Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991) is the first significant woman writer of Urdu and one of South Asia’s most resolute feminists. She had appeared on the scene during the heyday of the Progressive Writers Movement in the 1940s that had changed the complexion of Urdu literature in significant ways. Ismat remained a progressive in the true sense of the term right through her life, even though the movement dissipated shortly after the independence of the country in 1947. Among her fellow fiction writers – Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Saadat Hasan Manto – she was distinguished both by the themes she dealt with, and the style she developed to unpack those themes. As the subcontinent’s foremost feminist writer she was always instinctively aware of the gendered double standard in the largely feudal and patriarchal structure of the society and did everything to expose and subvert it. She lobbied relentlessly and successfully to get an education, struggled fiercely to find her own voice, and wrote with passion and panache to depict the visible and subtle tyrannies of contemporary society and her conflicts with the values that made them possible.
Ismat Chughtai wrote stories, novels, plays, sketches and travelogues. However, her most remarkable achievement lies in the short story form. Her creative temperament was suited to this genre where a single human situation is dramatized with central focus on a single or at the most a few characters. Her forte was the portrayal of the Muslim middle class of northern India of the early twentieth century with its conservative mores, customs and traditions. She is the first significant writer in Urdu to acknowledge female sexuality and depict it in a courageous and convincing way. She was taken to court on charges of obscenity but stood her ground and did not give in to the demands of hypocritical morality espoused by the guardians of morality. Her style is direct and conversational, sparkling with witty dialogue, repartee, brilliant turn of phrases and scintillating humour. She is one of the foremost representatives of women writing in India that goes back several centuries.
Kaghazi hai pairahan [‘My clothes are made of paper’], generally known to be Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography, is a curious piece of work. It is not a straightforward autobiography inasmuch as it does not record the author’s life story – from her birth to the point of writing the book – in a chronological order. It is fragmented, jagged, written in fits and starts when spurts of memory propelled the writer to record her reminiscences without consideration for chronology, repetition or narrative coherence. The fourteen chapters of Kaghazi hai pairahan, first written for the Urdu journal Aaj Kal, were published March 1979 to May 1980. The writer did not have the opportunity to take a second look, much less edit whatever she had written because of other preoccupations and her failing health. It was at the initiative of the editor of the journal that the instalments were put together as they appeared in the journal and published in volume form in Urdu in 1994, three years after her death. The editor, at his own initiative, also added the opening chapter, ‘Ghubaar-e Kaarwaan’, written much earlier in the same journal, in a series that went by the same name, in which many Urdu writers wrote reminiscences about their writerly lives. All this underline the fragmentary nature of this autobiography, and raises significant questions about the motivation and intention of the author and about the notions of authorship, representation, selfhood and subjectivity, the answers to which will help us understand the peculiar tension between public and private realities that underwrites women’s writing.
Perhaps the most important insight Kaghazi hai pairahan contains is about the position of women, particularly Muslim women, in the society of the time. Ismat Chughtai was writing silences, recording the suppressed voice of women from different strata of society. The traditional patriarchal society into which she was born contained women, muted their voices and screened out their agency. Her literary oeuvres, among other things, is a chronicle of restoring this agency if we look at it necessarily as a negotiation with structures, often subterranean and subversive, rather than visible and frontal. Her own fierce struggle to get an education against heavy odds is indicative of the challenges one had to face, and the devious routes one had to take to circumvent those challenges. The virulence with which women’s education was resisted is seen in the case of her elder sisters who were sent to a boarding school by their father. The entire family stood together against him for sending his daughters to a boarding school and threatened to ostracise him. He was warned that his daughter would never be married, and that he should be ready to keep them in his own house all their lives and maintain them. The spectre of spinsterhood and the social stigma associated with it must have loomed large in the mind of her mother who was against the education of her daughters. The comment made by apparently sensible people in her extended family that ‘educating girls was worse than prostituting them’ only indicates the length to which people were ready to go in their opposition to women’s education. The purdah was not mere physical segregation, but women themselves internalized the mores of the patriarchal society to such an extent that they evinced symptoms of what may be termed as ‘purdah of the mind’. That is why when Azim Beg Chughtai, Ismat Chughtai’s brother and a writer of considerable merit, tried to bring his wife out of purdah she herself resisted it. In another episode Azim Beg Chughtai had to recant his support of the banned book Ummat ki Maaein, make a public apology at the mosque after the Friday prayer and witness copies of the book he wanted to promote being burnt. The episode indicates the social opprobrium any radical step evoked and the self-censoring that often resulted from it.
 This introduction is extracted from M. Asaduddin’s introduction to the English translation of Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography, A Life in Words: Memoirs (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2012).
The introduction and extracts are reproduced with the kind permission of Penguin Books India.
Biography by M. Asaduddin
EXTRACT ONE I was weeping inconsolably. Someone was being beaten brutally. The perpetrator was a giant-like monster, while the one being beaten was a tiny, dark-skinned child. I do not remember clearly the people involved as I was very small at the time. But I remember that when the big cane struck it made …
Other extracts from Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography are available in English translation in electronic format in:
- Annual of Urdu Studies (Chicago):
M Asaduddin, Ismat Chughtai (Makers of Indian Literature Series) (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1999).
- Asaduddin (ed.), Lifting the Veil: Selected Writings of Ismat Chughtai, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2001.
Priyambada Gopal, Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence (London: Routledge, 2005).
Mushirul Hasan and M Asaduddin (eds), Image and Representation: Stories of Muslim Lives in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadiq (eds), Ismat: Her Life, Her Times (New Delhi: Katha, 2000).
Geeta Patel, ‘An Uncivil Woman: Ismat Chughtai (A Review and an Essay)’, Annual of Urdu Studies [http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/16/30_Patel.pdf]