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Ismat Aapa and Her Zenana


By Malvika Sharma

Ismat Chughtai took the Urdu-literary world by storm with her bold and beautiful “Lihaaf”. With a court-trial that she faced along with another literary giant Manto, “Lihaaf” took her through a legal journey that not only emboldened her convictions to stand for freedom of writing and expression, but also made “Lihaaf” her customary piece, a literary work that Ismat Aapa came to be known for thereon. However, it was not in Lihaaf alone where Aapa explored the unapprehended limits of female sexuality. Many of us who know her through her writings, know that since the beginning of her affiliation with the Progressive Writers Association, she had used her literary realism by penning down women and her sexuality in some of the most resolute and audacious writings. Reading Aapa today is like knowing women more, a woman that dwells in you and me, and is found everywhere around us, in the simplest ways of life.

Aapa’s strength was her ability to observe women and their everyday lives, and take stories out of their lifeworlds and coherently put them into a paper. She didn’t construct women through figments of her imaginations. She narrated women who lived around her, in body and soul. It is thus that her characters can still be so relatable, and lively, as if they were the zenana found next door. Aapa thus immortalized her zenana, and this is how Kubra, Amma Begum, Hamida, Gainda, Bhabijaan, Mughlani Bi, Samina are you and me in our daily lives.

In “Chui-Mui” (Touch-me-not), Aapa writes of Bhabi-Jaan, a woman who is attended to twenty-four hours like a tender cotton-ball by Mughlani Bi, her governess, who is appointed to look after Bhabi-Jaan. With a couple of unfortunate miscarriages, Bhabi-Jaan’s beautiful married life in a supposedly high-class family with helpers around everywhere was now falling apart because of her fragile womb that could not bear the burden of a child. The threat of her husband’s second marriage made her even more vulnerable. When she conceived again, Amma begum and Mughlani Bi ensured that she got the best medical care besides the help from a hundred taveez/amulets that made it difficult to spot even a single mole on her body.

No, Ismat Aapa is not writing of an oppressed woman whose womb is more valuable than her existence. Neither is Aapa aiming to write exclusive stories adding to the discourse of patriarchy alone. Instead Aapa is writing for women to deconstruct the idea of marriage and progeny for themselves. Aapa narrates women not through a position from where she is a victim of patriarchy, rather Aapa’s zenana is a courtyard of women who survive within these structures and exist as key players, sometimes even supporting the structures unknowingly.

Bhabhijaan and Mughlani Bi are characters around us who belong to high-class households. Being ignorant about their support to patriarchy, they dwell within it happily. Ismat Aapa shows how women aspire to live for goals that instead safeguard their weakness for years. Instead of trying to push oneself out of such dependencies and weaknesses, women mistakenly take refuge in them. Aapa’s satiric writing style is far from accepting women as victims. In fact, she admonishes women through her stories and tells womankind not to choose what makes them weak.

‘Ausat darje ki dubli patli ladki, chand hi saal main phul kar nazuk ban gyi…baat yeh huyi ki maa ke kulhe se todh kar seedha bhaijaan ke palangh ki zeenat bana di gyi…aur wahan ek shagufta phool ki trah padhe mehakane ke siwa unpar zindagi ka koi aur bhaar na padha…’

Yet, before long, the frail slip of a girl had become as tender as a swollen wound. The fact is, the moment her mother stopped feeding her, she came to adorn Bhaijaan’s bed. Here she had pretty little to do and blossomed like a flower, fresh and fragrant, without any sense of life’s harshness. ~ taken from M. Asaduddin’s translations of Chughtai 

Aapa narrates the tragedy of living in oblivion here. While ignorance is bliss for women who seek luxury in marriage, but the heavy cost one has to pay is all in the details in these lines. The social construct of marriage makes procreation the sole purpose for Bhabhi-jaan in her post-marital years. She is expected to reproduce before it becomes a threat to her dependency on her husband. Ismat Aapa beautifully narrates how reproduction becomes not only Bhabhijaan’s obsession, but the entire zenana in the household from Mughlani Bi to Amma Begum set out on this mission to make this a success, hinting at the generational agency of women as stooges and carriers of patriarchy.

‘Baap nhi toh dada-dadi toh paal hi lenge, Bhabhi-jaan ek aisa hathiyaar muhaiyya karne par tuli huyi thi jisse unka khaane-pehnane ka intezam toh ho jaye…aur malum nhi Bhai-jaan ko apna naam zinda rakhne aur usse aage chalane ki itni kyun fiqr padhi huyi thi, halaanki khud unka koi uncha naam tha nhi duniya main…’

Where could the poor-thing go? She hadn’t learnt any skills and little she had studied was long forgotten. That was why she was desperately looking forward to the delivery which would make her life secure. If the father of the newborn lacked interest, the grandfather would certainly provide for her maintenance…Now Bhaijaan could do anything in the name of progeny. Only Allah knew why the fellow was so keen on keeping his name alive. ~ Asaduddin’s translation of Chughtai 

Ismat Aapa challenges the madness of patriarchy that exists in its greed of an offspring through the exploitation of a womb with biting lines such as these. But along with challenging Bhai-Jaan’s obsession with an heir, she brings to light Bhabhi-Jaan’s weakness in being obligated to reproduce because she refuses to do away with her dependency on a man and his household. The trade that exists where wombs ensure maintenance in marriage is not unfamiliar to women today. Aapa doesn’t forget to highlight how in failing to achieve proper skills and education for oneself, women often find themselves bartered in this trade, and institutions like marriage play a key role in this.

Another relatable character is that of Kubra and her Bi Amma in “Chauthi ka Joda” (The Wedding Suit”. Bi Amma being a famous tailor had been stitching the wedding suit for her daughter Kubra for a while now, but her hope of getting Kubra married has now turned into a disappointment. Despite her repeated attempts, Amma has not been able to fix Kubra’s marriage to a suitable groom. The news of her brother’s son Rahman arriving to stay with them for some months gives her a hope that this time Kubra’s destiny will shine and Rahman would happily take Kubra as a wife. Kubra’s younger sister Hamida is excited as well and prays that Rahman falls for her Aapa Kubra. However, things take a different turn and Rahman’s six-month long stay doesn’t yield to the expectations of the ladies of the house. Despite grandiose hospitality where Kubra and Bi Amma toils every day to fill Rahman’s tummy with delicacies beyond their affordability, Rahman never acknowledges Kubra’s efforts and instead develops a playful attitude towards Hamida, even passing sexual innuendos wherever he can.

‘Kubra jawaan thi, kaun kehta tha ke jawan thi…na jaane kaisi jawani aayi thi ki na toh uski aankhon main kirne naachi, na uske rukhsaron par zulfein pareshan huyi, na uske seene par toofan uthe…who jhuki jhuki sehmi sehmi jawani joh na jaane kbh dabe paon uss par raingh ayi, waise hi chup chap na jane kidhar chal di…meetha baras namkeen huya aur phir kadwa ho gaya’

Kubra had grown up to be a young woman. Whoever said that she had ‘become’ a young woman?
What kind of youth was this that fairies never danced before her eyes, nor did curled ringlets play coquettishly with her cheeks? She did not experience any storm raging in her breast. Adolescence crept up on her unawares, with silent steps, as it were, and left her no one knew when! Sweet years gave way to sour ones, and finally they became bitter. ~ M. Asaduddin’s translation of Chughtai 

Ismat Aapa captures the clandestine sensibilities of a woman and scripts them down like feelings of her own. Aapa’s pen writes of yearning, solitude, admiration, passion, craving, sorrow and beautifully brings out Kubra’s disquietude and exasperation of being a woman. The burden of being a widow’s unmarried daughter consumes Kubra day in and day out, and as she toils every day at the hearth/chullah preparing delicacies that can butter up Rahman’s heart for her, Ismat Aapa narrates how women’s unnoticed labor actually has its roots in the social construct of roles that have been assigned to them as values. She also implies how differentiated roles for men and women in a household frame a certain kind of psychology in women, where for long women have been misled to excel in household chores thinking that this shall make a dutiful wife/mother/sister out of them.

The reality however is deluding and this delusion has for long served as the bedrock of a patriarchal society, a delusion where women accept their unpaid unrecognized labor as their duty. In The Wedding Suit Aapa challenges such a constructed role for women and tells her readers, especially women, how servicing men and their world is a kind of enslavement that doesn’t serve any purpose in the name of duty. These norms instead reinstate the gendered roles and hence fixate a woman’s role in kitchens and in other household chores.

Aapa is very sharp with the way she critiques patriarchy, in a way that she doesn’t let her writings become flyers ridiculing men unnecessarily. She carefully apprises women of the roles they play in supporting structures that restrict them in multiple ways. But she’s a strong feminist at heart who creates characters like Hamida, Kubra’s younger sister, constructed as a woman who is a complete misfit in a household where women are selling their hard-work for the sake of men, marriage and fortune. Hamida is fierce, restless, ready to kill Rahman if the need be. The unexpected respect and honor given to Rahman is unsettling to her. She doesn’t want this self-consumed man who cannot even be thankful for Kubra’s efforts and instead woos her knowing well that she’s young and not his match. Hamida is a woman who rebels and doesn’t accept structures that exploit womanhood, easily.

One can go on writing an anthology about Ismat Aapa’s characters. Rani is another such strong character in The Mole, and the voice that Aapa has given to her makes her comfortable in her skin. Rani is audacious, carrying her sexuality and body as her pride. She knows she is beautiful and she loves this about herself more than the men who she is aware like this about her too. Ismat Aapa doesn’t believe in shame with which the taboo around sex-workers has been built. Instead, Aapa narrates some of these women as her boldest and most beautiful women engaged in earning a living when the immoral most in the society is busy demoralizing them.

Ismat Chughtai and her Zenana is a treasure for women. One cannot stop delving deep into it, and when one does, one finds multiple women residing in us, and are a part of our many ‘selves’. Reading her Zenana reminds us of the forgotten woman, shrouded within us, for the fear of the society, who expects us to live by their moral scales. Aapa gives us courage through her Zenana, and asks us to shed this fear and shame, be naked, and let the world close its eyes in case our nakedness bothers them. Reveal oneself and there we shall find the infinite possibilities that lie dormant behind our veils.

One can enjoy the recitation of “The Wedding Suit” in Ismat-Aapa’s voice here.

Prasar Bharati made a short Telefilm on Chauthi ka Joda to felicitate Ismat Aapa on her birthday, here.

Malvika Sharma is PhD Research Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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