Ismat Chughtai practiced a particular kind of social commentary in her fiction, by fearlessly depicting the positions and roles of women in middle-class U.P. families. It has been observed that she approached her narrative through an undistinguished first-person narrator. She used a distinctive language in the narrative with the wit, liveliness and vocabulary.
In her collection of short stories The Quilt and Other Stories, Ismat Chughtai portrays the limited options available to women, whether single or married, under an oppressive patriarchy. In these stories the options available to women are that of either the characters who are dissatisfied by the lack of emotional fulfillment available to them within marriage or they suffer communal criticism because of their unwillingness or inability to conform to traditional standards.
In each case, she dismantles the notion that marriage, the institution which society prepares women to expect, is the sole culmination of a woman’s life. She is concerned not only with the manner in which men treat women, but also with the manner in which women conspire to undermine other women’s positions. By depicting the lack of solidarity among women, Chughtai conveys the extent to which women are indoctrinated into the practices of a traditional system.
In her Introduction in the book Ismat: Her Life, Her Times, Sukrita Paul Kumar writes about the women in Chughtai’s fiction in these words:
“Questioning gender inequalities throughout her life, she accords the women of her stories either in the same posture of defiance or she lays bare the oppressive hypocrisy and pretensions of her society in its treatment of women. Her stories expose manipulations and strategies employed by women for power in a family or they show how women may oppose other women. Or else, they showcase women who boldly decide to become rebels.”
It can be noticed that women,using and abusing other women is a thematic focus in the stories ‘Aunt Bichu’,‘The Quilt’ and ‘The Wedding Shroud’ and others as well in the collection . Also an overlapping theme in the above stories is the distinct advantages which men have over women.
In Chughtai’s short story, ‘Aunt Bichu’, Aunt Bichu’s way of avenging her husband’s betrayal is an event which she doesn’t forgive. The day Aunt Bichu gets to know of her husband’s affair with her cleaning woman, she declares herself a widow and never reconciles with him again. Like a widow in mourning she starts wearing all white, and smashes all the bangles on her wrist with a stone. She further bars his sexual approaches, and refers to him as her “late” or “dead” husband (The Quilt 178).
“She refused to allow hands and feet that had known the touch of a cleaning woman’s body to come into contact with hers,” informs the narrator (The Quilt 178).
Thus symbolically as well as physically she protests against the injustice done towards her by her husband while maintaining indifference. This deprived her of the pleasures of a conjugal/sexual life as well, but as a woman of strong principle and sense of self-respect, she makes no compromise when it comes to sharing her husband with another woman. Her mode of action is also effective in exposing the nature of her husband’s injustice in front of the family, and bringing shame upon him without having to lose all her own marital comforts and privileges.
On the other hand, she is also one of the characters in Ismat’s Fiction who doesn’t leave an opportunity to abuse and curse her brother and his family. Though it’s evident when read closely that there is love behind the harsh words. But all her life she becomes such a rough exterior that all that she can come up with is slangs, abuses and rude words for communication. It is all sad to notice that her courage has been garbed under a physical description which is highly masculine and her voice has also been compared to “only an octave lower” than her brother.
‘The Quilt’ explores the plight of a married woman who has been denied the sexual and domestic attention of her husband. Through the character of Begum Jan, a newly married wife, Chughtai shows the frustrations of married women and how she achieves satisfaction which has been hushed about.The story has been considered obscene because of its homoerotic theme.
Begum Jan’s husband is more concerned with young boys than with his wife. According to the terms of marriage in this society, he considers himself responsible only for providing for his wife’s material needs, not her emotional and physical needs.
He treats her in the same manner as “all his other possessions”—a standard behavior in the society where marriage is considered a necessary duty to be fulfilled both by men as well as women.
Begum Jan is trapped within her house, where she is ignored because of the prohibition, created by the custom of purdah, against women’s free movement in the public sphere. An intimate relationship with a female servant Rabbo, has been subtly described through the innocent childhood reflections of the narrator.
As readers we are able to understand the relationship between Begum Jan and Rabbo even in the absence of explicit scenes of intimacy. Chughtai uses their relationship to show that women forced into seclusion must create meaning out of their meager existences. She poses this intimate relationship as one way of overcoming the emotional void imposed on her by her husband.
This story also gives a perspective of how a young girl is unable to perceive ‘the elephant’ like movement of the quilt in her childhood and can only understand the meaning years later as a part of the memory.
While the two stories ‘Aunt Bichu’ and ‘The Quilt’ talk about the suffering of women after marriages; ‘The Wedding Shroud’ talks about an inability to please a plausible groom for a single woman.
‘The Wedding Shroud’ examines how a community’s attitude towards a single woman can coerce woman into marriage. The means by which women attract a spouse are based on self-sacrifice and change in order to woo men.
The story is one of the clearest examples of a masculine abuse of feminine resource. In this story Chughtai shows, through the lives of Kubra’s small family, the extent to which women are willing to market themselves in order to get married. Through the eyes of Kubra’s younger sister Hameeda, the reader sees the economic deprivation of the household and the resulting necessity of procuring a bridegroom for their own economic and physical survival.
“ [She] thought: We remain hungry so that we can nourish the son-inlaw. Kubra Apa gets up early in the morning, drinks a glass of water and starts working like a machine…. Rahat ate a hearty breakfast consisting of eggs and parathas every morning, returned at night to eat meatballs, and then went to bed.”
Kubra’s services to Rahat increase at the expense of her own health until she is exhausted from trying to please him. She knits him a sweater, while she herself suffers from tuberculosis; she continues to labor all day to prepare the dishes she thinks he will like.Rahat exploits the family and returns home to get married which was fixed before his visit to his cousins.
Chughtai shows the hopelessness of life for women who are left without men—Kubra succumbs to tuberculosis and dies shortly after Rahat’s departure. In a society in which women are not allowed to exist outside of marriage, their lives are dominated by their futile attempts to catch a man.
IsmatChughtai was a woman of unconventional educational and social experiences which gave her a unique perspective on Indian society. Her writings convey the ironies that exist for women in a patriarchal system which has been perpetuated by women themselves accepting conventional roles. Through her short stories she allowed her readers to glimpse the contradictions and difficulties facing women who lacked autonomy and were forced into accepting the role of a wife as being the sole purpose of their existence.
- Out of the Zenana: New Translations of IsmatChughtai’s Work – Leslie A Flemming, University of Maine
- Chughtai, Ismat. 1994. The Quilt & Other Stories. Translated by Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press.
- Sabbah, A. Fatna. 1984. Woman in the Muslim Unconscious. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. New York: Pergamon Press