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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
a horrific, slithering sound. The sound is embedded in my memory,
and I often still hear it.
It was probably then that I realized that the big beat the small, the
strong batter the weak. That was when the strong man implanted
himself in my subconscious, like a tall pillar, the weaklings strewn like
garbage about his feet. I lowered my head in deference to the strong
and began despising the weak.
But there was something that lay hidden in the deep recesses of
my mind, something of which I was not aware. Whenever I saw a
magnificent palace eaten away by moss sprouting on its walls and
grass growing over it pitilessly, in the heart of my hearts I would smile
secretly. The power within those insignificant grasses and weeds would
We were so many siblings that my mother felt nauseated by the
very sight of us. One after another we had tumbled to the earth,
pummelling and battering her womb. Suffering endlessly from
vomiting and labour pains, she looked upon us as objects of her
punishment. Her body had flattened at a young age and looked like
a platform. She had become a grandmother at the age of thirty-five
and suffered continual punishment. We children had been left pretty
much to the care of servants, and we became very close to them.
Servants have two faces—one they show to the master, while
kissing his hand and feet, and the other revealed only behind his
back, while calling him names and giving vent to their feelings. There
isn’t a class of people more unfortunate and helpless than domestic
servants. This is particularly true of India where unemployment and
poverty have forced a large number of people to act as slaves to the
small class that rules over them.
There were some servants who had been with our family for
generations. Their minds had become enslaved along with their
bodies. They were incorrigibly lazy, stupid and sly. If they were turned
out they would wander about aimlessly for a couple of days and then
return to the peg to which they had been tied. Just like pet dogs.
However, now that the country has progressed and unemployment
reduced, it is difficult to come by servants with such a slave-like
As a child I have seen servants treated with such contempt that
I developed an intense hatred for the system that allows some to be
masters and others to be servants. Servants appear as characters in
many of my stories. Weak and helpless servants, lying, cheating and
cunning servants—my stories have plenty of them. In my limited
world, class differences manifested themselves in the relationship
between servants and their masters, and it left a deep impression on
my mind. But as I came in contact with the wider world I realized that
the distinctions between the high and the low and between castes are
only a sham. The real distinction is between wealth and poverty. This
is the way of the world. A rich person, however devout and patriotic,
treats the poor like a servant.
No one had the time for love and pampering. Tricks learnt from
servants proved useful; whenever I needed something I would snatch
it from anyone who had what I wanted.
All of us, brother and sisters, were adept at full-throated yelling.
Disquieted, Amma would promptly give in to our demands. We were
absolutely sure of this power that we had over others. It is only by
crying and howling that children can express their likes and dislikes.
One day, in a majlis, I realized for the first time the significance
of marsiya and nauha. When the narrator began to describe how Ali
Asghar’s gullet was pierced by an arrow, I was overwhelmed by grief
and began to howl. The women observing maatam suddenly became
quiet and stared at me in amazement. They thought that the long
wait for the tabarruk, the consecrated food, had become unbearable
for me, or that I had been hurt, or bitten by an insect.
‘Why shoot the arrow? And why in the throat?’ I asked in my usual,
obstreperous manner. No one cared to reply. They thought I was crazy
and stubborn, and turned me out.
Returning home, my brothers complained about my making a
racket in the majlis and embarrassing them. They reported that I was
most shamefully kicked out.
‘Why did he shoot the arrow? He could have shot him in the arm,
why in the throat, poor baby?’ I demanded persistently.
‘Enough. Now shut up and go to sleep,’ I was reprimanded.
But how could I sleep? The moment I closed my eyes, an image of
an arrow stuck in the face of the baby swam before me and I started
howling all over again.
‘Go to hell, you ill-fated brat! Just go to sleep, you witch, or I will
strangle you.’ One by one, the elders threatened to snuff the life out
of me, but my sobbing did not stop. Then, overcome by fear, I sneaked
into Shekhani Bua’s bed. I was afraid to sleep all by myself.
‘Why did they shoot the arrow?’ I sidled up to Shekhani Bua and
asked between sobs.
‘That Yezid was a bastard,’ she explained.
‘Then why did they take the baby to him?’
‘The baby was thirsty.’
‘They should have given him milk.’
‘His mother’s milk had dried up.’
‘He could have been given water to drink.’
‘There was no water, because his army was guarding the stream.’
‘How do I know? There was some problem, I suppose.’
‘They took the baby to the river so that he could drink water, when
the arrow was shot.’
‘In the throat.’
And large, thorny balls seemed to get stuck in my throat.
‘You and your arrow! She won’t sleep herself and won’t allow anyone
else to sleep!’ My mother, who was listening, slapped me so hard and
then punched me so that it certainly seemed like my own Karbala.
For years afterwards, this incident became part of my family lore,
and it would be recounted gleefully, to my utter humiliation, to
guests. ‘She howled in the majlis and was kicked out. Then Amma
gave her a sound thrashing!’ my brothers would report to my deep
embarrassment. This was my life’s first major upset and it had a long-lasting
effect. After this, going to a majlis became terrifying for me;
I knew that allusion would be made to the shooting of the arrow in
the throat, and thorny lumps would get stuck in my throat, disturbing
the sacred ambience of the majlis.
Several years ago I saw a film about Hitler’s exploits. The sight of
millions of decaying corpses revived the consciousness of the arrow
stuck in Ali Asghar’s throat. There has been an ongoing veritable
bloodbath in Vietnam for the last twelve years. Where are the people
who can stop it? How long will humanity remain a helpless witness to
such spectacles? Human beings have ostensibly given up cannibalism,
but the truth is that they continue to devour human flesh in some
form or the other. I couldn’t care less for such a world, and detest the
principles of the system which allows this.
There was another incident from my childhood that left a deep
impression on me. My father was an enlightened gentleman. He met
many Hindu families socially, that is to say, Hindus and Muslims of a
particular class embraced each other gracefully and were aware of each
other’s sensibilities. From a young age we were aware that there was
some distinction between Hindus and Muslims. Outward profession
of brotherhood went hand in hand with discreet caution. If a Hindu
was visiting, meat wouldn’t be mentioned, and even sitting at the same
table one had to take care not to touch any of their belongings. Their
food would be served by a different set of servants; it would be cooked
by a maharaj, a Brahmin cook from the neighbourhood, from where
utensils would also be borrowed. I felt suffocated by this hypocrisy.
They talked about enlightenment and liberal ideas, professed deep
love for each other, and recounted tales of great sacrifice for each
other. The English were held to be the main culprits. All this would
go on while the elders were secretly nervous about the children doing
something that would defile the purity of religion!
‘Are some Hindus coming?’ we asked, seeing restrictions being
imposed on us and feeling bored.
‘Don’t be cheeky! Chachaji and Chachiji are coming. Just
remember, if you are impertinent you will be skinned alive.’
We could guess that it wasn’t Chachaji and Chachiji who were
coming. If they were, then seekh kebab and roast chicken would have
been cooked; lauki raita and dahi bade would not have been prepared.
The difference between ‘cooked’ and ‘prepared’ was interesting.
A businessman, Lalaji, lived in our neighbourhood. His daughter
was my closest friend. Children were not subjected to the restrictions
of caste up to a certain age. Sushi used to eat with us frequently—
well, there was not much defilement in eating fruits and snacks. As
we children knew that Sushi did not eat meat we took great delight
in tricking her into eating it. She never came to know of it, but I do
not know what instinct in us derived pleasure from this mischief. We
would be in each other’s houses through the day, but on Bakr-eid,
Sushi would be locked up. Goats would be slaughtered behind screens
in our backyard, and meat would be distributed for several days after
that. During those days our relationship with Lalaji would stand
ruptured. And when there was a festival in their house, we would be
placed under guard.
One day, there was a fun-filled celebration at Lalaji’s house. It
was Janmashtami. Large pans were set up on one side and snacks of
one kind or another were being fried in them. Standing around like
beggars, we were gazing longingly at them, drawn irresistibly by the
appetizing aroma of the goodies. On such occasions, Sushi would turn
very devout, even though we had many times, away from watchful
eyes, taken bites of the same guava.
‘Be off!’ we were pushed away by others, but the next moment
we were back. Which child could resist the sight of the fat pooris
‘What is inside?’ I asked Sushi, pointing to the room in the front
which had been decked up like a bride, with flowers and leaves. One
could hear the sound of bells ringing inside. We were dying of curiosity.
‘Who is in there?’
‘Bhagwan is sitting there,’ Sushi said, turning her head in pride.
‘Bhagwan?’ I was overwhelmed by a sense of inferiority. How easily
their Bhagwan came and went. And there’s our Allah Mian—no one
knew where He remained hidden. Motivated by an unknown urge I
left the line of beggars and climbed on the veranda. No one in Sushi’s
family noticed me; after all, my religion was not written on my face. A
lady with a tray of aarti appeared and began to apply chandan–chawal
to everyone’s forehead. She applied it to mine too. I tried to wipe off
the dot but my mischievous nature took over. We had been told that
the spot where the dot is applied would be consigned to hell. Well, I
had a surfeit of flesh; it would be no big deal if such a tiny spot ended
up in hell! Brought up in the company of servants one could learn a
lot of worldly tricks. The certificate painted on my head now, I entered
the room where Bhagwan was seated in regal splendour.
What delightful fancies the eyes of childhood weave! The room
was filled with the aroma of ghee and frankincense. A silver cradle
hung in the middle of the room. Nestled on mattresses and between
silken pillows, decked with gold and silver edgings, was a silver
infant swaying in the cradle. It was a beautiful piece of artwork. Hair
drawn beautifully, he had a necklace around his neck and a diadem
of peacock feathers on his head.
What an innocent face he had! The eyes shone as though lit with
lamps. Maternal love welled up in my heart. The child broke into a
laugh and spread out his arms longingly. I touched the child’s cheek
softly. My entire being danced with joy. Unable to control the impulse
I picked up the child and clasped him to my breast.
A virtual storm erupted, and the child jumped out of my lap with
a scream and fell down. Sushi’s grandmother’s mouth was a gaping
hole. She was hysterical, as though by kissing the silver infant I had
pierced his throat with an arrow.
Chachiji grabbed my hand, dragged me to the door and then threw
me out as though I were a dead lizard. A complaint was promptly
lodged with my family that I had tried to steal the silver image of
god. Amma first beat her own head and then gave me a thrashing.
Thank God we had a good relationship with Lalaji; riots broke out
those days on much flimsier grounds. I was taught that the worship
of images was a sin. Mahmud Ghaznavi was an idol-breaker. I didn’t
understand; the idea of worship had not occurred to me. I was not
performing any puja, just hugging a baby…
During this time a storm broke out. Some footloose young men from
Lucknow brought out a book with the title Angarey, in Urdu, which
was thought to be the language of Muslims. A cleric by the name of
Shahid Ahrarwi turned his attention to the Girls’ College. He began
to publish a rag in which he went about tarnishing the reputation of
the Abdullah family. He stated that the Girls’ College was a brothel
and that it must be closed immediately. He also published obscene
cartoons of Rasheeda Apa and other writers.
I had not read the book. Ahrarwi created a desire in my mind
to read it. A day scholar fetched the book from somewhere and I
devoured it through the night by the light of the lantern. We had hung
quilts on the windows so that no one could see the light through the
glass panes. The book was a revelation!
But it left us with strange feelings. We looked for obscenity and
vulgarity but didn’t find any. But no one had the courage to say that
Angarey wasn’t obscene. It would have been considered shameless for
a girl not to call the book obscene. Other girls looked at me—they
often agreed with my views but were not as wild as me. I had now
realized that there were many things that they accepted in their hearts
but could not bring them to their lips. They wanted to hear it from
my mouth. I said, ‘The book is really obscene—my hands, mind and
heart all feel rotten. Let us all go to the prayer room and seek God’s
forgiveness. This book must have offended God greatly!’
‘You should not make a joke of such serious things.’
‘Who the hell is making a joke? If genteel people are calling the
book obscene it must be so.’
‘Nonsense!’ Jamila Hamid blurted out. She was convent educated
and from a high family. She was very blunt and outspoken and so we
got along very well.
‘Shame on you, Jamila!’ some girls yelled.
‘Have you read Lady Chatterley’s Lover?’
‘It must be there in the university library.’
‘No! It has already been banned!’
‘How did you get to read it, then?’
‘One of my classmates studies in Loreto Convent. She gave it to me.’
We were consumed with jealousy. The girls who studied in
government schools were in awe of those who studied in convents.
Sa’dat was extraordinarily brainy. She had stood first in the university.
She had also studied for a while in the convent. But the ease with
which Mahmuda Umar, Jamila Hamid, Uzra Hyder spoke English
left us speechless. Of course, Jamila Hamid’s Urdu was weak which
was considered to be a good sign. There was just one way to get even
with her—speak high Urdu interspersed with Persian and speak it
fast. She would say from her high pedestal, ‘Nonsense! Speak slowly.’
Eventually, many girls, through their misgivings and hesitations,
came to the conclusion that the book might be obscene but it left a
deep impact on them and the facts described in it were true.
I had not read such an ‘obscene’ book before; such materials were
not available in colleges and universities. But, from my hiding place
under the bed, I have heard old women talking about even more
obscene things. I knew that same sex love existed but did not know
what exactly it was. Students would talk about some girls who were
so infatuated with one other that they could not bear the thought of
their favourite one even talking to anyone else. But it was considered
a sign of decency and good breeding to ignore such friendships.
After reading Angarey, I read Ahrarvi’s rag. I felt deeply offended
and wrote an article in which I said, ‘Muslim girls are backward and
deprived of many opportunities. On top of it, Mulla Ahrarvi has
become their mortal enemy. Let the college be closed, but only our
corpses would go from here. Who will come to close the college? We
will deal with him appropriately. We have six thousand brothers in the
university; will they see our corpses being defiled and remain quiet?
Whenever Mulla Ahrarvi comes to our mind we remember our six
thousand brothers in the university, and the venerable professors and
teachers, and we feel emboldened. As long as they are there, no son
of a mother can do any harm to us. The queen of Jhansi sent a rakhi
to Emperor Humayun. All the girls of the college are sending their
best wishes and rakhis of esteem and affection to thousands of our
brothers. We are sure they will take some steps for our protection.’
I read out the long and rather emotional article to the girls. There
was great commotion. Papa Mian got to know of it and came to
see me. When he heard the contents, he had the letter sealed in
an envelope and sent it to the Aligarh Gazette. It was published the
following day. The boys read the article, and on the same night gave
Mulla Ahrarvi a thrashing and vandalized his office. No one had
the courage to support him. We conveyed our gratitude to the boys
through the girls who were related to them. After that, Mulla Ahrarvi
disappeared from the scene.
We celebrated our victory in the hostel. We sang songs, many of
them out of tune. Khursheed Abdullah danced on the tennis court.
We sent for sherwanis from the university, dressed ourselves as famous
contemporary poets and read from their verses. Khursheed Jahan,
who was fair and bulky, became Josh Malihabadi. Misha, who was
pitch-dark with sparkling teeth, sported a beard and played Jigar
Moradabadi. Sufia Siraj was Majaz’s sister. She brought her brother’s
outfit and when she dressed herself as Majaz girls began to scream.
Fakhira played Saghar Nizami. The tennis court had turned into a
dance floor. The mushaira left everyone spellbound. Khatoon Apa
declared the following day a holiday.
Mulla Ahrarvi’s funeral procession was taken around the hostel.
His effigy was burnt at the centre of the courtyard and girls roasted
peanuts in the flame and ate them with great relish. For months we
were intoxicated with this victory. Rasheeda Apa appreciated us a lot.
This was our own victory. It was the first occasion that the girls and
boys of the college established a sacred relationship. It was mandatory
for the boys in the college to wear black sherwani. If we went to
Stratchey Hall for a mushaira or to the nomaish and the boys trooped
behind us, we were berated for that. As a matter of fact, we were no
more than a moving crowd of black achkans and white pyjamas and
had no individual identity. The girls used to call the boys ‘kodiale’*
which was a venomous snake whose bite was fatal. It was a romantic
word that represented the fear and romance hidden in the mind of
many girls. In those days even dark, weak and shrivelled-up boys
looked attractive from a distance. When I looked at them up close I
was sorely disappointed. Most of them were dark and ugly.
Now the boys started coming to the Girls’ College freely. On the
occasions of ‘Sales’ girls would look after them well. They no longer
looked venomous but ordinary, simple human beings. The girls of
an older generation, who had now become professors and teachers,
would longingly say that the boys used to be very handsome during
their college days but now they were all rotten. Actually the purdah
that stood between the sexes allowed for the imagination to weave
romantic dreams that were now destroyed. Now, when girls saw boys,
they did not feel weak-kneed, but considered them ordinary students
like themselves. That did not mean that all romance came to an end
with the lifting of the purdah. Love thrived even now and sometimes
culminated in marriage too…
Ismat Chughtai, A Life in Words: Memoirs, translated by M. Asaduddin (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2012), pp. 1-7, 151-55.
The introduction and extracts are reproduced with the kind permission of Penguin Books India.