Ismat Chughtai was a pointillist. Each sentence of hers is a colour, deep and exquisitely sketched, hovering on her canvas, carrying an inner world, an emotional register. This quality of her fiction, to linger where others would walk by, has captivated her readers since that first, tremendous halt in Urdu literature – her short story Lihaaf. Published in 1942, Lihaaf spoke through the eyes of a child, observing a relationship between two women unfolding just out of her understanding. It caused a sensation and resulted in an obscenity trial and life-long notoriety for Chughtai. Many have pondered – and continue to ponder – on the story's gender, religious and class contexts. Let me share just one sentence from it: Kamray mein ghup andhera aur is andheray mein Begum Jaan ka lihaaf aisay hil raha tha, jaisay is mein hathi band ho (The room was pitch-black and in that dark, Begum Jaan’s quilt was shaking as if there was an elephant caught inside).
Chughtai’s Urdu has a lyrical cadence, and its mixture of colloquial and classic remained the hallmark of her fiction. Her stories are told through a particular eye – an intriguing, curious, argumentative "I" which forever asks the next question but keeps the answer inside a bracket of the self. Her nonfiction essays and this newly translated collection of her autobiographical writings expand that "I" by incorporating the many personalities with whom she shared her life. Yet, she is not interested in making you uncomfortable with her reality, or having her art argue for social realism. That would be boring to her, and possibly not a good yarn.
The essays in A Life in Words: Memoirs originally appeared between 1979 and 1980 in the Urdu journal Aaj Kal, and were published as a collection titled Kaghazi hai Pairahan in 1994, three years after her death at the age of 80. The essays revolve largely around her youth, her schooling and the first few years of her teaching career – the vignettes trace out the tension between her inner life and her family, and social and cultural life in pre-war north India. Chughtai’s tone remains that of her early fiction – caustic, irreverent, full of pauses and diversions. She has the richest description of the inner life of an upper-class Muslim teenage girl that one could encounter, showing us hostel life (“Aligarh”), friendships (“Return to Bareilly”), courtships (“Under Lock and Key”), politics (“Sujat”) and class (“Chewing on Iron”).
These essays showcase the best of Chughtai’s range and mastery as a writer – they are erudite, self-aware and always probing. This is not, as the introduction notes, a memoir. Akin to Walter Benjamin’s Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (A Berlin Childhood in 1900), these essays intersect space and interiority, letting the reader discover a highly subjective and original reading of a world that is otherwise saturated by categories like The Muslim Woman and thus rendered un-intelligible.
In reading Chughtai’s work in English, we have had immense luck – her translators have included Tahira Naqvi, MU Memon, Carlo Coppola and Sayyida Hamid. M Asaduddin, the translator of A Life in Words: Memoir, has previously translated Chughtai’s fiction, and his work here is nuanced and nimble. However, the glossary is woefully inadequate to the text and readers might need to consult the family tree before embarking on the first essay. For fans of Urdu literature, of urbane and urban lives in twentiethcentury India or of bitingly honest interiority, this collection is highly recommended.
By Manan Ahmed on March 30 2012 11.35am