A Life In Words

Posted: June 27, 2012

Ipshita Mitra, talks about her admiration for Ismat Chughtai and learning more about her through A Life In Words.

This story has been shortlisted and published for our June ‘As You Write It’ writing theme: The Book That Hooked Me.

Ipshita, in her own words: I am a lifestyle journalist with The Times of India (Online). A coffee addict, reading and writing are some of my creative pursuits. I blog too but seldom and here’s the link to the same: http://ipshitamitra.wordpress.com/

The first time I read her was in college. It was the usual post-lunch short-stories lecture and that afternoon, it was an occasion for us to discover an Urdu writer and probably the sub-continent’s foremost feminist author. Short stories I believed lived a short life in my memory. They did not leave an impression in the mind the way a novel would or maybe I, as a reader, was partial to the latter form of writing. My bias took a severe beating that afternoon after the class finished reading Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaf (Quilt). The story moved me in an inexplicable way. I couldn’t help but go back to some of her lines that my mind has perfectly retained ever since.

Who is Ismat Chughtai and why didn’t I know about her all this while bothered me enough until I frantically looked up the internet to gather every bit on her. Sadly, her autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan was in Urdu and my inability to decipher the language almost killed the prospect of getting to know her up-close.

Years passed by and the urge to know Ismat started receding. I could have picked up a few translations of her other works but I didn’t or perhaps couldn’t. A feeling of disappointment sedimented deep within me that I could not dissolve.

Though delayed, God decided to smile on me one fine day. Kaghazi Hai Pairahan found an English sibling in M. Asaduddin’s A Life in Words: Memoirs, Biography of Ismat ChughtaiI had wings and the preserved disappointment flew away in no time.

I devoured the book. Every chapter, every page and every line shaped the Ismat I had been craving to learn about all these years. When the police came knocking on her door with a warrant and a sermon order from Lahore court, she was pouring milk into the feeding bottle for her daughter Seema. Charges of ‘obscenity’ were slapped against her and Manto for their stories Lihaf and Bu respectively. I imagined her to undergo a nervous breakdown after hearing this but to my surprise she was not only nonchalant in approach but could also brave to pull-off a fast one. She handed the feeding bottle to the policemen and gingerly browsed through the warrant clauses! A moment of crisis was given a colour of comic relief.

Her stoic attitude teamed with a tinge of laughter made her win several stiff battles. An endearing quality about her was she never let go of things. She questioned, she did not nod in affirmative to everything told to her, she analysed, criticised and then came to a conclusion. Daughter of a muslim household brimming with nine siblings, cousins and relatives; she did not walk the path shown by others, she built a road of her own that eventually led her to her dreams.

A woman of unimaginable perseverance, grit and belief; with the magic of her pen weaving words she conquered many hearts. The one thing that I feel she definitely proved in her writings was that there is nothing which is ‘dirty’ or ‘obscene’ naturally, it is how we perceive it, look at it and absorb it.

The giant, obscure elephant-like shadows that once intimidated the young narrator in Lihaf disappeared into thin air ages after, when Ismat met Begum only to see the latter a free bird liberated from the matrimonial cage of the Nawab.

Approaching the last full stop in the book, I wished the train of her words could just move on without reaching a terminal station.

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