Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) born in a small town in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh is one of the best short story writers, and one among the first few feminist writers in Urdu literature. Ismat Chughtai is considered a trend setter in Urdu short stories and she touched upon new topics which were considered taboo when Urdu literature was in its infancy, and its scope of topics was very limited. Ismat wrote eloquently on the issues of women of lower and lower middle class.
Ismat knew about the issues and problems of women of her era and took keen interest in highlighting these through her short stories. She laments about the wretchedness and plight of women and of being uneducated. She wants to see women free from any male bondage and suppression.
“Chauthi Ka Joda” (The Wedding Suit) is about a poor widow, Bi Amma who has two daughters, Kubra and Hameeda. The story focuses on Bi Amma’s obsession to get Kubra married as soon as possible, but every time she nears her goal of marrying off Kubra, something terrible happens and Kubra’s marriage remains on hold. And then one day Kubra’s and Hameeda’s cousin Rahat arrives at their home for a stay for one month for police training. Hameeda, sister of Kubra feels happy on this and tells Bi Amma to use this opportunity to impress Rahat to marry Kubra. They leave no stone unturned to make Rahat’s stay comfortable at their home and leave everything at his disposal. But Rahat develops interest in Hameeda and flirts with her by making livid remarks and touches her inappropriately on various occasions and after a month Rahat leaves without marrying any one of them and this leaves Bi Amma devasted. Bi Amma laments on the fate of Kubra,
“Khuda ne soorat nahin di, isi liye rahat uski taraf dekhta tak nahin” (Rahat doesn’t even look at her because God hasn’t given her fair features).
This shows how society, especially the lower class is worried about the complexion of the girl and how it is one of the obstacles in getting a girl married. On leaving Rahat, Kubra dies the next morning of TB and thus comes an unexpected end to a miserable and wretched life of a poor girl. And, “Chauthi Ka Joda” becomes Kubra’s shroud. The story depicts how financial burden is another reason for the plight of a lower and lower middle class women. Rahat’s character shows how men in privileged positions easily get away with their wrongdoings.
In “Jadein” (Roots) Ismat tells a story about an old woman who is unable to understand the intricacies of Partition. She doesn’t want to leave her house for newly formed Pakistan. She loves her roots and doesn’t want to get cutoff from her roots. She is not ready to leave her land, country and her neighbors and likens this leaving to death.
“Time passed on, but Amma stayed steadfast in her position like a banyan tree that stands upright through storms and blizzards.”
“You all go. As for me, where shall I go at this age.” Amma tells Sardar Ali, the leader of the National Guards. Finally, Amma’s sons, daughters, son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws and other relatives start to leave the house for newly formed Pakistan, Amma’s heart flutters and tears come in her eyes and she thinks,
“Who knows whether the new soil will be conducive to these saplings or make them wilt. These poor saplings.”
Amma couldn’t sleep the whole night, thinking whether his sons and daughter and other relatives will be able to survive or get killed in the way. And after sometime her Hindu neighbor Roopchandji brings back her children from Loni railway station and Amma heaves a sigh of relief. Thus, a happy family is saved from this devastating partition which destroyed lacs of lives dividing thousands of families. The story also depicts love between Hindus and Muslims not ready for partition.
“Lihaaf” (Quilt) is a story about homosexuality. It is a story about a women namely Begum Jaan, who doesn’t get the required attention and sexual satisfaction from her husband Nawab and this neglect ruins her life. The husband of Begum Jaan, Nawab takes much interest in young and fair boys. Begum Jaan feels dejected and frustrated with this neglect of Nawab and then, it was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall. Soon her thin body began to fill out. Her cheeks began to glow and she blossomed in beauty. It was a special oil massage that brought life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find the recipe for this oil even in the most exclusive magazines.
And we see how Begum Jaan’s life and eventually a family is ruined and destroyed, as Begum Jaan falls to lesbianism.
“Kaisi Biwi Kaisa Shohar”(Husband and Wife) is a story of woman named Aamina whose husband initially loves her very much, but after sometime loses interest in her and Aamina becomes,
“The severely beaten living woman in the world.”
Aamina also faces harsh treatment from her mother-in-law and initially ignores everything, but when after sometime she sees no improvement in the behavior of her husband and mother-in-law, she protests and revolts against this oppression and exploitation.
Aamina starts giving tuition to children and helps her husband and thus shows the way to other woman who are suppressed from centuries to raise their voice against the injustices meted out to them. And through Aamina’s character, Ismat wants to depict a woman who is independent and free from oppression and exploitation.
Ismat Chughtai, in her short stories has depicted the oppression and misery of middle class Muslim women with artistic depth. She knows the language of these women and her characters speak this language with finesse and ease and with much boldness, and here lies the distinctness and greatness of Ismat Chughtai.