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To be honest, I hadn’t heard the name before, Ismat Chughtai, though it sounded vaguely familiar. So I gladly picked up her “memoirs”—no, I wouldn’t define the book as an autobiography—more so because it is the work of an Indian woman, trying to create an identity for herself in a time when it not only seemed difficult, but improbable.
Like I mentioned, it is not really an autobiography, but more like an account of her life growing up in Jodhpur, and also in Aligarh and Lucknow, where she studied. (There are references to her life in a couple of other small places also, where she stayed briefly.) There is though a mention of one event of her life after college, when she was summoned to a court in Lahore, Pakistan for an apparently obscene story she had written, Lihaaf, and that got published in a journal.
‘A life in words’ is an endearing account of Ismat’s growing-up surrounded by her vast and loving family that consisted of her parents, nine other siblings, a warm entourage of teeming cousins, and various aunts and uncles. Born in the first half of the 1900s, Ismat provides a beautiful account of her growing up as an ever rebellious girl, surrounded by loving and caring, and sometimes teasing and mischievous brothers and sisters, and cousins. She narrates honestly and simply, just how a story should be told, making the book a fun read; though a lot of times I felt that I’d have liked it better if I was reading the original, Urdu version. A lot does get lost in translation. Being a Hindi speaker, who can understand a little Hindustani (Indian) Urdu, I could easily grab the meaning of certain words and phrases that are directly translated from Urdu. Their true literary effect might be lost on non-Hindi/Urdu speakers.
The book also provides a picture of the society and a little of the socio-political scene of those times. There are a couple of sweet accounts of how there is an obvious demarcation between the Hindu and Muslim cultures, but how beautifully the lines are blurred, even erased at times when friends meet and gala dinners are organized where vegetarian Hindu friends are invited over in a Muslim meat-eating environment. Ismat provides a fresh insight into life in a typical Muslim (or as she claims, Mughal) household. One can feel her anger and disappointment wanting to do things that “women-won’t-dare-to”, wanting to live life on her own terms, wanting to fly, in a world where a woman’s role in society accounts to that of a mere shadow of her husband and then changes to that of a mother or house-keeper. Though one can’t help but be thankful for her doting father and loving siblings who indulged her in her various adventures and endeavors and let her move towards achieving her dreams.
Her accounts of the early days of women’s education in India are quite informative and interesting; esp. as she presents it with a personal touch and an insider’s battle-ground view.
For those who love to keep their cabinets neat, clean, and organized, the book might prove a tad bit disorderly. Ismat has written the chapters, I guess, as words, or rather memories came to her. It does not follow a timeline or a pattern as such. A word of helpful advice; read the last chapter, where her family structure has been described, first. The book is stuffed full of references to this cousin and that brother and that sister or aunt, owing to her large family. Knowing who is who beforehand makes it all so much easier.