Ismat Chughtai's 107th birthday: Google Doodle salutes 'grande dame of Urdu fiction'

To gain an insight into the individual who was Ismat Chughtai, one need look no further than the time she was hauled up before a court in Lahore, on an obscenity charge for her story Lihaaf (The Quilt). A tale about a neglected Begum who strikes up a romantic relationship with her masseuse, Lihaaf, published in 1942, caused quite a furore for its depiction of female sexuality and queer desire.

The story goes that when the police came to her home to issue the court's summons, Ismat Chughtai's husband — Shaheed Latif — was beside himself with anxiety. Chughtai, however, merely offered herself up for arrest.

She also withstood pressure from several senior Urdu writers (men, mostly) who advised her to apologise to the judge and have her case dismissed. Chughtai knew she had done no wrong, and said she believed her lawyer would win her case.

Google Doodle for Ismat Chughtai's 107th birthday

Google Doodle for Ismat Chughtai's 107th birthday

She would describe the scene in the Lahore courtroom (in then undivided India) in a light-hearted way in her book of essays Kaghazi Hai Pairahan: She neatly deflected "well-wishers" who insisted that she express her contrition to the judge by saying that her co-defendant, "this madcap Manto" — who was on trial at the same time as her for his work Bu (Odour) — would refuse.

To the judge who later told her that he didn't find anything obscene in Lihaaf, but that Manto's writings were "littered with filth", Chughtai responded: "The world is also littered with filth". "Is it necessary to rake it up, then?" the judge countered. "If it is raked up, it becomes visible and (then) people feel the need to clean it up," she said.

This then, was Ismat Chughtai — fierce, fearless, forthright.

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There is some confusion over when Ismat Chughtai was born. Some accounts state it as 15 August 1915, still others as 21 August of that same year. However, Google — which has issued a commemorative doodle for Ismat Chughtai's 107th birthday — attributes her family as stating her date of birth as 21 August 1911.

Chughtai was born in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh, the ninth child among 10; her father was a civil servant whose postings took the family to various other places in India. One of Chughtai's older brothers — Mirza Azeem Beg — was a novelist; he and the Progressive Writers' Association (a group that Chughtai encountered while pursuing a BEd at Aligarh Muslim University) influenced her decision to become a writer.

Chughtai had already published several works and made something of a name for herself as a rebel against conventions. But when Lihaaf was published in 1942, the level of scrutiny was at an altogether different level. While her accounts indicate that she wasn't fazed overmuch by the prospect of fighting the obscenity trial, in later years, she did express tremendous dissatisfaction that her oeuvre had been "restricted" to Lihaaf alone by (literary) commenters.

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Even as her stories (Gainda, Gharwali, Til) and essays broke new ground, Chughtai was also dabbling in the world of film in a big way. She wrote the screenplay for the 1948 Dev Anand film Ziddi (it was based on one of her short stories), and for the 1950 Dilip Kumar-starrer Arzoo. She also directed Faraib (1953) and co-wrote and produced Nutan's Sone Ki Chidiya (1958).

She continued to have a prolific career, right until the 1980s when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Chughtai passed away in October 1991 — a rebel to the very end.

"Today’s Doodle celebrates Ismat Chughtai, the Indian author who championed free speech, social liberation, and gender equality through her writing," a statement issued by Google read. "The grande dame of Urdu fiction would have been 107 today."

Chughtai was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1976 in recognition of her literary accomplishments. "In 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of Indian writers picked up where Chughtai left off," the Google Doodle statement points out. "Today, she continues to be regarded as a national feminist icon."

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Here's a playlist of dastango performances of Ismat Chughtai's short stories:

1. Ghoonghat:

2.Amar Bai:

3. Chirri Ki Dukki:


Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 02:28 AM

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