Why you should care
A writer who was considered a bad influence on Muslim youth during her lifetime is celebrated as an iconoclast today.
Ismat Chughtai was making waves the moment she put pen to paper. Born in 1915 in a small Muslim household in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, she started writing Urdu dramas and novellas in the 1930s, at a time when her country was in the throes of a struggle for independence from British colonialism.
But Chugtai sought multiple freedoms — and her work challenged everything from a strict reading of Islam to society’s defined roles for women. Early submissions to a magazine drew letters from the editor accusing her of insulting the Quran. Then, her short story Lihaaf, which translates as “The Quilt,” went to press courtesy of Lahore-based literary journal Adab-i-Latif — and immediately caused a firestorm. In it, a young girl narrates a domestic drama unfolding in front of her, that of an unhappy marriage where first the husband and then the wife experiment with same-sex relationships. To a modern reader, it’s fairly tame and veiled. But in 1942, it was seen by many as not just titillating but also openly dangerous.
The criticisms were scathing, but Chughtai went on with her work. The sweetest irony? Ishmat, her name, means “chastity” in Urdu.
Many of her stories, including Lihaaf, were banned across South Asia for their subversive takes on marriage, class, middle-class morality and sexuality. Nearly a decade earlier, another anthology to which she contributed, Angarey, was banned in 1933, and all but five copies destroyed. Chughtai wrote plays and short stories, expanding her reputation as a prime voice for female characters at a time when women’s voices were routinely marginalized. Chughtai, who had refused to marry as a teenager, later married a Bollywood scriptwriter, Shahid Latif. Yet the constant battles did take a toll. In 1944, she stood trial for obscenity charges for “Lihaaf.” Though Chughtai was exonerated, she later said the publicity stifled her creativity and reputation, even if her career would prove the opposite.
She went on to pen a number of works in Urdu about women and their psychological experiences, their desires and oppressions.
“Chughtai was way ahead of her times,” says Rana Safvi, historian and author of The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, who met the author as a teenager in Aligarh. “It was the freshness of her ideas that struck me. She was much older than I was at that time, the 1960s, but the way she spoke to us, it was very relatable.” Chughtai spoke against the “hypocrisy of the society at that time,” Safvi adds. Chughtai’s stories were tinged with progressivism and feminism that far outpaced what was considered acceptable, particularly for a female writer.
Born and raised in a middle-class household, Chughtai convinced her parents that she needed to attend university — and attend she did, becoming the first Indian Muslim woman to earn both a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Bachelor of Education. At university, she not only developed an interest in writing but also a taste for politics, and she began attending meetings of the Progressive Writers Association, a group with Marxist leanings that included many of India’s best-known poets, authors and scriptwriters.
At the time, Safvi says, “Society just didn’t want to acknowledge that [the LGBTQ community] existed, but they did.” And Chughtai’s progressivism was hard for some to swallow. Safvi recalls: “One time my sister went to a bookshop to buy Ismat Chughtai’s books and the shopkeeper told her that girls from respectable families don’t read such books.”
Chughtai didn’t stop at one headline-grabbing story. She went on to pen a number of works in Urdu about women and their psychological experiences, their desires and oppressions. But she didn’t neglect what was going on outside people’s heads either. Her Urdu novel Tedhi Lakeer, which is considered semiautobiographical, dealt with the Muslim experience under British rule, diving deep into the state of the country in the years before independence. Still, it was hard to shake her early notoriety. In her autobiography, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, she wrote: “Lihaaf became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight.” Now, though, Chughtai — who died in 1991 — is considered one of the pillars of Urdu literature. She won the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honors, in 1976; last year she got a Google Doodle celebrating what would have been her 107th birthday.
“When we were growing up we were not allowed to read her books. Especially in 1940s, Muslim society was going through a lot of change,” says Safvi, now in her 60s. “After the partition, Muslims who were left here were still struggling to establish themselves, find themselves; she wrote about all that.”