|The Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (right) in a still from Shyam Benegal's 1857-set drama, Junoon (1978). Also seen: Jennifer Kendal Kapoor (left) & a very young Nafisa Ali|
It was in 1942 that Ismat Chughtai wrote what still remains her most talked-about story. ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt) first came out in an Urdu journal called Adab-e-Lateef and then in a collection of Ismat’s short stories published by Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi.
In December 1944, Ismat and her literary contemporary Saadat Hasan Manto were charged with obscenity. The second and definitive hearing in the case took place in Lahore in November 1946. Here is Ismat, in her autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, recounting with not a little relish how the case fell apart in the courtroom:
The witnesses who had turned up to prove “Lihaaf” obscene were thrown into confusion by my lawyer... After a good deal of reflection one of them said: “This phrase ‘… drawing lovers’ is obscene.”
“Which word is obscene, ‘draw’ or ‘lover’?” The lawyer asked.
“Lover,” replied the witness a little hesitantly.
“My lord, the word ‘lover’ has been used by great poets most liberally. It is also used in naats, poems written in praise of the Prophet. God-fearing people have accorded it a very high status.” “But it’s objectionable for girls to draw lovers to themselves,” said the witness. “Why?” “Because… because it’s objectionable for good girls to do so.”
“And if the girls are not good, then it is not objectionable?”
“My client must have referred to the girls who were not good. Yes madam, do you mean here that bad girls draw lovers?”
“Well, this may not be obscene. But it is reprehensible for an educated lady from a decent family to write about them.” the witness thundered.
“Censure it as much as you want. But it does not come within the purview of law.”
The issue lost much of its steam thereafter, writes Ismat. The implied
The division of the world into good girls and bad girls had always been of abiding interest to Ismat. The ninth of ten children, she grew up learning to ride and shoot and climb trees alongside her six brothers and three sisters. Her father, a deputy collector in places like Agra and Aligarh, was a remarkable man who gave all his children an education and the freedom to speak of anything under the sun. In a 1972 interview, Ismat attributed her early success as a writer to her frankness, and that frankness to her upbringing. “We were all frank, my father, my brothers, all of us. We never used to sit in separate groups, women in one place, men in another... We were all considered bold, rude and quarrelsome,” she told the Mahfil interviewer.
But her autobiography makes clear that her forthrightness was highly unusual for a young woman, getting her “bashed up often for telling the truth”. “Purdah had already been imposed on me, but my tongue was a naked sword,” she writes. Here is an example of Ismat’s sword, piercing through the hypocritical veil of 'decency': “The apparently shy and respectable girls... allowed themselves to be grabbed, hugged and kissed in bathrooms and in dark corners by young men who were related to their families. Such girls were considered modest.”
Ismat’s first visit to Bombay was as an inspector of municipal schools. She took the opportunity to reconnect with Shahid Latif, whom she had met in Aligarh and who worked in Bombay Talkies. Upon her urging, he took her to watch a film being shot. The lure of the cinema was a powerful one, and Ismat soon began writing scripts for films. Her first script — Ziddi — was bought by Ashok Kumar, then helping to run Bombay Talkies, for the highly impressive sum of Rs 20,000. To offer a comparison, Ismat tells us the heroine Kamini Kaushal, then already a star, was signed on for Rs 20,000, while Dev Anand — for whom this was one of his first roles — got Rs 6,000.
Between the late 1940s and late 1950s, Ismat went on to write scripts for many other films in Bombay. Of these, Aarzoo, Sheesha, Buzdil
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 26 Aug 2018.