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Struggle is Not Just Social

Baran Farooqi

By Ismat Chughtai. Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2014, pp. 331, Rs. 400.00


Ismat Chughtai has often been described as Urdu’s most courageous and also controversial woman writer, which is not to say that the epithet ‘controversial’ has worked to her disadvantage. Think Ismat: think delightful, fiery, provocative and well known feminist stories, never mind if they are occasionally heart breaking too. Ismat is a well known name today among literary circles as an Indian writer of repute. Many would however not be aware it was only in 1990 that the first English translation of her work appeared, that is, just a year before her death. A modern reader might like to think that Ismat must have written quite a bit of what she wrote for an English reading audience, but that was not the case at all. Actually, there are few today who would know that some of the best feminist writing of the 20th century in the subcontinent, whether poetry or fiction, happened in Urdu. Urdu writing especially in the field of what is simplistically called ‘social-realist’ fiction could be  provocative, if not delightfully obscene! Ismat’s style and subject matter are both so full of spice and so rich in  cultural imagery that they almost make one think that she might be aiming, apart of her Urdu readership, also at a certain kind of readership of the future—the present readership of Indian literature in English.  But the fact is that though she continued writing up until the 1980s, most of her major work was accomplished and her vast reputation achieved by the 1960s when literature in Indian languages in English translation had hardly any importance for the reading public of India or abroad. One tends to forget that there was a huge Urdu readership even in the 1940s which was interested in Ismat’s writings without ever having heard of terms like ‘feminism’ or ‘women’s lib’. In other words, her fiction filled and satisfied a felt need among the people to see a representation of the middle class, especially Indian Muslim middle class life as it was actually lived. Even if some of the attention that she attracted was by virtue of the scandals associated with her writing, there was, and is, a clear sense of the artistic value of her writing. Not for nothing is she acknowledged everywhere as the writer of a brilliant, vigorous, picturesque prose never before seen in Urdu.  Ismat Chughtai has, unfortunately, not ...

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