Ismat Chugtai, a woman who dared to go against the norms

Ismat Chugtai

At night, the great shadows formed by the quilt of Begum Jan define the long tale of sexual affection, hidden masseuse, and a distinctive husband. As the moon sets and the sun rises lighting up the world, the life of Begum Jan is surrounded by a dark world of secrets and bowdlerize yet in the night her true identity echoes. As Ismat Chugai pens ‘Lihaaf’, she narrates how the world sensualizes homosexuality and middle-class gentility.

When lihaaf was first published in the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif, it led to much controversy, uproar, and an obscenity trial. Ismat had to defend herself in the Lahore Court for her work. But these raging voices never silenced her spirit and she came up with one another masterpieces defying the societal norms of the 20th century. Today most of her work remains a cult classic and an inspiration for generations to come.

Celebrating the maven of Urdu fiction and a writer who fought for the freedom of speech- Ismat Chugtai

“In winter when I put a quilt over myself its shadows on the wall seem to sway like an elephant.” ― Ismat Chugtai, Lihaaf.

Ismat Chugtai was born on 21 August 1915 in Badayun of Uttar Pradesh, India. As her father was a civil servant, she traveled a lot with her family before finally settling in Agra. Unlike other child prodigies, Ismat was a regular kid who found her mentor in her elder brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai. She and her brother were great writers and had a hinch for fiction.

Ismat Chugtai

After graduating from Aligarh Muslim University, Ismat came in contact with the Progressive Writers’ Association where she met Rashid Jahan, one of the leading female writers active during the time. It is believed that Jahan inspired her to write more realistic and challenging female characters. When Ismat first started writing, it was a private affair and her works were not published until much later.

In 1939, she wrote a play called Saqi for an Urdu magazine, which became her first work to ever publish. Her initial works include Bachpan, Kafir, and Dheet, for which she recieved severe backlash. Her work was called blasphemy and against Muslim culture. Nonetheless, Ismat continued writing and wrote several short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage, and radio plays. Ismat found success with short stories like Gainda and Khidmatgaar and the play Intikhab.

In 1942, when her story ‘Lihaaf’ was published, she garnered widespread attention. She receives criticism for openly portraying female sexuality and her views over homosexuality. She was summoned in the Lahore High Court for ‘obscenity’ charges against her along with her fellow writer Saadat Hassan Manto for ‘bu’. The charges were later exonerated. Today, Lihaaf is her groundbreaking work depicting the patterns of feminity and lesbianism. By the late 1960s, Ismat Chugtai managed to write eight novels including Masoom, Saudi, Dil ki Duniya, Ajeeb Aadmi, Jangli Kabootar, etc.

In the late 1980s after contributing tremendously to Indian literature, Chugtai was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Following the illness, she died on 24 October 1991.

The Legacy of Ismat Chugtai

Ismat Chugtai

Ismat Chugtai remains many women for many people. She was a charismatic writer who dared to go against the boundaries of societies. She was an iconoclast, an icon for women empowerment but before this, a woman who believed in open speech.

For a writer constantly recalled as ‘Female Manto’ or ‘Lady Changez Khan’, her life and legacy remain unappreciated and ignored. In a country where regular serials and movies portray free female submission or stereotype, Chugtai works are still understudied.

Chugtai’s style of writing is described as best for novel and short story writing that no other writer could compete with. Her famous works include Pesha, Terhi Lakeer, and Jaren. More than the beauty in her writings, it is mostly the storyline she picks and flawlessly portrays it in words that can be easily grasped by the audience. Her intrigue writing style captures the eyes of the readers to efficiently dwell in the magical fictional world she had created within her stories.

Tedhi Lakeer, released in 1943, is considered yet another masterpiece and one of the most significant works of Urdu literature by Ismat Chugtai. The theme of the novel is very sexual, about a normal middle-class girl who fell victim to the psychological perplexities of moral and sexual concepts in Indian society. Though the story is fictional, it does have a spark that resembles the life of a normal Indian teenager. It portrays how young kids deprived of basic sex education find perplexities in the concept of sex and gender identity.

Coming back to Lihaaf, it is a story about a young Begum Jan who had been married to a man double her age. Her husband remains proud of never having any relationship with prostitutes and other females. He even detested Begum Jan. The sad and lonely Jan finds solace in her new female masseuse, their relationship though remains silent in the day but in the night it chronicles the tales of female sexuality. The world is seen through the eyes of Begum Jan’s young niece, who is too young to understand the bewildering reality of the world.


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