Poetics of disobedience

September 10, 2023

Ismat Chughtai’s remarkable journey of defiance and liberation

Poetics of  disobedience


Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) discovered and practiced the power and poetics of disobedience. She relates in her autobiography, KaghazihaePaerahen (The robe is made of paper) that her mother had abandoned her. After giving birth to a dozen children, Chughtai’s mother had developed an aversion to parenting. She had to keep reconciling with the fact that she was an unwanted, neglected child and a sort of outcast at her own home. She suffered not just neglect but also mistreatment.Finally, it was her turn. She had fostered an aversion to bowing down before elders. This is how she came to discover the power of disobedience.

When you disobey the powerful, you defy their right to determine your destiny. By disobeying the authoritative figures, you also overcome the fear of being alone. Once you do away with the fear of solitude, you grab the power of making decisions and taking responsibility.

Belonging to a UP-based middle-class Muslim family, Chughtai was bound to wear a burqa in public places, which was meant, on one hand, to conceal a woman’s body and, on the other, to reveal her Muslim identity. Chughtai abandoned the burqa in a streak of disobedience. She recounts in her autobiography that once travelling on a train, she hid her burqa in her luggage and got off the train without it. She knew the cost of being unveiled on the platform. She was slapped, but she was happy. “I ‘enjoyed’ two sweetmeats of slaps,” she reminisces in her autobiography.

She wanted to pursue higher education, but her parents didn’t. “If I am not allowed to continue my education, I’ll go to a mission school and convert to Christianity,” she threatened her father. Her father, a collector in the British Indian government, had to yield.

Rebellion, revolution, freedom and disobedience were catchwords in the third and fourth decades of the Twentieth Century in British India, the days when Chughtaihad started her literary career. Slogans of rebellion and revolution were abundant in progressive writings. Modern writers were clamouring for freedom from tradition. Political parties, especially Congress, called for civil disobedience and peaceful resistance against colonial power.

Women like Dr Rasheed Jahan, Atiya Faizi, Sarojini Naidu and Amrita Sher Gill were bold and rebellious in their public appearance, manners of giving public speeches and writings. In the beginning, Chughtaiwould identify herself with the charming, gorgeous heroines of Hijab Imtiaz Ali’s stories, but when she happened to see Dr Rasheed Jahan in a public congregation, she instinctively idolised her personality, dressing and mode of defying powers that be.

The idea that disobedience is a greatforce in human history was proffered in the early 1960s by German-American psychologist Erich Fromm. InDisobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem, he investigateed why freedom means saying “No” to power. He boldly asserts that “human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience.” However, he cautions that not all disobedience is virtue, nor all obedience is vice. If you obey blindly, you are a slave; if you disobey uncritically, you act out of anger and resentment. He differentiates between two kinds of conscience: authoritarian and humanistic. The defiance of external authoritarian rule or internal authoritarian conscience is true, authentic disobedience. It is spurred by staying obedient to intuitively felt humanistic conscience. There is a dialectic of obedience and disobedience. Fromm’s idea of disobedience is helpful in understanding Chughtai’s life and work.

The environment of disobedience and rebellion in pre-partition days must have been inspiring for Chughtai. At home, her elder brother, Azeem Beg Chughtai, a distinguished humourist, was there to endorse and spur her disobedience. In 1932, the year when Angaray(Embers), the famous collection of short stories, came out, Azeem Beg published a book titled Hadis and Parda. Both books played a decisive role in the intellectual development of Chughtai. Azeem Beg was a nonconforming, broadminded, freethinking, fearless man. He courageously proffered the view that Islam didn’t prohibit women to keep their face unveiled. He would also encourage her wife to stop veiling her face, though she didn’t assent to that. Azeem Beg also introduced Ismat to modern Western literature. While reading Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, Bernard Shaw and Dostoevsky, she expanded her view on life and the ways of narrating life in fiction. Interestingly, she has not mentioned any Western woman among her favourite writers.

Chughtai realised that discourses about parda and female sexuality among South Asian Muslims in the colonial era were, though religious in nature, confer unquestionable authority on fathers, teachers, maulvis, and the Gramscian civil society to dictate the women. Muslim women were not allowed to reveal their faces or their names before Na Mahram. Their bodies and names were equally private, patriarchal possessions. Their rights were reserved with elder males. Rasheeda tun-Nisa, the first Urdu novelist, couldn’t bring out her novel Islahunnisa (For the Reform of Women) with her real name. ZahidaKhatoonShervania was bound to write under initials, ZayKhay Sheen. Likewise, Akbari Begam had to adopt fictitious male names to get her novels published. Chughtai began questioning the ‘unquestionable authority’ of patriarchal Muslim society by publicly appearing without a veil and writing about female sexuality. It was disobedience. It was a perfect feminine parallel to Gandhi’s civil disobedience, which was essentially patriarchal. Though Gandhi’s civil disobedience was a form of peaceful resistance, it annoyed colonial masters, for it aimed to flout the logic and power of the rulers. Chughtai’s disobedience was also meant to defy the logic of the male-controlled norms that had formed the ‘authoritarian conscience’ of women.

Rebellion, revolution, freedom, and disobedience were catchwords in the third and fourth decades of the Twentieth Century in British India, the days when Chughtai had started her literary career.

Daily observed reality is the provenance of Chughtai’s writings. Themes, things, places, language, characters and conflicts between characters that form the edifice of her fiction are taken from the surroundings and daily life. She invested her best in autobiographical writing. She used to say that her pen was not like a painter’s brush but rather resembled a camera that captures immediate reality, meaning it did not compromise the originality of the things in the course of depiction. But can even the most technologically advanced camera really sustain the originalnature of the objects? The truth is that the original experience is irreproducible. What is often referred to as originality in the so-called realist writings, is really an invention. Aninvention involves distancing from the existing world and causing an aberration. We know all inventions – or all so-called realist writings – are not equal or identical, nor can they ever be. Their variance depends on how adroitly they form, reduce, enhance, maintain and exploit the act of distancing and aberration. So, despite all claims of staying faithful to observed reality, the art of story writing cannot replicate the reality. Even the representational or mimetic forms of art cannot remain unflinchingly faithful to objectively observed reality. Those, too, are inventions, though of a different kind and varying quality. As all inventions originate in identifying a lacuna, all art sprouts from spotting a crack in the ball that is reality.

Chughtai would stumble on a crack in the ball, leading her to spot the shadows inside which, though denied, repressed or brushed away, possessed disruptive power. Detecting shadows by putting their disruptive power into practice was an act of disobedience. Unravelling the reality with all its horrible, yet repressed, facets was defiance in nature. Chughtai’s most fictional and nonfictional writings first reveal and then commit defiance against the nexus between power and truth.

In Dozakhi (Doomed to Hell), a pen sketch of her brother Azeem Beg Chughtai, she states that her brother was doomed to hell, not because he had committed sins but because of the simple fact that the unbearable sufferings and horrendous social circumstances had made his life hellish. He suffered from tuberculosis, then incurable, but remained adamant about his liberal ideas about life, religion, women and society. Despite the fragility and vulnerability caused by his ailing body, he refused to submit to those opposed to his freedom of spirit and opinion. He was a disobedient big brother. He had the intellectual honesty and courage to state that human life itself was hell and that moral values like patience, submission and forbearance were the escape of the weak. If he was ever admonished by elders that he would be thrown into hell for his devilish ideas, he would reply in a sarcastic tone that by living in an inferno of this world, he had gathered the courage to bear the horrific hell of the afterlife. In this pen sketch, Chughtai has reconnoitred how great and vast the poetics of disobedience might be.

Chughtai’s best fictional characters are those who keep resorting to discovering and exercising the power of disobedience. Nanni kiNaani (Nanni’s grandmother) exemplifies the intricate process of exploration and putting into practice the power of dissidence. Nobody knows her real name; none is concerned with her identity. Belonging to a poor Muslim family, she is called Londia(slave girl), BasheeraykiBahu(Basheer’s daughter-in-law), Bismillah kiMaan(Bismillah’s mother) and finally Nanni ki Naani. She refuses to conform to the societal norm of withstanding her destiny patiently, voicelessly. She revolts, but her revolt is not straightforward;it is treacherous. She realises that in an unfair world, fairness turns into a travesty. So, she comes to explore the favourable logic of unfairness by indulging in perfidious manners of livelihood. Her whole life becomes a satirical commentary on a world full of bigotry, discrimination and ruthlessness.

Begum Jan of Lihaf (Quilt) epitomises a complex set of deviation, aberration and disobedience. Chughtai later said that the story was based on true events and the female protagonist was a real person she had happened to meet in Aligarh, where she was living with her second husband with a baby. The artistic power of the story rests on how the disobedience turns into disruptive power. By indulging in a homosexual relationship with her maid, Begam Jan not only asserts her authority over her body, bodily desire and the manner to fulfil this desire but also performs a revolt against the malevolently exercised authority of her husband over the home and her existence bound to the home. Begum Jan’s complexion is white and her partner-maid’s black. Here, Chughtai doesn’t go against the racist grain marked by the binary of fair-complexioned ruler-blackruled. However, this contrast, in fact, serves to underscore the subversiveness of the logic of disobedience. Lihaf doesn’t simply reveal the secrets of the underworld of the quilt but also tells the story of creating an Eden in one’s own room of a woman neglected by her husband.

Chughtai’s other short stories, like Amar Bail (Epidendrum), ApnaKhoon (Our own blood), Badan ki khushboo (Fragrance of the body), Bhabi(Elder brother’s wife), Hindustan chordoe (Quit India), Bekaar(Idle), Chothikajora (Bridal dress) also traverse the avantgarde prospects of the poetics of the disobedience. For instance, Hindustan chordoe is the story of William Jackson, an officer in the British Indian police, who refuses to return to his motherland, England, after independence. Though he had tortured many Indians during the Quit India movement, he decides to live among Indians. Chughtai makes readers realise that all identities are socio-political constructs. In Jarain (Roots), her only mentionable story on the partition, she posits that our place of birth alone deserves to be called our watan (homeland); all other identities are constructed and politically motivated. Grandmother Jarain refuses to leave her place, her soil, her own room, defying the grand decision imposed by the big political powers. Jackson makes another kind of dissidence. Living a miserable life in Mumbai, he looks for a Utopia where all racial, national and gender discrimination have been abolished.

Aikqatara-i-khoon (A drop of blood) was Chughtai’s last novel and the ultimate destination of her journey of traversing the power and poetics of disobedience. Written about the Karbala tragedy, the novel is about Imam Hussain’s (RA) disobedience to the illegitimate authoritarian rule of Yazid and how Muslim history took a decisive turn after that.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and a professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab. His most recent publication is Naey Naqqad Ke Naam Khatoot .

Poetics of disobedience