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Ismat The Iconoclast

Rakhshanda Jalil

By Ismat Chughtai. Translated from the Urdu by Tahira Naqvi
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2015, pp. 296, Rs. 499.00


Some writers are fortunate enough to have a second innings not too long after their first flush of fame. Ismat Chughtai, who enjoyed the dubious distinction of sharing the tag of Urdu’s best-known enfant terrible with her friend and fellowwriter Manto, is one such writer. Interestingly, both Manto and Ismat’s second innings have come through a crop of excellent translations into English that allow their work to be accessed by a wider and newer readership. As we witness a revival of interest in Ismat with several translations of her short stories, novels, essays and autobiographical writings into English crowding our shelves, we must pause to take note of the translator’s role in giving a new lease of life to a writer. Ismat is particularly blessed in having in Tahira Naqvi, a devoted and able translator. With several Ismat translations behind her, Naqvi is emerging as the most faithful voice for Ismat in English. Her latest offering, My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits is a useful supplement to the tranche of translations of her fictional writings; it provides a context for several texts and also locates Ismat in the continuum of sociallyengaged literature that came to be identified with the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Ismat wrote voluminously till she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1988. Her formidable body of work comprises several collections of short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage, radio plays as well as stories, dialogues and scenarios for the films produced by her husband Shahid Lateef as well as others. Much of her non-film writing was autobiographical; if not directly related to her own life, it certainly stemmed from her own experiences as a woman, especially a middle-class Muslim woman. Some critics, like Aziz Ahmed, have viewed this as a flaw rather than strength, objecting to the constant, overwhelming presence of Ismat herself in all that she wrote. Regardless of Ismat’s own larger-than-life persona, while it is true that her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context and not merely within the confines of the zenana. She wrote stories (such as Jadein) and plays (Dhaani Bankein) on other issues such as communal tensions, issues that did not concern women alone, but issues that can be viewed from a unique perspective because they come from a woman’s pen. Like many of her fellow-travellers ...

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