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Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto were socially progressive Muslim writers during a period when such a description could be tantamount to a death sentence. Writing during the period when India was struggling for independence only to disintegrate into a bloody war that resulted in the partition of Pakistan, neither society was particularly conducive to liberal sentiments. Both were hounded throughout the period – Manto would die from alcohol-related illness in 1955 at the age of 45 – by charges of obscenity and remained controversial figures throughout their lives.
In his essay on Chugtai published in The Annual of Urdu Studies, Manto provides a vivid portrait of Chugtai that leaves no doubt regarding the formidable nature of his female colleague and friend. The Chugrai Manto knew was a difficult individual whose stubbornness was both the weapon she needed to survive and a barrier against intimacy. Chugtai, Manto points out, was fiercely independent, and virulently feminist. Early in his essay, Manto describes Chugtai's treatment of an older gentleman infatuated with her:
“I know a fellow writer, an old man, who had a crush on her. He had expressed his love for her through his letters. Ismat encouraged him in the beginning, but eventually gave him such a drubbing that the poor man began to see stars. He may never write this “true” story.
To avoid the risk of a fight Ismat and I talk very little.”
Soon after, however, Manto assures the reader that his admiration and respect for Chugtai is absolute.
Manto and Chugtai shared the common bonds of being writers unafraid to present humanity in its most realistic and occasionally unattractive form. As noted, both endured endless charges of obscenity, and both survived the social and political turmoil of an extraordinarily fractured society, he in his native Pakistan and she in India. Out of such trials are powerful bonds born, and such was the case with these two writers. Manto’s essay, however, repeatedly emphasizes Chugtai’s difficult and often combative nature. More importantly, in describing his first encounter with Chugtai during which he criticizes her use of a phrase, and his later reassessment of her character, he discovers the core of her strength as a writer:
“I was going to say something but then I looked at her face. There I saw the kind of embarrassment that overwhelms common, homely girls when they hear something unspeakable. I felt greatly disappointed because I wanted to have a detailed discussion with her about every aspect of ‘Lihaf.’ As she left, I told myself, ‘The wretch turned out to be a mere woman after all!’”
“If she had not been a ‘mere woman after all!’ then we would not have found such fine and sensitive stories like ‘Bhulbhulaiyan,’ ‘Til,’ ‘Lihaf’ and ‘Gainda’ in her collections.”
Defending his colleague against charges of obscenity and criticisms of her feminism, Manto offers his strongest rebuttal to those who dared to view her writings through the prism of religious and social extremism:
“People say, Ismat is a bad woman, a witch. Asses! And these people judge her on the basis of their abominable morality. They should be made to stand up before a cannon and be shot through the head.”
Manto repeatedly emphasizes Chugtai’s stubbornness. He recognizes, however, that is that very stubbornness that allowed her to emerge as major literary and social figure in an atmosphere in which intolerance tended to reign supreme.
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