Namrata reviews One Drop of Blood by Ismat Chugtai based on the battle of Karbala.
Published by Women Unlimited (An Associate of Kali for Women), 2020
Featured in Hindustan Times as one of the interesting books early this year, One Drop of Blood by Ismat Chugtai is a unique book in many ways. Firstly, it is the last work of Ismat Chugtai and secondly, it so different from her usual line of work.
One drop of Blood is based on the battle of Karbala fought in 680 A.D. in present-day Iraq between Yazid, the reigning Caliph and his mighty soldiers and Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad with his small army. According to the Islamic calendar Muharram is the first month of the year and the second holiest month, after the month of Ramzan. Muharram is also a period of mourning the martyrdom of Imam Husain and his family (including his infant grandchild) in the battle of Karbala.
As she herself states in an interview,
“The tragedy behind the pageantry of Muharram commemoration forced me to think that there are so many festivals celebrated in the world, like Dussehra or Christmas, but Muharram is the only commemoration that takes place in remembrance of the cruelties inflicted upon innocent people.” (Pg. viii)
This tour de force has been translated into English by Tahira Naqvi who is a Senior Lecturer (Urdu Language) at the New York Universiry and has translated works of Munshi Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto and Khadija Mastoor apart from Ismat Chugtai.
Ismat Chugtai is an author I have grown up loving and revering. From her Lihaaf to The Crooked Line, her stories have always been about strong women who dared to challenge the societal norms and question the wrong doings. But with One Drop of Blood, Chugtai moves to a completely new genre and style of writing. As a writer, Chugtai is not new to controversies and it should come as no surprise that even this book did have its own share of controversies owing to the sensitive topic and ofcourse, Chugtai’s reputation as a writer. Interestingly, she wrote this book at the height of her literary fame and was amused at the reaction she got from publishers when she approached them with this manuscript. But the fact remains, that this last literary work of hers, also displays her literary prowess in full elegance.
I will be honest here; this book is not an easy read. And I do not say this because of the sheer volume (410 pages!) but because of the depth this book has. With its multi-layered narrative, One Drop of Blood is a book that needs to be devoured slowly in bits and pieces to grasp the context in its entirety. Flipping through the pages, time and again, we are reminded of the hauntingly beautiful preface written by Chugtai for this book:
“The fourteen-hundred-year-old story is today’s story as well, because man is still man’s greatest enemy-
For today too, the standard-bearer of humanity is man-
Today, too, when a Yazid raises his head in some part of the world, Husain steps forward and crushes him-
Even today, light wins against darkness.“
These words ring so true even today. Time has borne testimony to the fact that man is still man’s greatest enemy. And still, light wins against darkness.
Chugtai has rendered a touch of fiction to the story of Karbala and in doing so, humanized the tragedy that followed. In the right beginning of this book, we are introduced to Imam Husain’s family in Karbala and then it delves into the story starting with the wedding of Ali and Fatema, followed by the birth of their son. Further the story takes us through the childhood of Hasan and Husain, their first Hajj with Rasulullah and all other incidents which finally led to the battle of Karbala. Written in her inimitable style, Chugtai ensures the reader is emotionally attached to the characters in a manner that when the battle happens and there is loss of life, we as readers feel the pain of their deaths.
As the story draws closer to the battle starting with day one of Muharram and getting closer to the tenth day of Muharram or the day of martyrdom as it is referred to, the pain, the suffering and the torture inflicted upon infants and children, women and men alike is heart-breaking. The cries of those children can be felt reverberating in the chapters till the end. One might have read or heard this story before , but there is something formidable and poignant about it that it moves you to tears. Chugtai’s imagery is intense, you can feel their thirst, hunger and pain through her words. In a riveting style, she has immortalized the sacrifices of Imam Husain and his family.
As you read about the cruelties they faced, you cannot help but wonder- What makes a fellow human being do this to another? How does one survive with a lack of conscience? What purpose does it serve to win a war against a defenseless, harmless infant?
The longest chapter in the book is the one synonymous to the title – One drop which is analogous to the verity where the battle was to be fought till the last drop of blood in their veins. This chapter is saddening to an extent that it breaks your heart.
The Imam had carried everyone’s body back to the camp himself, but now when he stopped to pick up Ali Akbar he felt as if he had no more energy left in him. It was as if he had suddenly become older by centuries. (Pg. 293)
The extensive research undertaken by Chugtai for this epic, clearly reflects in the detailing of the narrative. In her own words, the book is based on the marsiyas (elegies) of Mir Anis, one of the greatest marsiya writers of nineteenth century (1802-1874). Spread over four volumes, the marsiyas are not in a sequence. Moreover, every event has several marsiyas in each volume. To create the plot of this book, Ismat Chugtai would have read all the marsiyas and chosen the ones which were impactful. Merely reading Anis’ marsiyas closely wouldn’t have led to such a powerful recreation. Though it would be wrong to call it recreation as she hasn’t paraphrased Anis’ work. She has turned it into a prose with a complex and formidable narrative arc with compelling characters and a strong conflict.
As an ardent fan of her writing, it is difficult to pick favourites and yet I can say this with lot of poise, the battle scenes in this book are simply breath-taking. From names of weapons, terminology related to warfare to military practices and procedures she has described them at length. Well-articulated and elegantly presented, the war scenes are eloquent and rousing.
It needs to be added here, the translator Tahira Naqvi has done complete justice to this magnum opus. Having been translating Chugtai’s works since close to three and a half decades now, Tahira has a knack of capturing the finer nuances of Chugtai’s writings brilliantly.
Laden with heavy religious content and backed with impeccable research, Chugtai has delivered a masterpiece on a rarely written about topic, especially with such depth.
Now available on Amazon
Namrata is the editor of Kitaab.
She is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story.