Book Excerpt: Vintage Chugtai: A Selection of her Best Stories
Ismat Chughtai is considered one of the four pillars of modern Urdu fiction, the other three being Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi.
Title: Vintage Chughtai: A Selection of her Best Stories
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translator: Tahira Naqvi
Publisher: Women Unlimited
Year of Publication: First published in 2013; reprinted in 2020
Links: Women Unlimited
Seated on a divan covered with a white sheet, her hair whiter than the wings of a heron, grandma looked like an awkward mass of marble; it seemed as though there was not a single drop of blood in her body. White had crept up to the edges of her grey eyes which, lusterless, reminded one of casements that were barred, of windows hiding fearfully behind thick curtains. Her presence, shrouded in what could be likened to a stationery cloud of finely-ground silver, was dazzling, and a snowy-white, blinding radiance seemed to emanate from her person. Her face shone with the glow of purity and chastity. This eighty year-old virgin had never known the touch of a man’s hand.
She was like a bouquet of flowers at thirteen with hair that fell below her waist and a complexion that shimmered with youthful silkiness and translucence. But her youth had been ravaged by time; only the softness now remained. Her beauty was of such renown in those days that her parents, afraid she might be whisked away by jinns, couldn’t sleep at night. Indeed, she didn’t appear to be of this world.
At fourteen she became engaged to my mother’s uncle. He was as dark as she was fair, although otherwise he was exceedingly well-proportioned and manly in appearance: what a sharply delineated nose he had, just like the blade of a sword, hooded eyes that were ever watchful, his teeth a string of pearls. But he was unusually sensitive about his inky complexion.
During the engagement celebrations everyone began teasing him.
“Dear, oh dear, the bride will be tarnished by the groom’s touch!”
“It will be like an eclipse of the moon.”
Kale Mian was a stubborn, immature, seventeen-year-old at the time. Terrified by all this talk about his bride-to-be’s beauty, he ran away to his maternal grandfather’s house in Jodhpur. There, hesitatingly, he admitted to his friends that he didn’t want to get married. In those days defiance was dealt with severely and a beating or two was not at all uncommon. Under no circumstances could an engagement be terminated; such an act would bring eternal shame upon the family.
And what was wrong with the bride-to-be, anyway? Just that she was exceedingly beautiful? The world idolized beauty and here he was, manifesting extreme bad taste by spurning it.
“She’s arrogant,” he confessed diffidently.
“How do you know?”
There was no proof, but beauty is known to beget arrogance and it was impossible that Kale Mian should submit to arrogance; he was not accustomed to submitting to the will of others.
A concerted effort was made to explain to him that once she was his wife, Goribi would become his possession and comply with his every wish. She would say ‘day’ if he wanted her to, ‘night’ if he wished it thus; she would sit wherever he made her sit, and stand up if he ordered her to do so. Some physical force was also employed to coerce Kale Mian into returning home and finally the wedding took place.
The women singing wedding songs sang of a fair bride and a dark groom. As if that were not enough to incense Kale Mian, someone recited a poem in which a stinging allusion was made to his dark complexion. This proved to be the last straw. However, nobody took his indignation seriously, and, presuming that he was in tune with the spirit of fun that prevailed, continued to jokingly tease him.
When, like a sword out of its sheath ready for attack, he entered the bridal chamber and saw the bride who was enmeshed in glittering red flowers, he broke out in a sweat. Her pale, silken hands made his blood boil, and he was overcome by an overpowering desire to grind in his blackness with her whiteness so that the difference between them would be obliterated forever.
The bride bent over as he extended his hands towards her veil.
“All right then, you lift the veil yourself,” he said.
The bride dropped her head lower.
“Lift your veil!” he ordered her sharply.
The bride was all rolled up like a ball now.
“Ohhh! Such arrogance! Hunh!” The bridegroom slipped his shoes under his arm, jumped out of the window which opened on to the garden, made directly for the station and from there, to Jodhpur!
The women in the family knew the bride had not been touched and it was not long before the news reached the men. Kale Mian was interrogated.
“She is defiant,” he proclaimed.
“How do you know that?”
“I told her to lift her veil and she ignored my request.”
“You fool! Don’t you know a bride does not lift her own veil? Why didn’t you do it yourself?”
“Never! I have sworn. If she will not lift her veil, she can go to hell!”
“You are stupid to ask her to lift her veil herself; next thing you know you will be wanting her to take the initiative for everything else. What a damned stupid idea!”
There was no question of divorce in those days. Once married you stayed married. Kale Mian disappeared for seven years, but he continued to send money to his mother. Goribi, his bride, was suspended between her parents’ home and that of her in-laws.
Her parents were deeply shocked by the tragedy that had befallen their only daughter. They were hurt; what was wrong with the girl that the bridegroom had not touched her? Who had heard of such injustice?
In order to prove his manhood Kale Mian indulged in all the vices that were available to him; he consorted with prostitutes and homosexuals and, among other things, spent time as a pigeon-fancier; all this while Goribi quietly smouldered away behind her veil.
About the Book: In this selection of stories from one of Urdu’s best and boldest feminist writers we move through the chawls, havelis, mosques and villages of India, meeting characters from all classes of society. Here there are the want, resignation and ambition of the poor, the arrogance of the rich, the pain of women still tied to traditional notions of subservience to men, and the bankruptcy of a declining feudal world. Chughtai brilliantly exposes the hypocrisies of a society with a progressive façade that is still caught in the binds of conservative opinion and traditional mores and values.
About the Author: Ismat Chughtai, rebel and iconoclast, controversial and courageous, is one of Urdu’s most important writers. She is the author of several collections of short stories; three novellas; a novel, The Crooked Line; a collection of reminiscences and essays, My Friend, My Enemy; and a memoir, Kaghazi hai Perahan (The Paper-thin Garment). With her husband, Shahid Lateef, she produced and co-directed six films and produced six more independently.
About the Translator: Tahira Naqvi is a translator, writer, Senior Urdu Language lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. She has translated the works of Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Munshi Premchand, Khadija Mastoor and Ismat Chughtai into English.
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