Exploring sexual power plays in Ismat Chughtai’s short stories.
By Sana Hussain
“Chullu bhar paani main doob marna”, which roughly translates to “drowning in a handful of water” is an Urdu proverb used to humiliate someone guilty of committing an utterly shameful act. This would also have been the expected response of most twentieth century Indian women, were a police officer to turn up at their doorstep carrying a summons announcing charges of obscenity against them. Most women aren’t Ismat Chughtai. A warm milk bottle for her baby in one hand and the text of the summons in the other, Ismat Chughtai, with much derision and ridicule, dismissed the whole affair. Even the threat of being taken to the police station (a veritable scandal for any “respectable” family of the subcontinent) only made her relish the prospect of seeing a place she had always wanted to see. The episode concluded only after Chughtai, seeing both her husband and the police officer exasperated and exhausted, relented, and acquiesced to fill out the required paperwork but only after she had fed the baby. The police officer waited in the living room while she did.
Other than exemplifying the characteristic insolence and brazenness that would forever be associated with the writings of the feminist iconoclast, this incident reveals her inimitable talent of turning concepts of morality and respectability, social mores, and traditions, on their head. Being charged for obscenity by the government would have elicited a different response from someone other than Chughtai, but then Chughtai, much like her characters, excelled at subversion. Though the twentieth century literary world of the Indian subcontinent was not an especially welcoming place for women writers, Ismat Chughtai, fierce, passionate and strong-willed, triumphed over societal and cultural barriers to become a feminist icon in the Urdu literary world. She broke the culturally acceptable mould of a “respectable” Indian Muslim woman and inspired the future generation of women writers by fearlessly writing about taboo and unmentionable topics like women’s sexuality, lesbianism and prostitution.
Sex is a recurring and unmistakable motif in Chughtai’s stories. It is used by both men and women, to oppress and wield influence. ‘The Homemaker’ shows how women extract benefits by offering their bodies to men. The character of Lajo, a gamine who works from time to time as a maid in people’s homes, and who acknowledges that her “body was her only asset” tactfully and convincingly makes a place for herself in Mirza, the male-protagonist’s home, by catering to his sexual needs and playing to his oedipal tendencies. Mirza, a bachelor who was famous for squandering his money at brothels, is incredulous at the idea of keeping a “whore” in the house. Yet his many protests fall on deaf ears as Lajo determinedly takes over his home and kitchen and appoints herself as the mistress of his four walls. The morning after they consummate their relationship, Mirza appears abashed and coy, whereas Lajo is triumphant, having secured complete control over the house and the man who owns it. Again, in ‘Terhi Lakeer’, the protagonist Shama can feel the scales of power shifting as her cousin walks off with her bridegroom. Writes Chughtai: “But when the bridegroom started walking away with Noori, Shama had this feeling in some corner of her heart that Noori hadn’t been sold, but that instead this man who had clasped her to his breast was about to place chains on his existence. This very Noori, this young experienced girl, will dig her claws into his beings in such a way that he will abandon the world, and handing her his reins walk on the path she chooses for him”[iii]. While sex and the use of a woman’s body are the tools used to oppress and subjugate her, Chughtai’s stories show women taking back some of the power and exerting it for their own benefit. Her women emerge as strong and empowered characters, maybe not in the prescribed sense of the word but in the only way their circumstances and conditions allow them to be. The needs of these women — monetary, sexual and emotional, drive the narrative of Chughtai’s stories. This is reflected through the actions and words of many of her heroines in ‘Ismat Chughtai Lifting the Veil’ (Penguin Books India, 2009, trans. by M. Asaduddin). As in ‘Vocation’, the protagonist succinctly says, “Chastity is something that one woman trades for livelihood while another gives her life to protect. Eventually this is the trump card she uses at all critical moments.”
Though her female characters occupy a central position in the stories, Chughtai does not romanticize them, nor are their relationships with men romanticized. The young teacher in ‘Vocation’ after being scandalized and passing many judgments on her neighbor, the sethani[iv], comes to a practical conclusion — that the sethani was doing what she had to in order to survive. Comparing the demands of each of their professions she thought, “The sethani tempted her clients with her get-up for the sake of livelihood. I also do the same — making myself presentable when I go to the court of my clients. The only difference was that my intellect was a squeezed out sugar cane while the sethani was a pitcherful of nectar. I sold my brain and she her body!” The relationships between men and women in these stories too, lack romance and idealism; Chughtai breaks the archetypes of the dutiful and passive wives, and presents marriage as a matter of physical and material convenience, without glorifying it as a sacrosanct union.
In fact, the institution of marriage in Chughtai’s Indian subcontinent is perhaps the best perspective from which to observe the sexual and emotional power plays between men and women. The Nawab in ‘The Quilt’, treats his newly wedded bride like a piece of furniture that he has brought into the house, and ignores her emotional and physical needs and looks elsewhere to fulfill his own needs. In ‘The Homemaker’, Lajo too suffers from the same fate after she agrees to marry Mirza. Following her marriage, she loses her agency and influence; the charms and flirtations that Mirza once found endearing in his mistress, were now inappropriate and improper for his wife. Lajo, an experienced woman, might have perhaps predicted that marriage would curtail her freedom; though she was generous to a fault in loving Mirza, “the need for marriage totally escaped Lajo.” The stories show how both Lajo and the Begum Jan are forced to adapt to a standard of morality and traditional values, while their men folk are free to carry on their sexual exploits without the fear of societal censure. Chughtai however, does not allow her heroines dissatisfaction and depression; both women find in themselves the courage to defy tradition and satisfy their desires. Begum Jan looks towards her maid servant Rabbo whereas Lajo also courts the mason’s son Mithwa.
Chughtai’s women are sexual beings, unashamed and aware of their desires and uninhabited when it comes to gratifying them. There are many layers to these characters and their actions. Complex and deep their desires and inhibitions, triumphs and predicaments, are presented by Chughtai in light of Indian culture. They are part of a patriarchal, conservative culture and to some extent also comply with its values; however, they rebel out of an unabashed openness about their own sexuality and their ability to recognize the double standards that exist in the sexual relations between men and women. The Chughtai woman takes ownership of her own body, rejecting the customs and edicts to satisfy herself and get what she wants. She expresses the desires and fantasies that until then remained unexpressed, while tacitly demanding equal rights and better treatment for herself. Perhaps not much different from the twenty-first century woman or the versions we aspire to be.
Sana Hussain is Features Editor for the magazine.
[i] Offensive terms used in the subcontinent for Hindus and Muslims respectively.
[ii] Dowry, in the form of money or property that a bride brings with her when she marries.
[iv] Sethani is the Urdu word for a mistress or madam