Karthika S Nair | Mar 25 2020
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Ismat Chughtai: Writer, Iconoclast And Rebel


"My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.” - Ismat Chughtai.

Ismat Chughtai was someone whose writings were way ahead of her time. As a child, she exhibited her rebellious nature and it was visible in her literary works as well. She explored homosexuality and female sexuality at a time when it was nothing short of a taboo subject. Today, she is regarded as an icon from her time. 

Early Life And Humble Beginnings

Ismat Chughtai was born on 21 August 1915 to Nusrat Khanam and Mirza Qaseem Baig Chughtai. She was part of a family with ten children in Badayun, Uttar Pradesh. Her father worked in civil service so they had to move around a lot. 

Ismat's point of view and perceptions were different mostly due to her brothers' influence. Her sisters all got married when they were young, so she lived mostly with her brothers. 

Her elder brother Mirza Azim Beg Chughtai was a writer and he played a role as her mentor. 

She did her education at the Women's College at the Aligarh Muslim University and in 1940, she graduated from Isabella Thoburn College with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. Her family resisted her decision to study further as they wanted her to do traditional roles as a wife and daughter in law. 

She once had a conversation with her father where she expressed her desire to continue education than developing cooking skills. Her father told her that she must learn cooking for the sake of her husband and in-laws. "How will you feed your in-laws if you don't learn how to cook?” her father asked. She responded that she will make khichdi if her husband is poor whereas if he is rich, she will hire a cook. Her father discovered the rebellious nature in her. 


During her education, Ismat became associated with the Progressive Writers' Association and attended her first meeting in 1936. She met up with Rashid Jahan, who was one of the leading female writers involved with that movement. She inspired her to write about realistic and challenging female writers. 

She wrote 'Lihaaf' and published it. It is a story that deals with homosexuality and lesbianism and she received flak from highly conservative sections of the society. She was charged with obscenity by the British government and she had to fight for years to get charges cleared off.

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She wrote other works like 'Bachpan', an autobiographical piece, 'Kafir' her first short-story, and 'Dheet'. She faced criticisms from the Muslim section for a story she wrote for a magazine for its blasphemous nature. She said that she writes about things she hears of. She wrote short story collections like 'Chhui Mui', 'Kaliyan' and 'Chotan', and the 'Crooked Line'.

Her writings saw massive feminist undertones and demand for equality in a society that regarded women as secondary citizens whose primary reason for existence is to serve men. 

Her novella 'Ziddi' called out women's roles as agents of patriarchy that try to shackle women and deny them their rights. 

She wrote Urdu literary work and homosexuality was a topic that the language of its works rarely touched. Women in her stories were feminine, raw and honest to the core. Yet they can be rebellious and want more rights. 

She called out the oppressive customs Muslim women face at her time and her books were banned by the conservative society for years. 

She died on 24 October 1991 at the age of 76 and was cremated instead of being buried as per Islamic customs. 

Films And Achievements 

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Her story 'Lihaaf' was adapted by Deepa Mehta as 'Fire' with Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in the lead roles. The film faced massive flak and threats and the film faced a ban in India. Today, homosexuality has become more acceptable with the release of films like 'Margarita With A Straw' etc.

Kaifi Azmi adapted her short story to make 'Garam Hawa' in 1974. She won both the Filmfare Award and the National award for the best story. 

In 1976, she won the Padma Shri award and Makhdoom Literary Award in 1979, conferred to her by Andhra Pradesh Urdu Akademi Award.

Ismat Chughtai is regarded as an icon by major writers who deal with themes like feminism, homosexuality etc.