Ismat Chughtai remains one of the most important literary figures of modern India. She was one of the first Muslim women to write novels and short stories. Apart from writing short stories and novels she also wrote articles, essays, and even film scripts.
Ismat Chughtai was born into a middle class Muslim family in 1915. And unlike most of the women, especially muslim women of her time, she had an education, worked at a job, married according to her choice. In short, she led a very unconventional life. She was a rebel not only in life but in death as well. She was, as per her expressed desires, cremated and not buried.
She had begun writing short stories when she was a student at Aligarh Muslim University. But she was published only years later in 1939 and shot into prominence with the publication of ‘Lihaaf’ which dealt with the theme of women’s sexuality. By this time she was a prominent member of the Progressive Writers Association. ‘Lihaaf’ created a storm not just in literary circles but also in the public sphere as well. She was charged with obscenity and tried along with another famous short story writer of the time, Sadat Hasan Manto. The trial lasted for four years and both Chughtai and Manto were cleared of the charges of obscenity because the judges could not find a single four letter word in their stories. Chughtai was mentored, earlier on, by Rasheed Jahan who she had met at the Progressive Writers Association conference in 1936. Rasheed Jahan, perhaps the first Muslim women writer, was one of the founding members of the Progressive Writers Association. She was largely instrumental in shaping Chughtai’s early literary career.
Chughtai, for most part of her working life, lived in Mumbai and worked as the Principal of a girls college. She met her husband Shahid Latif at Aligarh and married him in 1942. Shahid Latif was deeply associated with the Mumbai film industry and encouraged Chughtai to associate herself with the film industry. Chughtai wrote a number of scripts for films and some of her stories were also made into films. She herself wrote the script and acted in the film ‘Junoon’ (1978). Her story ‘Garam Hawa’ which was made into a film was a part of the new wave cinema and won a lot of acclaim all over the world. But her relationship with the film world was tenuous and full of complexities. She wrote many stories where she tried to expose the hypocrisy of the film world but was not very successful at that. She was at her best when she wrote about ordinary people and especially women. Consequently, much of her writings deal with women’s lives within middle class society and their concerns. Some critics do accuse Chughtai of being unidimensional. But then that was what she was best at. She had a keen eye for detail, and had an intuitive understanding of the concerns of women in the smaller town of Uttar Pradesh. Her writing is marked by understanding and compassion for these women.
She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1975 for her contribution to Urdu literature and she died on 24th Oct 1991.