Lifting the Veil: Selected Writings of Ismat Chugtai

Selected and translated by M. Asaduddin with additional translations by Ralph Russell
Published by Penguin

“In my stories, I’ve put down everything with objectivity. Now, if people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It’s my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life.”[1]

Ismat Chugtai is one of the best-known writers in Urdu. Born in 1911 in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India, to a judicial magistrate and his wife, she was one of ten children. She says, “Our family was progressive, but this attitude was acceptable only for boys”. Chugtai fought to get what she wanted, and eventually went on to university.

Chugtai’s stories focus on women—not just the women of UP’s middle-class Muslim families, but also the women from the working class: their needs, desires, dreams and heartbreaks. She saw them as whole people, not just as daughters, wives, mothers and maids, and this comes through in her stories.

Her explorations of women’s sexuality led to a court case being brought against her for obscenity, which she fought and won. The story in question was “Lihaaf” (The Quilt, included in this collection) about a neglected wife, the Begum, who has an affair with her maid. Told from the point of view of a child staying with the Begum, who doesn’t really understand what is going on, this is a tale about loneliness that can at times make for uncomfortable reading.

But this is Chugtai’s strength: the unflinching but compassionate look at the lives of these women. In The Wedding Suit, a mother spends money she doesn’t have on a young man who comes to stay, hoping that he will marry one of her daughters. In Tiny’s Granny, an old woman lives by begging food from people, trying to raise her granddaughter.

Chugtai also skewers religious prejudice. A young woman runs away and marries her Hindu boyfriend, and the two sets of parents vie with each other to convert the other child to their religion. Hindu and Muslim neighbours who are close friends find the communal riots during the partition between India and Pakistan creating a rift between them.

At the end of this collection are three autobiographical pieces: Hell-Bound, about her brother Azim Beg Chugtai who was also a writer; My Friend, My Enemy, about her friendship with the writer Saadat Hasan Manto; and In the Name of Those Married Woman, about the obscenity trial for Lihaaf.

Some of the things Chugtai writes about resonated with the homes I knew as a child: the large families, the hustle and bustle, and the dramas playing out around you. She brings this world to life, and her writing pulled me into another world, another time.

Chugtai shone a light on women’s lives, hoping that by exposing their pain as well as the hypocrisy in society, she could improve things for women. While it is true that things have changed since her time, but there is still a long way to go before we reach anything like real equality between men and women.

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[1] This quote and the one in the following paragraph are taken from the Introduction to the book.

4 thoughts on “Lifting the Veil: Selected Writings of Ismat Chugtai

  1. Sophie

    Whatever country/part of the world we live in, I’m afraid real equality between men and women is and will always be nothing but wishful thinking.
    To be a man means to have every kind of power. Men strongly refuse to relinquish power.

    Hopefully, many men make up for the whole lot (they’re too few, though)!

    1. Sajid Mahmood

      “and miles to be before I ………….”

      Speaking from India I see a lot of change taking place. Women are being accepted as equal, though this is just the beginning. There is a long road ahead. People who consider women as the weaker sex are still an overwhelming majority. However, the tiny minority who think otherwise is increasing rapidly.

      The ‘Nirbhaya’ rape and murder case created a huge uproar forcing the government to bring about additional legislation. The push was not from opposing political parties but from people.

      An equation that seems as old as humankind will resist. It is a tough battle, but it has to be fought.

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