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There was more to Chughtai than just laughs | Photo Courtesy Dr Z. Hamiduddin
There was more to Chughtai than just laughs | Photo Courtesy Dr Z. Hamiduddin

"A nation in which the status of women is falsely elevated but in reality, is degraded, will be wiped away from the face of the earth like an unwritten word” — Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai, Tawfeez

Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai has been maligned, misunderstood and pigeonholed as a humourist — which indeed he was; his short stories ‘Yakka’ and ‘Al Shizri’ have been immortalised by the rendition of the legendary Zia Mohyeddin. But other erroneous theories about him have also been made. In ‘Literary Notes: Azeem Baig Chughtai, Sadomasochist or Playful Humourist?’ published in Dawn on Aug 22, 2016, for example, Rauf Parekh considered speculation by literary stalwarts Dr Muhammad Sadiq and Dr Vazeer Agha who believed Chughtai suffered from “depression” and was a “sadomasochist”. Not so. The tantalising title of the piece aside, Parekh rightfully stated that these writers were being “perhaps, all too unsympathetic.”

Parekh references Chughtai’s sister, the author Ismat Chughtai, as saying that her brother was irreverent towards many traditional ideas. Thus, in looking past the obvious humour in his writings, it becomes clear that Chughtai was, in fact, one of the earliest proponents of feminism in the subcontinent.

Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai’s granddaughter argues that her grandfather was much more than a stellar humourist

Every book reveals something about its writer and Chughtai’s writings are no exception. His novels, short stories, plays and essays — whether they were light-hearted comedies, satirical, religious and social interpretations of the Holy Quran and hadith, poignant or tragic — all exhibit a continuous theme: an acknowledgement of the dignity of women, a respect for their unique role in society, a heartfelt understanding of their downtrodden status and an unwavering commitment to their rights. He believed women as integral and pivotal in the existence, survival and progress of any society, especially the Muslims of the subcontinent.

Chughtai’s first writings as an adult were Quran aur Purdah, Hadith aur Purdah and Raqs-o-Sarood followed by ‘Tawfeez-i-Talaq’ [Delegation to Divorce], a small pamphlet which became an overnight sensation and was published again and again. Tawfeez is legal advice in accordance with the Quran and hadith; tawfeez-i-talaq can be added to a nikahnama and this gives women a legal right to divorce their husbands, without forgoing their mehr and without having to petition for a divorce. It is a legal and binding document in accordance with Islamic law. As is obvious from these titles, none of these are playful or sadomasochist in nature.

Quran aur Purdah talked about the very strict purdah practiced by the Indian Muslims of the time; it not only confined women within the four walls, but there was purdah of their voice (their voices must not be heard by any na-mehram) and purdah of their name (nobody outside their family should know their name, women writers of the time wrote under male pseudonyms). Healthcare was denied to them as they could not be properly examined by male physicians and hakeems. Chughtai made a distinction between head-covering, modest attire and locking up women and rendering them voiceless and nameless. He pointed out that his audience was not the wealthy who could afford all kind of freedoms while still observing purdah, but the middle-class women locked in cramped, airless quarters which denied them fresh air, sunlight and any means of socialisation, education, or any kind of vocation.

He wrote how this purdah was harmful for their physical, mental and emotional health, thus affecting the future generations to come. The foreword to Quran aur Purdah was written by none other than Sir Shah Muhammad Sulaiman, Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, and he echoed Chughtai’s sentiments regarding women’s rights.

These books infuriated the clergy who took to the streets. Some newspapers and magazines poured fuel on fire. The magazine Inqilaab, in particular, played a major role in fanning public outrage; in order to sensationalise and increase sales, Inqilaab and other magazines and papers deliberately misquoted Chughtai. Intentional misrepresentation of his writings, false accusations and fake news created mass hysteria. The clerics saw this as a great opportunity to collect political power; they claimed Chughtai’s books were a threat to Islam and its practice, and particularly to the morals of Muslim women. Demonstrations, book burnings, death threats and attempts on his life were made. Chughtai did have support from such illustrious personalities as Khwaja Hasan Nizami, the Nawab and Begum Bhopal, magazines such as Nairang-i-Khayal, Saqi and Ismat, Shahid Ahmad Dehlvi, M. Aslam, Mullah Wahidi and others. However, all the support of the enlightened people and magazines of that time was no match for the mullah’s street power.

Chughtai, a champion of women’s rights, remained undaunted. His spirit was indomitable. He resorted to writing fiction as a means to achieve his goals of promoting women’s rights. In many of his prefaces and introductions he writes very clearly that he believed in reformation in the practices of the Indian Muslims, especially regarding women. The careless, misogynistic and patronising attitude of many male writers towards women in their writings then, and even today, is accepted as their right; they are sanctioned an unbridled artistic license. This applies to writers from the East as well as the West; in his seminal novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth writes: “What are they, after all, these Jewish women who raised us up as children? It isn’t their fault they were given a gift like speech — look, if cows could talk, they would say things just as idiotic.”

In Roth’s work, misogyny isn’t the problem. His women are barely sketched caricatures that he dismisses, showing a total lack of not only empathy, but curiosity towards them. Portnoy’s Complaint was written in 1969; Chughtai was writing in the early 20th century — 1920s to early 1940s. His women characters were so developed, nuanced and real that at a recent reading in London of his very first short story, ‘Angoothi ki Museebat’, most of the audience had a hard time believing it was written by a man.

Chughtai was the first male fiction writer in Urdu who did not patronise women. He gave his women characters a voice and accepted them as they were first and foremost: human beings, individuals, daughters of Eve as different from one another as can be, yet at the same time similar in nature, their very biology uniting them as one. They have likes and dislikes, they are funny and playful as in Shareer Biwi; angry and revengeful as in Coaltaar; either naive fools who are taken advantage of, or deceiving, scheming and clever as in ‘Kamzori’. They are women in action as in ‘Chamki’, racing camels in the Thar desert; humane as in ‘Mrs Karlay’ who saves the life of the very man making her life hell. In Shehzori, his protagonist is a poor young girl fighting to save her marriage while her powerful in-laws throw her out; in ‘Tawfeez’ she is a young lawyer trying to get out of a physical and emotionally abusive marriage despite societal, family and religious pressure.

And then there is Vampire, long before #METOO, about a 16-year-old Muslim, purdah- observing girl who is brutally raped. She fights with all her frail might for her physical dignity, only to fail. She blames herself, lies to protect the family honour and tries to kill herself. She has no one to share her agony with and when her secret is exposed, she and her family are ostracised.

For Chughtai to write about so delicate, thorny and unmentionable a subject matter at the height of his popularity was considered literary suicide, but he remained steadfast. The novel is written with such delicacy and restraint, in such simple and chaste language that even today one cannot help but be moved. Chughtai exhibits such intuitive sensitivity, exquisite empathy and depth of understanding that for a moment one forgets that this is the writing of a 20th century Muslim man. He was writing about Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS) and the various stages a victim goes through in the 1930s; RTS was first described and recognised in the West in 1974. This is not what one expects from a sadomasochist.

Chughtai’s novels and short stories abound with female characters who want to live, laugh and dream, despite their tragic lives and their status as inferior beings. They all resist injustice and fight back instinctively, like any living being would.

In his brief life — he died aged 43 — Chughtai was both extremely popular and controversial. As a lawyer and chief justice of Jaora, he fought (pro-bono) landmark cases against the prevailing Mohammadan laws in British India to obtain female-initiated divorce for Muslim women. His writing style was playful and sometimes comic, although reading Vampire and Kamzori may reduce one to tears. His sister Ismat wrote in her seminal article ‘Dozakhi’ about her brother’s tragic young death: “For me, he is more alive now after his death, than he was, when he was alive. For what is death anyway? When I look around and see his books, I say to myself: he will never die. He will be born again and again for each new generation of readers, and even for those born after his death. His message ‘dukh se larro’ [fight the injustice] will never die; his defiant spirit will live on forever.”

Today, more than 70 years after his death, an annual Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai Memorial symposium takes place at the Maulana Azad University in Jodhpur, India. He lives on to be rediscovered, resurrected and read again and again.

The writer is a physician in New York, the granddaughter of Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai and author of the short story collection Her Mother’s Daughter and Other Stories

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 26th, 2018