Perhaps the reason I was not shocked by Ismat Chughtai’s frank depiction of female sexuality was because a close friend, PD, told me about one of her short stories The Quilt (Lihaaf), back when we were in college. “It’s about Lesbianism” she told me in that straight-to-the-point manner that most students have, when confronted with something out of the ordinary. It’s not that lesbianism was a new concept to us; it was just that we had never before read any stories where it played a part. But back in her days, as everyone knows, her openness about female sexuality got many of her works banned in the subcontinent.
It’s been many years since I first read The Quilt. My next encounter with Chughtai’s work came through a staging of Motley Productions’ Ismat Aapa ke Naam. Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba Shah, gave a splendid performance of one story each. Naseer performed The Homemaker (Gharwali), Ratna did a fabulous job with Mughal Bachcha and Heeba performed Touch Me Not (Chui Mui). What struck me immediately was the irreverent tone of the material. The performances were all solid, of course, but the text was riveting and I had to pick up a volume of her short stories.
I ended up picking up The Quilt, when I bought my eight Penguin Evergreens, which I wrote about here. Three of the stories – The Quilt, The Homemaker and Touch Me Not – were already familiar to me. But that didn’t make them any less interesting this time round. What struck me forcefully was the piquancy of her tone and the underlying humour in all her observations. To use an analogy that may seem out of place, her writing struck me as good cheese. The more it ages, the more its taste sharpens. One particular favourite was Quit India, which I think is one of the most lovingly delineated portraits of an Englishman gone native. I love The Homemaker too. It’s one of the most humorous and sharply observed writings on a romantic relationship that I’ve ever read.
My only regret is that I haven’t read any of these stories in the original Urdu. I’m sure the beauty of the prose stands out even better in that language. Still, there’s no doubt that this is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work.