Ismat’s Memoir

  • Alka Gurha
  • India
  • Apr 13, 2012

Life in Words, the first complete translation of Ismat Chugtai’s celebrated memoir ‘Kaghazi hai Pairahan’, presents a scintillating account of the legendary writer’s life. If you have savoured her short stories, such as ‘Lihaaf’ and ‘Terhi Lakeer’, you are likely to soak in this breezy memoir.  In many ways, the memoir is a lively account of Ismat’s literary life, translated by M. Asaduddin. Rather endearingly, it captures Ismat’s emotions and sensibilities.

“Within this limited time frame we find encapsulated vignettes that point to the multiple and enriched cultural matrix that went into developing Chughtai’s artistic sensibility,” writes Asaduddin, in the foreword. 

Ismat Chughtai (1911–1991) was Urdu’s most spirited and controversial woman writer in the twentieth century. She carved a niche for herself among her contemporary Urdu fiction writers—Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Krishan Chander—by narrating experiences not explored before. Since her older sisters got married while Ismat was very young, a good part of her childhood was spent in the company of her brothers – a factor which she admits contributed greatly to the frankness in her nature and writing. “We were so many siblings (10 to be exact) that my mother felt nauseated by the very sight of us,” Chughtai writes honestly. A brother, Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai, already an established writer when Ismat was still in her teens, was her first teacher and mentor. 

In 1936, still working on her bachelor’s degree, Ismat attended the first meeting of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow. As a feisty member, she candidly spoke against its orthodox and inflexible nature. Often perceived as a rebel in a man’s land, Chughtai explored female sexuality and social realities, with equal felicity. The rebel in her is perceptible when she says, “The sense of inferiority that plagued me all those years left me. It is not necessary to be a boy, what you need is the intelligence and ingenuity of a boy; armed with this knowledge, I shelved sewing and needlework and concentrated on getting myself an education.” 

Her controversial style of narration, the lesbian overtones in ‘Lihaaf’, and her outspoken nature of writing, had shocked some of Ismat’s contemporaries. Undoubtedly, ‘A Life in Words’ is a candid and compelling memoir, of one of the most significant Urdu writers of all time. 


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