Wajida Tabassum

The Forgotten tale of Wajida Tabassum

Indian history is rich with poets and writers spewing fantasies with words. Among all languages, the one that became widely popular in pre-Independent India was Urdu. Urdu poets enjoyed the luxury of being appreciated as well as criticized, nevertheless, the country saw several mavens of contemporary Urdu that are now long forgotten. Be it controversial Manto or a polemical writer Ismat Chugtai, the stories they have written still resemble the ground reality of our society.

An anthology of short stories published by Virago, a British publisher of feminist writings first released the collection of short stories such as Such Devoted Sisters (1993). There were several writers whose names were included in the anthology, while the only name that dominated all the white women writers was an Indian Urdu writer- Wajida Tabassum. Her name is quite controversial among the polemical women writers of Urdu literature but yet she is considered the only successor of Ismat Chugtai.

Celebrating the forgotten maven of Urdu fiction and a writer who truly taught the meaning of freedom of speech.

Though very little is known about her life, Wajida Tabassum was born on 16 March 1935 in Amravati, Maharashtra. She graduated from Osmania University with a degree in the Urdu language. Later she moved with her family to Hyderabad where she first started writing stories in Urdu particularly in the Dakhini dialect. Here she married her first cousin Ashfaq Ahmed and the couple settled in Bombay with their children.

Wajida Tabassum

Wajida wrote a total of 27 stories but published none. However, after retirement, it was her husband who published her stories for the first time. Her stories soon started appearing in a monthly magazine called Biswin Sadi. These stories were erotic in nature and often gives insight into the life of Hyderabadi Nawabs, for which she was criticized as well. One of her stories titled ‘Shahr-e Mamnu’ became widely popular and received critical acclaim. Some of her stories have been adopted and made into movies or television serials.

Her story ‘Utran’ (1975) was made into a Hindi TV serial and is considered a literary achievement for her. The story was later adapted as a movie in 1996 titled ‘Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. Along with this, it is translated in English as “Castoffs”  in the second volume of Women Writing in India. Maybe it was because of its English translation that the story survived the test of time. Her other controversial stories include “Nath ka bojh”, “Haur Upar” and “Nath Utarwai”. But despite her popularity, the conspicuous absence of Wajida Tabassum from South Asian literary is perplexing as well as terrifying. Born almost two decades later Chugtai, none of her original work survived and no physical copy of her stories could be found.  

And though her writing once flourished in Biswin Sadi, Tabassum was active at a time when Progressive Writers’ Movement had just begun to decline. Cities like Delhi and Lucknow were far from her access where the writer flourished and Tabassum remain confined to Hyderabad Dakhini dialect. Her stories often revolve in Hyderabad households diving deep into the life of Muslim women who are either left as begums, courtesans, mistresses, and maids. Today these masterpieces remain curiously amiss from Indian literature precisely due to Tabassum’s obscurity of being a woman writer, especially a Muslim women writer.

Perhaps one of her most controversial as well as the polemical short story was ‘Nath Utarwai’. It is actually a cultural practice in some states of India where a teenage girl is sold to a wealthy man. She is adorned as a bride where her buyer removes her nose ring symbolizing her loss of virginity and the beginning of her life as a sexual slave. In the story, a teenage girl named Jahan Ará was prostituted in the name of culture to a controlling man. She in turn encourages his opium addiction and earns money through sex work on her own terms and condition. Years later, she sold her daughter in a similar tradition to an old wealthy man. However, the situation backfires when the daughter falls in love with the old man’s son and ends up having sex with both of them on the same night. She later found herself pregnant, unsure of who the father is.

Wajida Tabassum

This story gives us the stunning reality of inter-generational continuity of sexual exploitation in rural areas where women are exploited in the name of culture and forced to do a thing against their own wishes. Tabbasum’s language is often menacing and innuendo, she uses strong metaphors to describe experiences and emotions. And while many find her language offensive, it truly exposes the trauma of sexual violence women goes through. She questions the social position of women that reduces them to commodities and prototypes of pleasure.

Nevertheless, Wajida Tabbasum was a gifter writer with a very radical feminist approach. Her writings are powerful and portray life through the lens of lower-class females who are subjected to atrocities daily. In a world of frigid chaste writers, Tabbasum was definitely revolting who finds words through the symbolism of erotica.

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