This Is A Women's World
And Ismat Chughtai can afford to call Saadat Manto
a finely shaped insect
Dozens of pages
of my copy of this just-published book are already dog-eared. Every chapter
bristles with words, phrases, sentences, even paragraphs that clamour
to be quoted. Witty, personal, descriptive, anecdotal and hectoring by
turns, Chughtai's style has few equals in contemporary Indian writing.
Chughtai's prose is supple, energetic, argumentative, funny, caustic,
and colloquial. But what really distinguishes her from her peers is a
bluntness that is often brutal, and a sarcasm that is always biting. This
is high-voltage writing, it can be as vituperative as it is incisive,
as polemical as it is profound. Unfortunately, in translation it sometimes
turns out to be ungainly or unidiomatic. "Use your caustic literary
material to destroy the germs that exist around you," she says, in
what can be considered a statement of her literary credo. The idea is
unmistakable in spite of the translated dullness of "caustic literary
material". For Chughtai, the function of literature was to cleanse
society by exposing its hypocrisy and decadence.
MY FRIEND, MY ENEMY
By Ismat Chughtai
Trs by Tahira Naqvi
Kali for Women
Indeed, what makes Chughtai and the other progressive
writers of Urdu so special is that they brought about a social revolution
through literature. That is how Krishan Chander, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder
Singh Bedi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas became household names.
From the ruins of a crumbling, feudal and communalised history, they projected
a free, secular and socialist India. That the country was partitioned
is another matter-if the progressive writers failed, Chughtai makes it
clear that theirs was a heroic, even tragic, failure. In Chughtai's book,
most of the protagonists of the progressive movement figure prominently
and memorably. The title essay, "My Friend, My Enemy" is about
Manto, the eccentric, unforgettable, egoistic, brilliant, alcoholic genius.
While Chughtai does not hesitate to call him a coward and an opportunist
for running away to Pakistan, she also rises to his defence when he was
criticised after his death. Only Chughtai would dare to describe Manto
as "a man who gave the appearance of a finely shaped insect."
I don't know whom to blame for my being so impressionable.
My paternal relatives believed that I had taken after the maternal
side of my family. These poor wretches are Sheikhs, consumers of
watery daal ... my maternal relatives were positive that I had taken
after my paternal family ... What else could one expect from the
descendants of Changez Khan? ... If someone asked my mother, "What
happened to your daughter?" she would sigh deeply and say "It's
all a trick of fate."
Apart from Manto, there are sharply etched portraits
of stalwarts such as Patras Bokhari, Meeraj, Krishan Chander, Khwaja Ahmed
Abbas, Suraiya and Majaz. Each is special, not only for the wealth of
detail, but also for its deeply felt empathy. "The Lamps are Lit",
on Krishan Chander, is a sensitive account, perhaps unparalleled in the
entire biographical literature on that writer. Chughtai's sketch of the
poet Meeraj, on the other hand, is laced with stinging humour. "In
my family, poetry was regarded as the art of the hijras," she says,
setting the tone.
What demarcates Chughtai from the other progressives
is her burning concern for women. "This is a man's world, man has
created and mutilated it," she declares. Yet this oppression and
subjugation of women can be countered only through the revamping of the
whole system: "You are imprisoned in purdah, your sisters are illiterate,
the children of your country are hungry, the young men are unemployed
and sick." The way out is not complaint or blame: "I always
hated the griping, weeping, whining womanhood that bore bastards,"
she says. In the new order, as Chughtai envisions it, "Women won't
have to crouch in putrid drains like starving bitches ... Men will be
distanced from bestiality." There is also a section of "Reminiscences"
which has the account of the Lihaaf trial and of Chughtai's passage to
Pakistan. The first section of the book also has the utterly hilarious
narrative of the Progressive Writers' journey, "From Bombay to Bhopal".
While we need to be grateful to Kali for Women
and Tahira Naqvi for giving us so much of Chughtai over the years, we
must insist on higher standards of translation and editing. This volume
lacks even a rudimentary account of the author's life, and a bibliography
is, quite predictably, absent. The book also has one of the worst covers
I've seen in a long time. It makes Chughtai look like a four-eyed extra-terrestrial,
precisely the kind of ogress her critics had turned her into during her
New Century: Whose Century?
Compiled and ed by Manmohan Malhoutra
(UBSPD, Rs 595)
Interaction of technology, polity and society.
By Baldev Raj Nayar (Sage, Rs 450)
The changing balance in India's economic policy.
Honour and Glory
By Jagjit Singh (Lancer, Rs 595)
The wars fought by India between 1947 and 1999.
the Ice in Antarctica
By Satya S. Sharma (New Age)
India's first winter in the South Pole.
a Mouse in Roosevelt House
By Jacqueline Lundquist and Samuel Celeste
(Har-Anand, Rs 300)
Picture book from the family at Roosevelt House.