This month, for the Short Story Initiative, we are focusing on stories from India. As always, the theme isn't mandatory, but what a wonderful opportunity it is to explore a rich and varied literary goldmine. Nancy mentioned that she would like to read some stories by Saadat Hassan Manto. Mel U has covered Manto pretty extensively on his blog (Also the go-to place for a thorough and enlightening primer on the Indian short story). There has been a revival of interest in Manto’s works in the recent years, which is as it should be because Manto has long been an underrated gem. Manto’s stories have the kind of biting humor that stings and tickles at the same time. He wrote a bunch of really short stories (just a couple of lines each) about the partition of India which are brilliant. And this was long before the term Flash Fiction was even coined.
Look at me going on about Manto when he’s actually not the subject of this post. Today, I want to talk about Manto’s friend and contemporary, Ismat Chugtai. Both Manto and Chugtai were tried for obscenity. Manto for Thanda Gosht( Cold Meat) and Chugtai for Lihaaf (The Quilt). The charges were eventually dropped but not before both writers had been saddled with a reputation of being controversial and shocking. It was even speculated that Ismat was in fact a male writer with a female pseudonym because her writing was too bold and unadorned for a woman. All this might lead you to believe that Chugtai was a rabble-rousing sensationalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chugtai spoke of the unspeakable but she did it with immense compassion and sensitivity. Her characters were set in a milieu that was her own so she understood their fears, hopes and idiosyncrasies only too well. But even if you are totally unfamiliar with the socio-cultural setting of her stories, they will strike a chord because of the honesty in her voice. To paraphrase a quote I read somewhere, “what is most personal is most universal”. You could buy just about any anthology of her works and read just about any story in it; you won’t be disappointed. However, I’d like to recommend some of my favorite works of Ismat Chugtai.
The Veil (Ghunghat)
The Veil is about a strange battle of wills between a beautiful new bride and her insecure groom. Custom dictates that the groom must lift the bride’s veil before the marriage can be consummated, but Kale Mian is intimidated by his wife’s beauty and refuses to do so, leading to an impasse that lasts all their lives. The characters may seem caricature-ish at first glance but as the story unfolds, Chugtai makes you feel for not just the abandoned bride, but also the deluded husband.
The Quilt (Lihaaf)
This is the story Ismat Chugtai was charged with obscenity for. You’d be quite bewildered at this if you read the story because Chugtai handles the sexuality with a very light hand. But the story was written at a time when even the slightest suggestion of homosexuality sparked an outrage. The Quilt is about Begum Jan, a bored and sexually frustrated housewife in a prosperous household who turns to a female servant for companionship and more. The story is narrated from the point of view of a young girl visiting Begum Jan. The ending of this story is one of the best written ones I've ever read.
The Rock (Chatan)
Chugtai is best known for The Quilt, but I think The Rock is a much better representation of her style and voice. It is about a man whose pretty young wife gradually loses all interest in her appearance. Her husband and family convince her that fussing over ones looks is shallow and completely unnecessary for a married woman. Her complacence is shattered when a glamorous young woman moves in next door. Turns out, her husband is actually pretty shallow himself. It doesn't end there but I don’t want to give away the rest.
Ismat Chugtai has a rich a varied body of work and I've barely scratched the surface here. I could easily recommend another five stories that I love equally as well and perhaps in the future I will. For now, let me urge you to give her stories a try.