By Riti Sharma

“The comic view is an element, in many ways, a perpetually corrective element, in making a personality or an enterprise completely intelligible”. -Kierkegaard

Ismat Chughtai via

Work took me to the Northern part of India last year, where I came to a town in Uttarakhand. The town boasts a population of Hindi and Urdu-speakers and like many towns is connected by rail. Many of these railway stations have names written in Urdu denoting that there is a reading population in Urdu in that area, also a quantifiable Muslim population. Recently, the reigning intelligentsia of the day proposed a reform in the name of the ‘nation’, to replace the Urdu names with Sanskrit names, to the signboards. This bore an enigma for the boards would then become home to two scripts written in across three languages, Devnagri for Hindi and Sanskrit and Roman for English.

This reminded me of how the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai dealt with her characters and situations. On seeing the proposal I wondered, what would Chughtai have to say about changes such as these? Known as a satirist, Chughtai’s stories sometimes ridiculed similar strategies developed by authorities in their bid to benefit a section of the people. The marginalisation of Urdu and Urdu literature brought me back to why I chose to write about Ismat Chughtai and other noted Urdu satirists.

Chughtai’s body of work represents the dilemmas of the common Indian woman who is faced with the issues of socio-political demands as well as social demands arising from conservative families. Her stories have always offered a detailed look at society and how women are placed in patriarchal structures, which thereby convey a structure of feeling concomitant with the idea of progress in Indian literatures. Her work also entails the lives and exploits of unmarried girls, from not middle to lower-class Muslim and non-muslim households.

With the publication of stories like ‘The Wedding Shroud’, ‘Lihaf’, ‘Tiny’s Granny’, and ‘Dil Ki Duniya’, she made her impact felt not just in the world of Urdu Literature but the realm of the short story. Her writing is seasoned with sarcasm informed by the tenor of the hajv (satire) and the appeal of subjects like marriage, family, prostitution, survival, and so forth. I will be taking two stories of Chughtai and draw out some of the most common markers of her writing which relegate her writing mode to the satiric, while also investigating what provides the ‘literariness’ to her writing through a discussion of the way she frames her stories in Urdu.

The satiric mode during colonialism in India was generated through several forms like rubaiskitaslateefs, and later on with the impact of Western Journalism in the subcontinent, the form of the essay was to receive a stand in Urdu Literature. By the 1930’s, mazmoon was an established genre in satiric mode, which was fashioned by some eminent personalities. Hajv is the generic term applied to satire, which dates back to Pre-Islamic poetry in Arabia. After which one comes across different poets taking it up in the sub-continental realm, like Mir Taqi Mir, and Zatalli to Akbar Illahabadi.

Rekhti was also a form of humor ascribed to the language technicalities and themes related to women’s conversations. ‘Tanz’ means to ‘ridicule’, in Arabic, and was used in Persian to mean ‘innuendo’. The Generic names hazl and hajv were used for all writing in the satiric mode, earlier mostly poetry, later also prose. Noting the changes that have occurred in Urdu satire across time, one needs to keep track of how satire has come to find a place in the present day Indian Subcontinent. A study through time suggests that subject matter was of import and many writers chose to ridicule or lampoon established figures. Often writers delve into the subject matter at hand to bring to light the ridiculousness of the matter.

Noted writer Mujtaba Hussain once said in a conference that the state of Urdu in India is hopeless. His story ‘Dimakon ki Rani’ (Queen of the Termites) is about the queen of termites who happened to live in the old and forgotten Urdu books of a library and having quenched her thirst by consuming some of the most noteworthy Urdu writers’ collections, she had come to acquire a taste of Urdu literature. The narrator realises that it is only termites nowadays which still have some connection with this language. The connection one would think is not just on one hand becoming a part of collective amnesia but has led to bringing up a cultural resistance. The resistance in Urdu and the resistance to Urdu are two phases that have emerged in the current day Indian scenario. Where one finds resistance taking form by revisiting the poems written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib during the protests against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in India, and the resistance to Urdu taking place in the same context where universities are now reprimanding readers and students for using Faiz’s ‘Hum Dekhenge’ as protest poetry.

The story “Quit India” and “Survivor” detail how Chughtai spoke on the issues of politics in India. One from the time of a pre-Independence India and the other from the time of a newly emergent ‘free’ India, Chughtai’s narrative brilliance shines through in this story by her humour in describing scenes of unrest among the people:

Fluttering ties, stately hats and newly ironed trousers were being ruthlessly thrown into the flames. The fire-setters, mostly dressed in tatters, were flinging in the new clothes without any qualms. It didn’t occur to them even for a moment that they should cover their bare, black shins with the new gabardine trousers rather than make a bonfire of them.

The story is about Sakku Bai and how she falls for an ex-military man from the British administration, Jackson Sahib, and how things fare for her. It begins with the remorseful death of Jackson Sahib and ends with a vivid portrayal of his death wherein he is surrounded by his children and Sakkubai but still left completely alone in the world. The narrator on meeting Sakkubai several times berates her for having chosen someone like him as her partner who abused her and was used to being manpower for the English. The narrator’s patriotism used to stir up whenever she met Sakkubai, but all the same, she realised that Jackson was also one of those wasted individuals like Sakkubai left isolated and helpless in the country.

via Goodreads.

Chughtai wrote in the style of the middle-class Uttar Pradesh tongue, wherein she also had the nerve to bring in other styles of speech local to places like Bombay and people from the working- class. In ‘Hindusthan Chhod Do’ (‘Quit India’) she brings out the organic texture of working-class speech through her character Sakkubai and on many occasions used that type of speech when speaking as a narrator as well. She does not shy away from using expletives typical of Bombay street language, the kind that middle-class women are barred from hearing, let alone speaking, and this brings that special quality to her work. For example, Chughtai uses a lot of words typical to Bombay’s slang language, a kind spoken by the working class, but she also utilizes the variations to Urdu arising out of different regions. The Urdu spoken in parts of Uttar Pradesh may not be similar to the kind spoken in Maharasthra, as one finds inflections of the local languages sliding into the vocabulary.

via Internet Archive.

Indeed her sense of humour would take a turn towards a deep and scathing critique of the day’s government and clarify any doubts regarding how the human condition was to be envisioned in her stories. In this case, patriotism, given the fact that Sakkubai was fraternizing with the enemy, made the narrator berate Sakkubai time and again, but deep down the narrator feels the unease and the pain that people like Jackson must have felt having to be away from their homes.

In those moments I felt deep pity for him. Where were the masters of the world who brought civilization to weaker nations, who clothed the naked in frocks and trousers and proclaimed the superiority of the white race? Jackson, their own flesh and blood, was shedding his garb, and no missionary was coming forth to cover his nakedness.

Finally, as Jackson passes away, the narrator remarks that the sense of belonging for which people were fighting in the country was as misplaced as Sakkubai and Jackson’s relationship was to the common eye. What mattered in all was that Sakkubai was the only support system Jackson could imagine and a similar fate was to be shared by people who died as nameless as him.

The story “The Survivor” is a blunt comment on the state of Indian politics and its relationship with the average Indian who wishes to see themself as a part of something larger than life. Filled with a very sardonic take on capitalism and the way the state mechanism affects the average person, this story is a social comment on the relationship between the people and the state.

Maulvi Sahib was a man who was given to rituals and prayers till he collapsed suddenly and had to be taken care of by the mohalla’s local politician Bachchan Babu. Bachchan Babu had his interests vested in scoring well with the ruling party. He did so through the appeasement of minorities as well as social service. All in all, things changed for Maulvi Sahib as Bachchan Babu came to his rescue holding the tube of his oxygen cylinder for the photographers, thereby creating an image and name of a good Samaritan. As the story progresses, with the Maulvi Sahib gaining the right kind of credentials, his matric failed education proved to be of some use as he rose higher in the upper echelons of society, after joining the Congress. His wife took to wearing saris, as opposed to her tight salwar kameezes, and attending social programs. But soon enough, the people found themselves in an Emergency. A period marked with detention and the smothering of dissent, the writer states:

That night Maulvi Sahib wrote a stirring poem on the Emergency. He called the new law an auspicious window through which all the evil plaguing the land was driven out and all the bounties came in. It is through the promulgation of this law that the enemies of the country, that is, the smugglers, hoarders and profiteers, were severely dealt with. The rights of the backward communities and minorities were given due recognition. Poverty was vanishing rapidly and the common people were prospering.

It was a known fact that the Emergency in India put forward by Indira Gandhi of the Congress caused quite a stir as presses were shut down, the idea of free speech dissolved, and one’s basic rights temporarily suspended. To side with the ruling party was to side with the oppressive state force, and Maulvi sahib waxed eloquent of the Congress as his house was adorned with pictures of him with Mrs. Gandhi. He wrote poems for the programs of the Youth Congress as well. On meeting Sanjay Gandhi, who was known as the founder of a mandatory sterilization program to combat population growth, the author notes:

His poems on vasectomy were published regularly. They contained glowing descriptions of Youth Congress activities. Sanjay Gandhi, its leader, was slowly made out to be God’s gift to India.

Soon, this led to another chain of events and one found the fates of the Maulvi’s family twisted as his wife no longer had the necessary panache required to carry on in high society. She rather sought comfort in the four walls of her household. And soon there was the time for another party, which led to another twist in the tale. The Congress had fallen in their constituency, Rai-Bareilly and this led Bachchan Babu to accept that things won’t be the same for him anymore. He took stock of the situation and immediately applied for a transfer to the Janata Party. On being questioned by Maulvi Sahib on his new endorsement, he says:

It doesn’t make much difference to you, Maulvi Saheb. You’re the representative of a minority. You can get a place in any regime; it is only a question of minor adjustment. But my position is in serious jeopardy. I was so close to Deviji. How was I to know that all my running around would be in vain?

Quilt cover via Goodreads.

A case of misplaced loyalty along with insensitivity and fickle-mindedness that is prevalent in politics, the story highlights the fecundity of the unpredictable in an individual. Maulvi Sahib’s character and Bachchan Babu’s character represent that side of society that falls prey willy-nilly to the whims and fancies of political representation and is a reflection of what this leads one to. On finding out that the fortress of the Congress was crumbling, Maulvi Sahib also decides to hop on the bandwagon with Bachchan Babu and join the Janata Party, by declaring the Emergency a brutal act and calling the Janata Party “a protector of Democracy.”

Ismat Chughtai via Wikipedia.

Indeed democracy allows the space for people to express their interests freely, and live in an environment that has lesser inhibitions. Chughtai’s comments through this story elaborate on the nature of a fickle-minded democracy and how its people are a true representative of it. For Maulvi Sahib the movement from the Congress party to the Janata party was on account of the majority chasing Bachchan Babu who moved parties due to personal and political safety.

However the political proximity which these characters shared with the Congress party was beyond just that of a do-gooder, for this consisted of most of what they stood for. Chughtai’s comment is perhaps not directed to the aspect of this being how the majority-minority respond to Indian politics, but how the common man is induced by politics to create a sense of their own self-worth which corresponds to a party narrative. While a lot of talk goes on about what is Indianness and whether there is an Indian way of thinking, the Maulvi Sahib and Bachchan Babu create that sense of India which is still recognisable even today, that of a belligerent yet gullible believer in party politics.

Chughtai’s writings do not adhere to one particular location in a time-space continuum because her sharp wit and words pierce through time and space to make us aware of the ludicrousness that is present in common life as well. She juxtaposes scenes from different times and sometimes spaces to underline the irony of the actions and utterances of her characters. This is a conscious violation of the unity of time and place, meticulously crafted into her writing. Her characters are drawn from everyday life, women who undergo everyday forms of exploitation also, strong and self-reliant women.

Sakkubai for instance represents a kind of woman who is enamoured by Jackson and wishes to claim a space in his life. They seem to transgress certain social boundaries that have been kept in place for them, as the narrator mentions that Sakkubai was a traitor to have fallen for the enemy. Her comments on the Indian political and social scenario provide us with a bird’s eye view of what was unfolding during the making of the nation called India, and how it is under construction even today.

Chughtai’s writing may well be said to have surpassed different times, and each reading proves to be a fruitful understanding of what constitutes society in its ever-changing form. She happened to view the human condition as an ever-changing facet of understanding life through literature. In most of her stories, she portrays some basic aspects of human nature and raises the question of conforming or transgressing the lines of morality, thereby indicating it to be a social conundrum. Most of her stories however toe the line of established norms of decency, mocking them to provide the corrective element that was required in the writings of her time.