Masooma: A Novel, Ismat Chughtai, Translated from the original Urdu by Tahira Naqvi, Women Unlimited, 2011, pp. 143, Rs250.
Squeamish readers would do well to stay away from Masooma, for this book was not written for the faint hearted. Its writer, Ismat Chughtai, never one to pull her punches, is out to draw blood. The wit and gentle humour of earlier stories, the ones based on her experiences in Aligarh and the smaller provincial towns of Upper India, is entirely missing here. A gritty anger and a biting realism combine with a keen eye for detail to depict not merely the dark underbelly of Bombay (as it was then called) but also scratch the mask of sharif culture and expose its desperate poverty.
Ismat wrote voluminously till she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1988. Her formidable body of work comprises several collections of short stories, novels, sketches, plays, reportage, radio plays as well as stories, dialogues and scenarios for the films produced by her husband Shahid Lateef as well as others. Much of her non-film writing was autobiographical; if not directly related to her own life, it certainly stemmed from her own experiences as a woman, especially a middle-class Muslim woman. Some critics, like Aziz Ahmed, have viewed this as a flaw rather than strength, objecting to the constant, overwhelming presence of Ismat herself in all that she wrote. Regardless of Ismat’s own larger-than-life persona, while it is true that her interest was primarily in women, it is also true that she saw women in the larger social context and not merely within the confines of the zenana. She wrote stories (such as Jadein) and plays (Dhaani Bankein) on other issues such as communal tensions, issues that did not concern women alone, but issues that can be viewed from a unique perspective because they come from a woman’s pen.
Like many of her fellow-travellers in the progressive writers’ movement, Ismat proved over and over again that she was a progressive more by inclination than indoctrination. We see evidence of this in almost her writings; in Masooma too we see Ismat depicting the effects of a world cleft by social and economic injustices upon the life of a young girl. The trade of women and the commodification of a woman’s body, she seems to be saying here, is a direct consequence of human frailty and lust but also of poverty and inequality.
However, Masooma – written in 1962 when the influence of progressivism had considerably waned and the core group within the PWA no longer held its members in thrall -- differs from her other writings in several notable respects. One, the overwhelming presence of Ismat herself – noticeable in her early works – is absent here. Yes, she draws upon her experiences in the film industry; yes, her impressions are refracted through the prism of her own experience; and yes, she continues to be more interested in women than in men. But here, she has managed to camouflage her presence. The story of Masooma, a girl from a wealthy and respectable family from the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, takes centre stage. Also, in the telling of this story of a girl’s descent into prostitution, how innocent Masooma is sold by her aristocratic mother to keep the home fires burning and how this girl from a decent family turns into Nilofer, a mistress who changes hands till she becomes no better (or worse) than a common prostitute, and her mother too is transformed from a haughty begum to a seasoned madam, Ismat sheds her coyness and her tendency to use allusion rather overt descriptions.
While Ismat had always written bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society, till Masooma she had not written anything that can be described as overly ‘sexual’ – not even in Lihaaf. Given her interest in sexual matters, and the fact that both she and the original bête noir of Urdu – Manto – had been hauled up by a Court in Lahore on charges of obscenity, comparisons between the two have always been inevitable. Noted writer and critic Intezar Husain has drawn an interesting parallel between these two enfant terribles of the Urdu short story:
‘Where Ismat moves away lightly after making a passing reference to (such) a subject, Manto is like the naughty boy who flings open the door, claps his hands and say, ‘Aha! I have seen you!’
In Masooma, Ismat is flinging open that door with a vengeance. We have far more references to ‘such subjects’ here than in any of Ismat’s other works. If anything, we see an Ismat deriving an almost vicarious pleasure when she depicts the debasement and moral descent of Masooma, with insouciant references to trysts in seedy hotels where people watch French films and perform unimaginable acts of abomination! The incorrigible gossip in Ismat causes her to leaven her narrative with generous dollops of spicy snippets about real film stars and real events. Having worked in the film industry herself and known at first hand the seedy goings on between needy starlets and avaricious hangers-on and the unsavoury nexus between producers, directors, financiers, she flavours her story with a robust realism.
‘What a strange place this world is!’ she mock sighs and then embarks upon a rambling digression about Mazhar, the son of a degenerate nawab who, like so many other young men and women with stardust in their eyes, had flocked to Bombay but with his money robbed and youth faded is now a peddler of young girls, supplier of every whim, ‘indentured to the fancies of an ageing heroine’. Somewhere, this seemingly rambling tale hides a stinging observation, sharper than the sting on a scorpion’s tail:
‘When someone who has been the object of toadyism himself has to turn around and become a toady, then there’s no more to be said. He was now well versed in the subtle craft of toadyism.’
And, elsewhere, the mock-sermonising hides a sardonic realism:
‘So many avatars and prophets struggled, lost, and relinquished their lives while trying to teach lessons of goodness; evil is interesting and exciting while goodness is like chewing tough metallic marbles…But this was not the fault of evil or goodness. The fault lay with the artificial society in which she had been raised. There was fasting, namaz, Haj, and zakat – but there was also whoring and vice carried out in secrecy.’
Ismat’s language – always her strength as a story teller – is different too in this novel. Here, she uses biting satire as a tool to sharpen her depiction of social realities and give an extra edge to her pithy, flavoursome, idiomatic language, the begumaati zuban that she herself knew so well. In her hands, Urdu had acquired a new zest, a special zing that made it more readable than ever before; in Masooma she shows how it is also better equipped to reflect new concerns, concerns that had been hitherto considered beyond the pale of literature. Also, her Urdu is full-bodied and vigorous, redolent with the flavours of Bombay, its sights, smells, sounds so different from the genteel world of chaste Urdu speakers of Upper India.
As we witness a revival of interest in Ismat with several translations into English crowding our shelves, we must pause to take note of the translator’s role in the continued popularity of a writer. Ismat is particularly blessed in having in Tahira Naqvi a devoted and able translator. With several Ismat translations behind her, Naqvi is emerging as the most faithful voice for Ismat in English.
This review was published in The Biblio, May-June 2012, New Delhi.