Ismat Chughtai’s stories and characters cut through time and remain relevant even in the 21st century. She wrote in Urdu and was part of the Progressive Writer’s Movement. The movement focused on how art can contribute to the betterment of society by commenting on its evils and hypocrisy.
Ismat Chughtai is well known for etching out female characters that did not fit any mould society cast for them. The characters are rebellious by their very nature or paradoxically through subverting the restrictions imposed on them. They dare to question. They dare to be themselves. Through such bold characters, Chughtai also sheds light on the barriers of gender, class, and caste prevalent in society during her lifetime, which unfortunately clog minds in India till today.
One of Chughtai’s most well known stories is Lihaaf or The Quilt as translated in English. She had to go to Lahore to face obscenity charges for this short story. Lihaaf is a curious mix of understatement and being out there. It does not explicitly mention sexual acts except obliquely. Yet what was unsettling for readers then and perhaps even now is the portrayal of same-sex love. It showed women not only in control of their sexuality but also boldly expressing it. Chughtai’s manner of unsettling the reader gives her stories an unparalleled power that still holds sway. Her stories prick at the norms and restrictions accepted as a status quo. It lays bare the faults in many of our beliefs, thus shocking the reader.
For example, in her short story, Mole or Til, she depicts a village woman, Rani, who poses as a model for the painter, Ganeshchand Choudhry. Rani is fully aware of her beauty and knows how to sway the people to do her bidding. Choudhry expects her to be grateful for letting her stay at his home. But Rani is not one to submit to feelings of pitiful charity. She is vocal about her desires and never lets Choudhry dictate her whether it is in posing as a model or otherwise.
Similarly and perhaps even bolder is her story, The Homemaker or Gharwali. The story portrays Mirza, a shop owner who lets Lajo be a maid in his house. Lajo is another carefree personality that Chughtai has created. She does not want to be shackled by marriage to one man. She is perfectly happy to love Mirza and take care of his house. But she would prefer giving her love to a lot of people rather than being tied to one man. The Homemaker shows how passion and love are supposed to be regulated and kept under control for the sake of decency. To escape this garb of decency, men court courtesans while women are expected to be pure. Lajo cannot succumb to these restrictions of being ‘good woman or wife.’ Chughtai thus portrays a society’s hypocrisy about marriage and its gendered double standards over a person’s desires.
The short story, All Alone, briefly traces Shahzad’s growth from college to adulthood. She finished her BA and ‘was inundated with marriage proposals.’ She loved someone else, Dilshad Mirza, and not the proposals that came pouring in. Instead, she enrolled in a course for painting and becomes absolutely immersed in it. So much so that she does not realise the passage of time. Many things happened in between, notably India’s Independence and Partition. The story shows Shahzad choosing her own path and rejecting marriage. In today’s modern times as well, women are pressured into believing that marriage is the ultimate goal in their life. In Chughtai’s story, Shahzad showed how opting for a profession does not mean she was incomplete or discontented with her life; or that she longed for a soul mate. She chose to embrace her art and puts to rest any rumours about her being a lonely sad woman. She refuses to be an object of self-pity because the society believes that a woman cannot be happy alone. This story was way ahead of its time and is a brilliant portrayal of women as artists and their connection with their creation.
Chughtai’s short stories expressed different facets of female thought and desire in a witty yet detailed manner. The stories feel relatable hundred years later as they continue to call out hollow societal ideas and practices prevalent today.