(Published in the Business Standard, April 2012.)

What would you do if you were a young Indian woman reader looking for inspiration in the lives of other writers? Would you look to Jane Austen, trapped in a tiny corner of the English countryside, using her wit to create epics on two inches of ivory? To Annie Proulx, who only began writing once she had hacked her way through journalism, domesticity, the baggage of two marriages?
Saadat Hasan Manto’s tribute to his fellow Urdu writer and old friend Ismat Chughtai, offered a glimpse of a third way. This is Manto’s description of Ismat at work:

“Ismat had this habit of chewing ice. She would hold a piece in her hand and crunch on it noisily. She would be lying down on the charpai supported by her elbow, with her notebook open before her on the pillow. She would hold a fountain pen in one hand and a chunk of ice in the other. The radio would go on blaring, but Ismat’s pen would race along on the paper with a gentle rustle as her teeth smashed the ice to pieces.”

Over time, the “gentle rustle” of the pen on the paper would give way to a steady flow—Ismat would write “not caring about her spelling or the use of diacritical marks”, or anything except the need to capture the quicksilver images in her mind. But what struck me was the space that Ismat occupied—small but absolute, a charpai of her own, in answer to Virginia Woolf’s dictum that a woman writer must have a room of her own.

The 14 chapters collected in Ismat’s memoirs Kaghazi hai Pairahan span several decades of her life, but were published between 1979 to 1980. In his introduction to this first translation of her memoirs into English, A Life in Words (Penguin Classics), M Asaduddin quotes Chughtai’s note to her editor: “I will send you whatever gets written at any point of time… The sequence might be worked out while editing them.”

This is so different from the way Mulk Raj Anand or Harivansh Rai Bachchan, for instance, wrote their memoirs—Ismat had her charpoy and her ice, but she also had a household, a husband, a baby daughter, visitors, the ring of the doorbell, to answer to.
In these memoirs, she pins down her recollections at speed, writing extensively about her childhood, her memories of Aligarh and her student years, but leaves large, apparently inexplicable omissions.

There is little mention of her marriage, for example, except a brief aside to record her husband’s disapproval when Chughtai faced an obscenity trial over her celebrated short story, Lihaaf. Nor is there—in these memoirs—much of an account of her literary friendship with Manto, though the two writers had overlapping lives. Perhaps this was reticence; or perhaps Chughtai was driven by the necessity of capturing what was distanced or lost—her childhood, old familial relationships—rather than the warp and weft of her everyday life.

But despite the omissions, these fragmentary chapters add up to a powerful narrative. Chughtai, among the most feminist of contemporary writers, belonged to the broad church of feminism whose members were driven by an intolerance of any kind of injustice. Why, she asks after the recitation of a marsiya at the masjid, did the protagonist have to shoot an arrow into a baby’s throat? Why the throat, why not the arm? The violence, the unfairness of it, nags at her; the question will not leave her alone.

Chughtai had no tolerance for inequality in any area of her life. Her family paid lip service to the idea of equality: “But in practice,” Chughtai observes, the acid sharp in her voice, “girls and boys were equal in the same way as Hindus and Muslims were brothers.” Later, she writes: “Purdah had already been imposed upon me, but my tongue was an unsheathed sword.” She claimed all spaces for herself in her writings, reveling in her descriptions of the domestic world even as she fought for the right to be educated, telling her family that she would run away to the mission school and become a Christian if they couldn’t support her ambitions.

And always, she retained the capacity to surprise, as she reminds us on every page of this memoir. “Whenever I entered the library, I would feel intoxicated,” she writes. “For hours together I would turn the pages of books and inhale their odour.” This is the kind of tribute you expect a writer to pay to the idea of books and reading, but Chughtai continues: “Chinese and Russian books used a kind of glue that smelt like stale meat, which was nauseating.”

This is what reading Ismat Chughtai’s memoirs—and her fiction—is like. The starting point is reassuringly familiar, and then comes the unexpected swerve, the push into completely alien territory. Nothing in her world is entirely safe, especially on close examination, which is probably why we still read her.