Life of Ismat Chughtai now in English version

New Delhi: The works of Ismat Chughtai, arguably Urdu`s most courageous and controversial writer, should be studied both in the context of women writing in India and of Muslim women`s struggle for liberation and empowerment around the globe, says the English translator of her memoirs. "A Life in Words", the first complete translation of her celebrated memoir "Kaghazi Hai Pairahan" by author-critic M Asaduddin, provides an insight into several crucial years of Ismat`s life (1919-91).

"Ismat Chughtai is certainly Urdu`s most courageous and controversial writer. Born in a society which was patriarchal and oppressive to women, she offered subtle critique to its dominant assumptions. She lobbied successfully for her own education and fiercely advocated education for girls," says Asaduddin.

"She had a special place among her contemporaries Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander and Saadat Hasan Manto-in the sense that she brought into the ambit of Urdu literature female sexuality, which was earlier a taboo, with unparalleled frankness. The themes and characters of her fiction are taken from the sphere she knew intimately, the middle class Muslim families of Aligarh, Agra and Bareilly with their elaborate network of relatives, hangers-on and servants.

"Ismat does not simply portray characters and events but uses her mimetic strategy to recreate the entire ethos of a people at a particular moment in history. Freshness of idiom, witty turn of phrase and tongue-in-cheek humour are the hallmarks of her style," Asaduddin told PTI.

According to the Sahitya Akademi winner and JNU Professor, the most difficult thing in translating `Kaghazi Hai Pairahan` was to find the exact tone of the writer who grew up in the middle class Muslim environments in different cities of Uttar Pradesh, speaking and hearing colloquial Urdu interspersed with Avadhi dialect.

"She was a proponent of what is known as `Begumati zubaan`, a pert, racy idiom used specifically by women in the inner apartments of households. It was difficult to find a corresponding idiom in English. Then there is the impression of speed that characterizes her style.

"As in many of her writings, her thoughts in `Kaghazi Hai Pairahan` too, seems to outstrip her words, leaving many gaps. Her thoughts hops and jumps from topic to topic, with scant respect for coherence, the language cannot keep up with the thought process."

He says there are too many loose ends, sentences are sometimes mangled and incomplete, ellipses abound. "Readers have to be alert, filling up the gaps before they move on. All these point to the challenges faced in the translation of the text into English."

Asaduddin also says that Manto and Ismat shared a lot in their literary preoccupation and artistic temperaments, as they also differed radically from each other in many other aspects. "They wrote each other`s literary portraits. While Manto`s portrait of Ismat was titled simply `Ismat Chughtai` in which he recorded his admiration for her fearless honesty and integrity and the salient features of her style, Ismat`s portrait of Manto was titled, `Mera Dost Mera Dushman` where she dealt with Manto`s unconventional and provocative genius. "Charges of obscenity were brought against the writings of both and they had to defend themselves in court in Lahore.

They travelled together from Bombay to Lahore: Manto was being tried for his story `Bu`, and Chughtai was being tried for her story `Lihaf`. The controversy surrounding the writings of Manto and Chughtai created a lot of heat and dust involving writers, critics and the reading public.

"Nevertheless, in their verbal arguments they rarely agreed with each other on any subject and held their own ground with utmost ferocity. This polite and deliberate disagreement was the very stuff of their lifelong friendship. Nothing could threaten their solidarity as writers or the openness of their dialogue. For both, their friendship was a vital element of continuity in their lives."

According to Asaduddin, the value of "Kaghazi hai Pairahan" as a literary document is considerable. "It chronicles the history of self assertion and subjectivity of an Indian Muslim woman writer within the oppressive patriarchal structure of the society. Her works should be studied both in the context of women writing in India and in the context of Muslim women`s struggle for liberation and empowerment around the globe.

"The memoirs record the stunning impact of Angarey, the pioneering volume iconoclastic short stories on the Urdu scene, stirring debates that have become an important part of Urdu`s literary history. Echoes of these debates, concerning the relationship between the individual and the society, literature`s role in holding a mirror up to society and exposing its decadent morality and hypocrisy, the question of obscenity etc. reverberated on the precincts of Urdu literature for a long time."

"Kaghazi hai Pairahan" exists in a curious intertextual relationship with the entire oeuvre of Chughtai in the sense that it throws additional light and provides contexts for the understanding of her novels and short stories, he says. "Further, it provides records for the debates about the values and concerns that were relevant in the context of Urdu literature for a good part of the twentieth century."