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Published in the 1-15 Feb 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Ismat Chughtai — her life and ideals 

By Noor Shah 

Ismat Chughtai died on 24 October in 1991 at the age of 67. There is no denying the fact about her literary greatness. She was really a great short story writer and in the words of Qurratulain Haidar, she was Lady Changez Khan.
I do not want to write about her literary greatness but in today’s page of my diary, I want to reproduce an extract from the letter written by film actor Janki Das which he had written immediately after her death. The letter said, ‘Ismat Chughtai had the habit of saying or doing something startling in her life. She had once said that she should be thrown into the sea where fishes would swallow her and when the people would eat the fishes, she would come back to them’.

She was cremated in Chandanwadi crematorium in accordance with her wish.
The monthly magazine Bisween Sadi in its January 1992 issue had published a special number on Ismat Chughtai. That issue carried a letter of Ismat Chughtai written to Shri Gangadharji in her own hand writing. 

I am writing that letter in my diary. ‘Shri Gangadharji, received your book Sati. I thank you for that. You think that the custom of Sati is a lofty tradition which should be encouraged. You are an Indian and a believer in religious ideas associated with India. You support the custom of Sati. After husband’s death, you consider a wife putting herself on the burning pyre of the husband a good idea. You are also familiar with Indian politics and history. Muslims came to India from Arabia, Iran, Central Asia and other countries for trade and then began to rule the country becaue there was disunity and rivalry among Indian princes and kings. They had not brought their women with themselves. They used to kill the girl child soon after birth because different tribes in those countries fought against each other. They used to insult the women of the defeated tribes by parading them naked or keping them as maid servants.
The Arabs came to India for trade. In India there has always been disunity and rivalry and it is even now. Arabs easily captured other countries and Islam spread to Iran, Turan and Afghanistan . They came to India because Indians were artistic and learned people. When they attacked India, mutual rivalry and disunity helped them and they easily succeeded in capturing India. They had not brought women along with them and therefore they married Indian girls and women.

People of Europe came to India for trade but since Muslims were disunited, Europeans succeeded in capturing India. Muslims were leading a life of luxury and comfort and had become weak and cowards. 

Hitler was waging wars on other countries of Europe and the circumstances compelled the Englishmen to free India. The march of Hitler could not be checked without India’s help. Therefore, Congress and Gandhiji’s principles of non-violence and non-cooperation proved to be effective and India got freedom on the condition that Muslims would be given Pakistan. Pakistan was created but many of the Muslims were not accepted in Pakistan so they returned to India. All the four provinces of Pakistan were inhabited by fair-complexioned people, therefore, those Indian Muslims who had fair complexion were accommodated. They also spoke Urdu like Pakistanis. However, only a few Hindus chose to continue living in Pakistan. My dark complexioned brother returned to India with his wife and children. My father had died and therefore my mother too returned to India along with her children. I belonged to Aligarh, I decided to stay there. Muslims of Aligarh also did no go anywhere, so I was safe there.

I am the only Muslim in my apartment. No one has ever said to me anything. The flat in which I live belongs to a Muslim. He never wanted to live in it because he was afraid of Hindus. The apartment was built by Sindhis who are peace-loving people. Most of the people here are Sindhis and Gujaratis who are kind hearted people. There have been no riots in the area. Moreover, in my and my sister’s family there are Hindus, Muslims and Christians who all live peacefully. In my flat there are five rooms. Some people frightened and threatened me. I said to them I have to die one day so why should I not die in my own beautiful flat. My daughter is married to a Hindu. My elder sister lived in Bandra. One of her sons is married to a Hindu, the second one to a Parsee, and the third one to a Muslim. In short, our family despite being a ‘bhelpuri’ all of them live together happily and affectionately.

One of my daughters and her son are Arya Samajis. We celebrate Holi, Diwali, Eid and Shab-e Barat on a grand scale though I have never sacrificed animals. We do not consume beef because my grandson and his mother are Hindus. One of my sons-in law is a Kashmir Hindu. His wife uses henna and puts vermilion in her hair. My other daughter is married to a Parsee and her two sons follow Parsee customs. Their paternal grandmother made them Parsee fearing Sati. We take part in all customs and traditions. I learnt the Gita for two years from a Pundit and have faith in every word of the book. I read the Bible and Qur’an also for peace and contentment.

I am afraid of grave. So I have willed to be cremated. My body, mind and heart belong to me and whatever I want will be done. I cannot tolerate the Sati of even a bird or the burning of thieves and dacoits. I will be helpless if you burn alive your daughters and daughters-in law. I will not bless and pray for you’... Ismat Chughtai!

After Ismat Chughtai’s death a lot of articles were written on her. Even now when it comes to Urdu short stories, her name is always remembered, but before closing this page of my diary, I would like to write some impressions and views.

‘It was an extremely stupid last wish. What kind of secularism is this that instead of burial, she was cremated to break cultural values. There was neither any ‘puja’ nor namaz. I did not attend her cremation,’ Majrooh Sultanpuri.
‘She was secular. Her views about religion, specially the life after death, were very complicated,’ Salma Siddiqui.

‘The truth is that at the last moment she threw a bomb shell. She strongly believed in rebirth after death. Her decision not to be buried was not motivated by any feeling of desecration of Islam. She believed that Islam is a great and good religion’ said Seema Sahni, daughter of Ismat Chughtai. And this is the other aspect of the life of Urdu’s great short story writer...! (Kashmir Uzma Urdu weekly, Srinagar, December 27, 04-January 2, 2005)

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