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ISMAT CHUGTAI (1915–1991)


Ismat Chugtai was an Urdu writer who focused on the ambiguities and traps of women’s sexual lives, both with respect to men and women. For this many people stigmatised her work as ‘obscene’, a word that tends to get thrown around rather frequently when women transgress male prerogatives and write about sex.

When she was studying at Aligarh Muslim University she and her friends were made to sit behind a curtain at the back of the class, but they did not care so long as they had access to education. She fought a long battle to come out from behind that curtain and lay claim to education of a more fundamental kind, terrified by stories of first nights from her married friends, she searched desperately for ways to learn about sex, and this motivated her to speak of the tragedies such ignorance brought in its wake, and who pays the price for them. She is a master of the Urdu short story, and is best known for her story Lihaf, (The Quilt) of 1941. She has also written the novels Ziddi (The Stubborn One) 1941, and Tehri Lakir (The Crooked Line) 1943. Three popular collections of her stories are Choten (Wounds) 1943, Kaliyan (Buds) 1945 and Chhui Mui (Touch Me Not) 1952.

In 1944 an obscenity case was brought against her short story Lihaf, which describes (somewhat unsympathetically) two women who find sexual release with each other under a ‘quilt’, which is a metaphor for society’s blindness to women’s physical needs. She took the accusation with great courage, spending time in Lucknow with her husband and the writer Sadat Hasan Manto during the trial. Desperate to indict her, a hardliner alleged that the line ‘She was collecting ashiqs (lovers)’ was obscene, at which the judge pointedly asked, ‘Which word is obscene; “collecting” or “ashiqs”?’ Ismat was confident of winning and sure enough, under examination the case against her began to crumble. She was exonerated and, paradoxically, became even more famous as a result of the case.

She was awarded in 1974: Ghalib Award:(Urdu Drama): Terhi Lakeer , 1975:Filmfare Best Story Award: Garam Hawa (with Kaifi Azmi). Ismat Chughtai is considered a path breaker for women writers in the subcontinent.
 
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