Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Ismat Chughtai's Short Stories
Though her life wasn't as drastically messed up as that of her friend and contemporary Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai was definitely a born rebel. She lived her life the way she wanted, and wrote the truth in her many stories, novels, and nonfiction essays.
Chughtai's most famous story is 'Lihaf' (The Quilt), which deals with a lesbian encounter within an all-woman setting (Zenana) in a traditional Muslim household. It's a funny and scandalous story (read it here), but actually, my favorite short story by Chughtai is called "Sacred Duty." I came across it in a recent collection called The Quilt and Other Stories. It's beautifully translated by Tahira Naqvi, who has been Chughtai's committed translator and one of her great champions.
The story is not online anywhere, so perhaps I should briefly summarize it and quote a little. Samina, who comes from a respectable Muslim family in Delhi, is engaged to be married to a respectable Muslim boy. However, the day before her wedding she runs off with her boyfriend with Tashar Trivedi, a Hindu whose family lives in Allahabad. Samina accompanies Tashar to Allahabad, where converts to Hinduism and is married to Tashar in a Hindu ceremony. When her parents get Samina's note explaining her disappearance, her mother's first reaction (the story is told from her parents' perspective) is "Let's go to Allahabad and shoot them both!" Lovely.
After some months tempers have cooled, and Samina's father goes on a mission to Allahabad to reconcile, and to invite Samina and her husband to their house in Delhi. He is so gracious and understanding that the Trivedis agree. But in Delhi the young couple find that the Siddiqui family have quietly arranged a second, Muslim marriage ceremony, which requires Tashar to convert to Islam and Samina to reconvert. He's ready to do it, though Samina isn't, and a great deal of poisonously comical bickering ensues. Finally, from their hotel, Samina and Tashar sneak off by themselves to an undisclosed city, leaving both their manipulative families behind. The high point of the story is the delciously snarky letter that Samina sends her parents as she and her husband disappear:
And then, Papa, you arrived on the scene; you're such a good actor -- how genially and amicably you convinced Papaji [Samina's father-in-law] -- I was so touched. My father's so broad-minded, I told myself. Papaji had managed to whisk us off to Banaras with the help of his cronies. First it was Papaji who waved the magic wand at us, but when you warmly expressed forgiveness and brought us to Delhi, you too exposed yourelf as someone really petty; you also made us dance like a monkey and its mate. And we took everything as a big joke, that comic drama too. Don't worry, we're not going to give away your secret -- tomorrow morning, when Papaji [Tashar's father] looks at the newspaper there'll definitely be an explosion [when they hear about the Muslim ceremony]. No, we only said goodbye to them. Goodbye to all of you too -- no, you don't want to know where we're going. If we've hurt you, please forgive us. No, we haven't hurt you, it's you who have caused us pain, you're the ones who should apologize. You have made us a laughing stock. What kind of parents are you, who make your children dance like monkeys to any tune you like?
I love that reversal of guilt onto the parents themselves. In the name of "respectability" and "the family honor," they seem willing to do any number of disreputable and hurtful things. (Indeed, the old tradition of the "honor killing" is alive and well, even in the South Asian diaspora.)
With its rude ending, "Sacred Duty" is a brilliant and fitting change-up on the old arranged marriage drama. And as a story it still feels completely fresh and relevant though it was written fifty years ago. Many of Chughtai's other short stories work the same way, especially when they're competently...
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