Ismat Chughtai was one of the most prominent female Urdu writers, who have explored feminine sexuality with her unconventional stories in the pre-partition era in India. Her writings are a proof of her observant style and expose the hidden gender inequalities prevalent in the Indian patriarchal setup. Given the status of a lady with iconoclastic ideas in that era, even Google paid homage to this woman with an illustrative doodle to mark her 107th birth anniversary yesterday. She has set an example for all the young feminists of the 21st century.
Back in time, she was severely criticised for taking up issues that were labelled as obscene. She even had to undergo trials for offending conservatives through her stories. Also, she often mentioned the heavy burden of modesty that women had been carrying which made her feel suffocated. Evidently, her stories have been narrated to break such patterns and voice feminist issues. Her famous short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) in which she presented her homosexual concerns in the social context of that age made her gain the tag of a scandalous writer. The cinematic adaptation of this story has been made by Deepa Mehta in her famous movie Fire (1996).
Chughtai has often been placed parallel to Saadat Hasan Manto, another stalwart writer from Urdu literature. Both these leftist ideology writers left an indelible imprint on the mind of their readers with their nuanced works using explicit imagery and witty words. Their works compel us to think about issues prevalent in Indian society, and we find them resonating even in the contemporary times.
As a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association, she struggled immensely to get recognition for her writings. In 1944, she faced trial along with Manto, and it garnered a lot of media attention. Even after being criticised, she continued writing about what according to her was the truth of her time. Through her characters, she emphasised the need for self-identity, personal space and freedom of expression for women in a rather male-centric society. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 for her commendable contribution to the oeuvre of Urdu writings.