A Life in Words

To be honest, I hadn’t heard the name before, Ismat Chughtai, though it sounded vaguely familiar. So I gladly picked up her “memoirs”—no, I wouldn’t define the book as an autobiography—more so because it is the work of an Indian woman, trying to create an identity for herself in a time when it not only seemed difficult, but improbable. Like I mentioned, it is not really an autobiography, but more like an account of her life growing up in Jodhpur, and also in Aligarh and Lucknow, where she studied.

There are references to her life in a couple of other small places also, where she stayed briefly. ) There is though a mention of one event of her life after college, when she was summoned to a court in Lahore, Pakistan for an apparently obscene story she had written, Lihaaf, and that got published in a journal. ‘A life in words’ is an endearing account of Ismat’s growing-up surrounded by her vast and loving family that consisted of her parents, nine other siblings, a warm entourage of teeming cousins, and various aunts and uncles.

Born in the first half of the 1900s, Ismat provides a beautiful account of her growing up as an ever rebellious girl, surrounded by loving and caring, and sometimes teasing and mischievous brothers and sisters, and cousins. She narrates honestly and simply, just how a story should be told, making the book a fun read; though a lot of times I felt that I’d have liked it better if I was reading the original, Urdu version. A lot does get lost in translation. Being a Hindi speaker, who can understand a little Hindustani (Indian) Urdu, I could easily grab the meaning of certain words and phrases that are directly translated from Urdu.

Their true literary effect might be lost on non-Hindi/Urdu speakers. The book also provides a picture of the society and a little of the socio-political scene of those times. There are a couple of sweet accounts of how there is an obvious demarcation between the Hindu and Muslim cultures, but how beautifully the lines are blurred, even erased at times when friends meet and gala dinners are organized where vegetarian Hindu friends are invited over in a Muslim meat-eating environment. Ismat provides a fresh insight into life in a typical Muslim (or as she claims, Mughal) household.

One can feel her anger and disappointment wanting to do things that “women-won’t-dare- to”, wanting to live life on her own terms, wanting to fly, in a world where a woman’s role in society accounts to that of a mere shadow of her husband and then changes to that of a mother or house- keeper. Though one can’t help but be thankful for her doting father and loving siblings who indulged her in her various adventures and endeavors and let her move towards achieving her dreams.

Her accounts of the early days of women’s education in India are quite informative and interesting; esp. s she presents it with a personal touch and an insider’s battle-ground view. For those who love to keep their cabinets neat, clean, and organized, the book might prove a tad bit disorderly. Ismat has written the chapters, I guess, as words, or rather memories came to her. It does not follow a timeline or a pattern as such. A word of helpful advice; read the last chapter, where her family structure has been described, first. The book is stuffed full of references to this cousin and that brother and that sister or aunt, owing to her large family.

Knowing who is who beforehand makes it all so much easier. The book explores crucial years in Ismat’s life that moulded her into the fiery writer who shook up the Urdu literary world When Ismat Chughtai was a child, she wanted to be like her brothers, for she saw that being a boy was better. But she was served a crushing defeat whenever she played gulli danda or football with them. She was always vexed that she could not keep up with them because she was a girl. They also never took kindly to her, as they deemed her wilful, stubborn and outspoken.

Then one of her brothers who also could not keep up with the rest, as he was an invalid, showed her light: “Boys are like bulls. Why do you want to be a bull? Take them on in the sphere of learning; there you will beat them hands down. ” From that day, Ismat changed tactics. There are many more interesting tales that Ismat Chugthai recounts in A Life in Words, a translation of Kaghazi hai Pairahan. The book deals with those crucial years in Ismat’s life that moulded her into that fiery writer who shook up the Urdu literary world. It is not exactly chronological.

Whatever Ismat could recollect from the years past became fodder for this book of 14 chapters. The initial plan was that the memoirs that came in installments in the Urdu journal Aaj Kal from March 1979 to May 1980 would be relooked to work out a sequence when it would be made into a volume. But due to Ismat’s other preoccupations and failing health, the revision never happened. Despite the lack of a sequence, the reader finds no jaggedness. This is because each chapter is complete in itself. It’s like a collection of short stories in which Ismat narrates to s the major incidents and about the people that influenced her as an individual and writer.

‘A Life in Words: Memoirs’ by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. One cannot define Ismat Chughtai’s character as anything but colourful and introspective. May be to a large extent that passed down to her by her large and varied family. When you read the memoirs, it almost feels like you are reading a story. One gets the necessary information about her works as well – from short stories to novels to essays (as footnotes) which is needed while reading about a writer.

What I loved the most about this book was Chughtai’s family and their antics. Ismat Aapa was born into a large family – she had nine siblings – so one can only imagine the life lead during the Indian Independence and seeing times through Partition, her schooling, her youth, her stubborn nature, her want to get educated and then subsequently the need to write and tell tales. Chughtai’s tone is fictional and caustic throughout the book. There are a lot of diversions which are fun, despite the danger of losing track of semi-plots and characters, but I guess that can be overlooked when reading memoirs.

It is quite natural that the tone will shift, which works well to hang on to the reader’s attention. There are pieces which I loved – for instance, ‘Aligarh’ – which depicts the writer’s hostel life, ‘In the Name of Those Married Women’ – the piece on the much talked about courtroom trial of Manto and Ismat, ‘Sujat’ – revolving around politics and ‘Chewing on Iron’ – depicting class differences. For me, reading this in English was a treat, thanks to the wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin, who has translated Chughtai’s other works.

The translation is subtle and he doesn’t shy from using the words as used in Urdu by the writer sometimes, owing to the fact that there is a glossary as well, which serves the purpose well. ‘A Life in Words: Memoirs’ by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. The ideas in the book are numerous – from women’s liberation to class differences to the inner-life of a Muslim girl. Here is a book that is integral to its ideas, structure and words. I cannot recommend this one enough and while you are at it, please read more of Chughtai’s works.

You will not be disappointed at all. A Life In Words, the memoirs of Ismat Chughtai, reveals a fiercely independent writer who became one of the finest Indian minds of the twentieth century. “She was not a feminist in a narrow or reductive sense, her concerns being much wider and more inclusive than merely the world of women. Her works cannot be reduced to mere allegories of gender oppression,” writes M. Asaduddin in the introduction to his translation of A Life In Words, the memoirs of Ismat Chughtai.

I am not sure what Ismat would have made of a statement that speaks so dismissively of feminism (‘merely the world of women’? Seriously? ) even as it praises her writing for being ‘wider and more inclusive’. Fortunately for us, Asaduddin’s translation is much more nuanced than his introduction. The essays brought together in this collection were originally published as Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, appearing in the Urdu journal Aaj Kal in 1979 and 1980. Like the rest of her writing, Ismat’s memoir is witty, honest, richly detailed, and filled with a rare empathy and generosity of spirit.

The first chapter, about becoming a writer, opens with a vivid memory of herself, as a child “weeping inconsolably”, because “someone was being beaten brutally. ” It was this that brought her to her first realisation about the world in which she was growing up: “The big beat the small, the strong batter the weak. ” But almost simultaneously, she is aware of a subversive thought “in the deep recesses of my mind…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.

This fierce awareness, not only of the different masks of oppression but also of its inevitable decline, pervades her writing. Her short story ‘Lihaaf ‘(1942), and the controversy about its alleged obscenity, was a milestone in Ismat’s life. The essay ‘In the Name of Those Married Women…’ opens with the summons from the Lahore court, on the charge of obscenity, that will change her life irrevocably. The summons arrives just as Ismat is preparing the bottle for her two-month old infant’s feed: “I had wanted the inspector to hold the feeding bottle so that I could sign, ut he retreated with shock as though I had held a gun at him. ” Much happens during the court case, and Ismat is blunt about it. About the Progressives: they “neither appreciated not found fault with me.

This suited me well. ” About her husband’s reaction: “Shahid and I had so many fights over the story that life became a battlefield. ” About the impact of ‘Lihaaf’ on the rest of her work: “It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight. One of the most memorable moments in the memoir is her meeting with the begum who was the subject of ‘Lihaaf’. Winning the case in Lahore does not give Ismat the sense of closure that this meeting does. “And I realised at that moment,” writes Ismat, “that flowers can be made to bloom among rocks. The only condition is that one has to water the plant with one’s heart’s blood. ” Ismat’s feminism is an integral part of her life. Throughout her memoirs, she never fails to write about other women, young and old, who find their own practical solutions to the problem of living in an unfair world.

Mangu, the coachman’s daughter, who became possessed by spirits when her mother-in-law threatened to get her son married a second time: “These were very dangerous and vile spirits who, after entering Mangu’s body, inflamed her to give her mother-in-law a thrashing. ” Ismat’s mother tells her daughter that “to make a place for herself in the world a woman has to resort to feminine wiles…make a boy so dependent on you that he feels embarrassed to sew his own button and would die of shame if he has to prepare his own meal. ”

But Ismat is incorrigible. On the way to her brother’s wedding, she manages to “lose” the cap of her burqa. Showered with blows when the others suspect her of having lost it intentionally, Ismat writes that she accepted the blows “as though they were sweet laddoos. ” Later Ismat describes a conversation with Ala Bi, the founder of a girls’ school in Aligarh, who tells her students how she solved the work-family balance: “Mothers hardly rear children in our families. The first child is for dadi, the second for nani, then comes the turns of khala and phupi…That leaves cooking, which is done by the cook. ”

Richly detailed as her character sketches are, Ismat’s observations on life are blunt, presented without frills or equivocation. On motherhood: “We were so many siblings that my mother felt nauseated by the very sight of us. ”On childhood: “I got past childhood somehow. I never understood why people sing such paeans to childhood. Childhood exemplifies restrictions and deprivation. ” On religion: “Faith is one thing, the culture of one’s country is another. I have an equal share in it, in its earth, sunshine and water. ” Even where she finds it painful to write about something, Ismat finds a way to express the ache. I cannot keep my pen steady as I write these words today,” she says in an essay titled ‘Hell’, describing the time her father took a second wife – a betrayal that caused him as much pain as it did to Ismat’s mother.

“Amma lay still. It was as though she had stopped breathing, as though she was afraid of moving from her position lest she break to pieces which would be difficult to put together again. ” Finally, Ismat writes about the power of stories, her ‘udankhatola’: “Just as no one can slap you if you say something over the telephone, you can say whatever you want through your stories, and no hand can reach for your throat. The first thing one notices on starting the short story writer, feminist, educationalist and iconoclast Ismat Chughtai’s remarkable memoirs, A Life in Words: Memoirs, with due credit to M. Asaduddin’s elegant translation, is how utterly unselfconscious, unaffected and natural the writing seems. It isn’t bogged down with explanations of everyday objects and rituals. There is no positioning of the voice within some sort of global (that is, white) context. One isn’t looking in as if from the outside. The writer is merely the writer and hasn’t taken it upon herself to act also as interpreter.

It allows for a wealth of subtlety often lost in subcontinental writing in English. And subtlety is Chughtai’s forte. Hailing from an educated, liberal Muslim family, the sort that educated their children equally in the Quran, Farsi and Urdu literature, with her elder brother already a well-known writer in her teens, Chughtai is best known for her stories about the lives of middle-class Indian women. If her sensitive, thoughtful work is pegged as controversial, it must also be said that it only causes a flutter among those who adamantly refuse to see the world for what it is.

Writing largely on women, religion and the domestic sphere, she neither generalizes nor preaches, as she knows her subject far too intimately for that sort of artless moralizing. Nevertheless, Chughtai as moralist—and that too of the Shavian school—is a major feature of her life and work. “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… 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! ” While one would wish to imagine it otherwise, this split between private sphere and public face, between conversational and actual liberalism hasn’t exactly faded into oblivion. Chughtai’s unforgiving eye picks it out in the details. If their Hindu guests weren’t due, “then seekh kebab and roast chicken would have been cooked; lauki raitaand dahi bade would not have been prepared.

The difference between ‘cooked’ and ‘prepared’ was interesting. ” The essays in A Life in Words: Memoirs originally appeared between 1979 and 1980 in the Urdu journal Aaj Kal, and were published as a collection titled Kaghazi hai Pairahan in 1994, three years after her death at the age of 80. The essays revolve largely around her youth, her schooling and the first few years of her teaching career – the vignettes trace out the tension between her inner life and her family, and social and cultural life in pre-war north India.

Chughtai’s tone remains that of her early fiction – caustic, irreverent, full of pauses and diversions. She has the richest description of the inner life of an upper-class Muslim teenage girl that one could encounter, showing us hostel life (“Aligarh”), friendships (“Return to Bareilly”), courtships (“Under Lock and Key”), politics (“Sujat”) and class (“Chewing on Iron”). These essays showcase the best of Chughtai’s range and mastery as a writer – they are erudite, self-aware and always probing. This is not, as the introduction notes, a memoir. Akin to Walter Benjamin’s

Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (A Berlin Childhood in 1900), these essays intersect space and interiority, letting the reader discover a highly subjective and original reading of a world that is otherwise saturated by categories like The Muslim Woman and thus rendered un-intelligible. In reading Chughtai’s work in English, we have had immense luck – her translators have included Tahira Naqvi, MU Memon, Carlo Coppola and Sayyida Hamid. M Asaduddin, the translator of A Life in Words: Memoir, has previously translated Chughtai’s fiction, and his work here is nuanced and nimble. To readers, Ismat Chughtai was an eminent Urdu writer.

Her bold protagonists stood out from the ordinary, her outspoken approach jolted regressive minds and her rebellious themes raised many eyebrows. Her strong feminist ideology, blunt and deliberate, made her one of the most controversial and successful writers of her time. ‘A Life in Words: Memoir’ (Kaghazi Hai Pairahan) is Ismat Chughtai speaking to us in defence of ‘Lihaaf’, her controversial short story, and to an extent, justifying her disposition of being a rebel in a then orthodox society. In an effortless translation by M Asauddin, ‘A Life in Words: Memoir’ allows a welcome glimpse into the tales of Ismat Chughtai’s life.

Yes, tales! For the memoir is not a chronicle, and hence must be read keeping her characteristic jagged nature in mind. It is almost as if she was fondly reminiscing the episodes and penning it down simultaneously so as to ensure she doesn’t miss any detail. The fragmented narrative is therefore bereft of coherence in most places but the fascinating stories make up for it, almost obliging a smile out of the reader at her sporadic commentary. Ismat was born into an upper middle class family yet no one could take away the stringent mindset that trickled down with conventions.

While other girls were raised to gain perfection at sewing, cooking and other homely chores, Ismat was more than happy to embrace books, much to the dislike of her mother. “She hurled her shoe at me but missed me,” she writes, and as a reader we cannot help but be amazed at her adamant defiance towards her mother’s countless taunts. Perhaps the only rebel in the pack of ten brothers and sisters, her only two pillars of familial support were her father, and Munne Bhai (Azim Beg Chughtai). The decision to continue her studies at Aligarh’s mission school seems a colossal battle at first and she even threatens to run away from home.

But Abba Mian offers a supportive conclusion, completely in her favour. Elder brother Munne Bhai is no less encouraging. He is aware how much Ismat detests the burqa. During their visit to Agra where all women were required to veil their faces, he devises a plan that hides her burqa away inside a pile of mattresses. Munne Bhai is therefore her companion in all mischief. Ismat Chughtai, a ‘woman’ above all She was an iconoclast, an educationist, and an icon of women’s empowerment. But above everything else, she was a woman. She understood the complexities of a woman’s mind, their inhibitions, and also their secret desires.

So when Bachchu Phupi (her father’s elder sister) bares her heart’s anguish to her, she knows that somewhere beneath the guise of an obstinate young girl, there’s a woman who’ll understand why she got her daughter married to a peon. When Manager Sahib requests her to let her two daughters stay with her, she agrees at once because education for girls was her prime objective. Ismat is generous in her style of storytelling but she’s careful too. She gives a deliberate miss to her life as wife to Shaheed Latif and mother to Seema. She is oblivious to religious demarcations too.

To her, the idol of Lord Krishna is a real child that she lovingly embraces, thus blurring the lines dividing Hinduism and Islam. Wary of a prospective royal wedding with Jawra’s prince, a future that most women would die for, she runs away escaping her dreams of spitting (chewed betel leaf) in a ‘golden spittoon’. Ismat Chughtai’s autobiography, ‘A Life in Words: Memoir’ brings the temperamental writer alive. For those who’ve read her stories, the book immortalises the woman that Ismat Chughtai was. And for those who haven’t, they must pick it up for they shall not regret knowing her.