The stinking water in a flower vase begins to swelter and bubble with fermentation as chemical processes unleash a life-giving change. A new form is born. Is it possible or a figment of a lonely woman’s imagination? This is Guldaan, a short story written by Ismat Chughtai in her twilight years. It is surely one of the most amazing and powerful stories to come from the pen of this extraordinary writer.
Readers and critics are almost unanimous in stating that Chughtai is one of the most memorable fiction writers in Urdu, but would find it hard to interpret and analyse the qualities, which determine her stature. It is a crying shame that her seminal work, the novel Terrhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line), is not available in a decent edition. Chughtai has been better served by translators such as Tahira Naqvi endeavouring to make her work better known.
Chughtai continues to be remembered for earlier stories such as Lihaaf (The Quilt), for which she had to face a trial on charges of obscenity. The story became known for its depiction of a relationship between two women and Chughtai handled the theme deftly from the point of view of a child. It, however, suffers from fatal flaws and is surely one of the most overrated stories in her long career. Readers of her work need to literally come out from under the lihaaf.
A fuller assessment of her qualities as a writer is due. Unfortunately even the kind of composite picture, which emerges from a collection such as An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai, compiled by Rakhshanda Jalil, is less accessible in Urdu.
A balanced and comprehensive view of Chughtai’s work would take into account stories such as Guldaan. Published first in the Lahore-based literary journal Nuqoosh, but uncollected till now, it has become the title story in a collection of her writings published recently. This is significant as it serves the purpose of reminding critics, as well as readers, of the continuing relevance of Chughtai, but at the same time it points out the many gaps in the analytical study of her works and ensuing academic research that need to be resolved.
The story represents a significant departure from Chughtai’s earlier, heavily realistic mode of narration and is, in my opinion, her writing at its best. It could easily be counted among her most valuable writings, but it would not qualify as representative, since it marks a departure from her earlier style. At the same time, the story remains one of its kind because the narrative style or the symbolic mode is not repeated in her other fiction.
Too well-wrought to be regarded as a literary fluke or an accidental success, the story remains unique by itself, but it leaves behind unresolved queries if this particular work is contextualised with the work of the author as a whole and the author herself. Having opened a new vein with new possibilities of narrative, was she not inclined to exploit, or even explore, these further? Perhaps she herself did not see this single story as being such an important nodal point, requiring her to open this for further exploration. The majority of short stories from this period onwards included in this collection present evidence of waning power, the spark slowly going out; the decline is slow but steady.
Her light essays and personal sketches, collected recently by Aqeel Abbas Jafri and entitled Chiragh Roshan Hain, are no less interesting. Subjects range from Bollywood to her relationship with her own self. The Mumbai film world she had seen at close quarters, not so much as observer as participant, and her comments about the male leads and the overall impression of leading women are interesting in themselves. Written for a general audience, these essays are, by definition, light and show a long relationship with the film world without going into any analysis.
They also manage to steer clear of insubstantial gossip, which many popular magazines find convenient to dish out. Her close friend and contemporary, Saadat Hassan Manto, turned towards penning sketches describing the sensational aspects of film stars. Manto took up such writing —it must be pointed out — during a low period when he was unable to write fiction at his usual pace and characteristic demeanour. He himself said that he was perplexed by Partition. Chughtai was spared such a painful process but her decline was of another kind, and is evident from her writing.
The lack of a good biography is further highlighted when the question of her last completed short story is raised. Entitled Aakhri Kahani (The Last Tale), it is included in the posthumously published Guldaan, with the reference of Beesween Sadi, Delhi, Annual issue, January 1992. It carries a brief note at the end from the editor indicating that shortly before her death, Chughtai handed over a pile of her papers with some published as well as unpublished short stories to the editor. According to the note, the author regarded this story to be incomplete while the editor regarded it as final and published it as such. No reference for these statements is provided. However, there is no mention of the other papers in the pile and their contents. The same note and short story are also included in Ismat Chughtai: Shakhsiyat Aur Fun, a compilation of articles about her work including a selection of her writings, edited by Sultana Bakhsh. So the final submission from this great author is again subjected to neglect and confusion, which seems to be the fate of the Chughtai manuscripts and papers.
I cannot but end on the note that her papers need to be preserved as a proper archive accessible to scholars and students of literature. This is the least that she deserves.
The columnist teaches at Habib University, Karachi, and has recently edited Manto Ka Aadmi-Namah, a collection of critical studies on Saadat Hassan Manto