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A Transluscent (Dis)array ...


Asma Rasheed

A LIFE IN WORDS: MEMOIRS
By Ismat Chughtai . Translated by M. Asaduddin
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2012, pp.282, Rs.499.00

VOLUME XXXVI NUMBER 9 SEPTEMBER 2012

Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is easily one of the most well-known Urdu writers from India in the twentieth century. Mostly renowned for a few of her short stories such as ‘Lihaaf,’ it goes without saying that she was a writer who was much, much more than that. Though from a conservative family where girls were not educated, Ismat managed to talk her parents (she threatened to run away from home and convert to Christianity!) into allowing her to study for not one but two degrees, a B.A. and a B.T. She lived and studied largely in Agra, Aligarh and Lucknow, and began her career as the headmistress of a girls’ school in Jawra State. It was while working in Aligarh that she met Shahid Latif who was working on his Master’s; they got married in 1942 and moved to Bombay where Ismat lived almost entirely for the rest of her life. Ismat’s memoirs in Urdu were first published in a serialized form in a journal between 1979 and 1980; it largely covers her life through her childhood and adolescence, to her early days as writer and teacher. The memoirs follow no particular order: they move from one person or topic or memory to another, memories that seemingly pop up on the spur-of-the-moment. The chapters weave across the travails of being the ninth of ten children, the ordeals of surviving her Hitlerian eldest sister and the hilarious attempts to clean up and discipline the grubby, obstinate young Chunni (Ismat). She writes about their neighbour Lalaji, whose daughter Sushi was Ismat’s closest friend. As children, she reminisces, caste restrictions did not apply and they could play together and share their snacks. However, one Janmashtami, the insatiably curious Ismat sneaks into the room where the Krishna idol is installed. Awestruck by the silver infant swaying in a cradle decked with gold and silver edgings, she picks up the idol and hugs it. A ‘storm’ erupts over this defilement of the idol and Ismat whimsically recalls the sound thrashing her mother gave her. Years later, on a trip back to Agra, she learns Sushi is getting married the next day and wants to see Ismat. Reluctantly, for Ismat still remembers that Janmashtami incident, she goes over to meet her turmeric-covered friend. Sushi draws Ismat to her and takes out a plate of laddoos; Ismat thinks she will take one and throw it into ...


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