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Friday, June 24, 2022

Ismat Chughtai on Indian female experiences

Daniya Jawwad discusses the writers Urdu-language short stories about marriage and relationships.

The Quilt and Other Stories is a 1994 compilation of short stories by Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991), a prolific writer of 20th-century India. She occupied a unique space as a woman in the Urdu literary scene of colonial India, which was undoubtedly a man’s world. As a Pakistani woman myself, I felt seen in her stories of the intimate lives of middle-class Muslim women, who battled a suffocating patriarchal society everyday. While the title story The Quilt no doubt is an excellent exploration of suppressed female sexuality, which led to a publicised obscenity trial in 1942 for referring to same-sex relations, I will be sharing my two favourite short stories from the collection (though it was quite difficult to limit myself).  

One of them is The Rock, which is told from the perspective of the protagonist’s sister, who narrates the breakdown of her brother Bhaiyya’s marriage. What makes her writing unique and appealing even now is how the narrative voices of most of her stories are women, who are spectators to the actions of the protagonists, just like us – we see events unfold with the narrator. 

Bhaiyya marries a beautiful teenager (Bhabhi, ‘sister-in-law’), nine years younger than himself, but soon married life ‘robs’ her of her good looks. As a natural result of giving birth, she gains weight, and in a show of control, Bhabhi limits herself to wearing red and pink, because her husband likes those colours. She is confined to the role of a dutiful homemaker, dictated by her husband’s fancies and wishes, a common tale in Pakistan and India to this day. 

Everybody seems to be content with this arrangement, Bhabhi included, until a new neighbour, Shabnam, moves in and ‘bewitches’ Bhaiyya. The narrator finds herself focusing her anger at Shabnam but sees the culpability of her brother, who starts making fun of his wife’s appearance. In all this, the temptresses are seen as the cause of Bhaiyya going astray, and he is pitied by other women for being entrapped in marriage, with an ‘ugly’, unshapely homemaker. 

The narrator describes her brother as a rock, unfazed by the waves leaping towards it, while the waves crash and disintegrate. In this poignant metaphor, the waves represent the women whose lives were ruined by him and by other men in South Asian society. Many South Asian women in the mid-20th century, when Chughtai was writing these short stories, did not have much economic independence and were restricted by unsaid societal rules, limiting them to the home. Therefore, for many women marriage was the only way of ensuring financial security and respectability, regardless of its restraints. Moreover, the bitter reality for many women was that they had to endure the infidelity or disdain of their husbands, but could not pursue extramarital relationships of their own; while it was only natural for a married man to be attracted to other women, it was an unforgivable sin for a married woman to be seen with another man. Marriage was a gamble, as Chughtai shows in her metaphor, as the waves disintegrate on contact with the rock. However, they still cast themselves against the rock, because they have no other choice, according to Chugtai’s stories. Some women at the time (and arguably now in rare cases) were at the mercy of men and their fleeting fancies, losing their autonomy through marriage and being reduced to nothing but possessions

Another beloved story of mine is Choti Apa (a respectful term for the second eldest sister, ‘little elder sister’), in which the youngest sister finds her elder sibling’s secret diary entries. The narrative voice is that of the youngest sister, hoping to uncover her sister’s deepest, darkest secrets and ruin her image as the perfect child with the perfect grades. As she hopes, she finds records of her sister’s secret romances but discovers so much more about her. This breaks her sister out of the limiting, two dimensional character of the ideal, modest Muslim girl. She can get angry. She can be jealous. She can be sad. Through this discovery, the narrator finds a newfound respect for her sister. 

What I love about this short story is the format used, which consists mostly of disparate diary entries and only includes the narrative voice of the youngest sister at the beginning and the end of the story. Since the narrator has found loose pages of the diary, the timeline is disturbed and jumps back and forth, and while it can be confusing, it is intriguing for the reader to see the development of Choti Apa and her life. Her many romances leave her confused as to which person to pursue a future with. 

“A thousand broad chests, high foreheads, thick hair, smooth ankles, strong arms. All are jumbled together like freshly spun threads. Helplessly, I look at that entangled mess. Which end shall I pull so that it disentangles into a long skein upon which one can ride and reach out to the horizon?” 


Under the veneer of the perfect woman is somebody confused and perplexed by the way of the world, unsure of which path to take and what lies ahead of them. For the women in The Rock, and many other South Asian Muslim women, one’s decision to marry could not be taken lightly and unsettled even the most shrewd of them. Ismat Chughtai cleverly encapsulates some of the many Muslim female experiences in a turbulent time in India, with independence struggles on the rise, and a burgeoning intellectual scene.

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