the time she grew up the older sisters were married, having received a traditional education: they had read the Quran and some Urdu and Persian and were skilled at embroidery, cooking and stitching. Chughtai preferred to join her brothers in climbing trees, cycling, and riding only to find herself constantly scorned and bullied. One brother, “Munnhe Bhai” — the future writer Azeem Baig Chughtai — who kept poor health and could not compete with the other boys any more than she could, sympathised with her. He advised her, “Challenge them in studies and you are sure to win.” Thanks to him, she read translations of the Quran and the Hadith and the history of Islam, although her mother feared for the matrimonial prospects of a daughter who liked to engage in “man-type” conversations.
Since childhood Chughtai “had a habit of visualising the dramatic version of stories” she had heard. She loved books and learning and the acquisition of knowledge. Her determination to get a good education and forge her own life and career is central to her narrative. In ‘Deserting Aligarh’ she describes her family’s move from their beloved Aligarh to Sambhar in the princely state of Jodhpur, where her father was posted. She provides a vivid contrast between Aligarh’s “thatched mud bungalows ... airy rooms and a bright, active courtyard”, with Sambhar’s “dilapidated old house ... constantly peeling walls and stone floor”, which had been divided by its previous occupants, a very conservative Hindu family, into men’s and women’s quarters: the former was neat and clean and polished, the latter had chipped walls and heavy doors with “so many heavy chains nailed to them that they seemed to scream like jail doors when opened”.
The house was duly cleaned and reorganised, but they were in a Marwari-speaking conservative area “which practiced untouchability in its extreme form”. They had no interaction with other women in the district; only the men came to see Chughtai’s father on official matters. But to her, the biggest deprivation was the absence of books until she discovered an old box belonging to her older sister, which included the works of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad and Rashidul Khairi. She “fell on them like a crazed lunatic”. Soon a marriage proposal arrived for her, but Chughtai managed to stave it off, determined to return to Aligarh somehow and continue her education. She was mocked and berated by all, but an act of desperation — to become a Christian and join the mission school — caused her father to say, “Stupid girl, do not even think of such silly things. I did not realise you were so keen on studying.” He was more broad-minded than most men in his social milieu. He provided her with her own source of income which paid for her education, at which she was so overcome that she cried.
The tone of the narrative changes thereafter. In ‘Aligarh regained’ she is admitted into class 10, and recreates the sheer excitement of being a boarder at the Aligarh Muslim Girls’ School, which was set up by the legendary Shaikh Abdullah and his wife, Begum Waheed Jahan: they are known to her as Papa Mian and Aala Bi. They encourage openness, discussion and discourse; their two daughters, Mumtaz and Khatoon, are both teachers at the school. The youngest, Khurshid (later the celebrated Pakistani actor Khurshid Mirza), is a pupil there. Another daughter, Rashid Jahan was a co-author of Angarey, a book which was published in Lucknow and which “created a storm”. An Aligarh cleric, Mullah Ahravi, took the opportunity to launch a vitriolic attack on the school and the Abdullah family in his newspapers, but Chughtai wrote a spirited response. As a result Mullah Ahravi’s office was raided by the boys at the university and “nobody dared say a word in his [Mullah Ahravi’s] support” thereafter.
This is but one of the many anecdotes which bring to life the era in which Chughtai lived, as do debates over veiling and purdah, polygamy and divorce — and the need for smallpox vaccinations which her father insisted upon for everyone in his district. In ‘The golden spittoon’ she writes of “the new love” in her life, the egalitarian, nationalistic ethos of communism which was introduced to her by Rashid Jahan and which provides such a stark contrast to the princely state of Jaora where Azeem Baig was working. Chughtai was persuaded to take up a teaching assignment there, only to flee upon discovering that the Nawab was considering her as a prospective bride for his third son.
Chughtai goes on to write of her years as a principal at a girls’ school in Bareilly and on the Muslim prejudices and attitudes towards education for girls, particularly in convent schools. All this leads up to ‘Light, light, light’, a chapter describing her years at the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow where she earned her B.A. The college opened new horizons for her, including British and European literature, international politics, nationalist debates and where conversations with the college principal also introduced her to issues of empowerment and education faced by women in Britain and America.
This immensely readable memoir also reveals the links between autobiography, fiction and art. It is framed by famous essays by Patras Bokhari and Manto on Chughtai, and Chughtai’s on Manto, Majaz and Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. All these provide insights into Chughtai herself, as well as the literary milieu she inhabited, and the combination of admiration, disapproval and gender-bias that her work elicited.
The reviewer is a writer and critic.
Kaghazi Hai Pairahan: The Paper Attire
By Ismat Chughtai, translated by Noor Zaheer
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 27th, 2016