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Book Review: Ismat Chughtai

Books by Ismat Chughtai on a blue backdrop with a gold necklace

For someone who loves to read and has studied English literature in school and college in India, it was very disappointing to learn about writers like Maanto and Chughtai so late in life. It enrages me that we teach a handful of English writers and completely ignore great Indian writers.

“Faith is one thing, the culture of one’s country is quite another. I have an equal share in it, in its earth, sunshine and water. If I splash myself with colour during Holi, or light up diyas during Diwali, will my faith suffer an erosion? Are my beliefs so brittle and judgements so shaky that they will fall to pieces?”

Ismat Chughtai – the story-teller

Ismat Chughtai was a contemporary of Saadat Hasan Manto. They wrote during the time of India’s independence. Both were put on trial for indecency in their writing then finally acquitted. However, it put a downer on both their temperaments. 

Chughtai’s Lihaaf or the Quilt was considered quite progressive for its time, talking about female sexuality. She has also written screenplays for Hindi movies, and some of her stories have been turned into movies.

“One did not know when Begum Jaan’s life began — whether it was when she committed the mistake of being born or when she came to the Nawab’s house as his bride, climbed the four-poster bed and started counting her days. Or was it when she watched through the drawing room door the increasing number of firm-calved, supple- waisted boys and delicacies begin to come for them from the kitchen! Begum Jaan would have glimpses of them in their perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel as though she was being raked over burning embers!”

I started with two of her collections – one a collection of essays from her life and the other, a collection of short stories.

A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai

These essays in the book A Life in Words: Memoirs give an insight into the life of a Muslim family in the mid-1900s. She talks about how she was always considered the rebel for questioning customs that sought to restrain women. She talks about her relatives and their lives and her own struggle to find her voice in a conservative society.

“Human beings have ostensibly given up cannibalism, but the truth is that they continue to devour human flesh in some form or the other.”

“At my age my other sisters were busy drawing admirers while I fought with any boy or girl I ran into.”

Vintage Chughtai: A Selection

Published by Women United, Vintage Chughtai is a collection of Ismat Chughtai’s essays where she introduces us to interesting women characters from all sections of society. These stories seen through a woman’s eyes show how they’re treated and tell us about society’s hypocrisies and the semblance of progressiveness they hide behind. Many issues she brings to light are still relevant today. 

Many of the stories talk about female sexuality – her own needs and how society exploits it. She covers various aspects – whether it is a man who uses a woman for his pleasure alone or a woman who has internalised the patriarchy and pushes down any woman who dares to rise above it.

Verdict: Must-Read

Note: Some links are part of an affiliate program, which means that if you click on a link and buy something, I might receive a percentage of the sale, at no extra cost to you. 


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