Dude, it’s not lewd

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By Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai; Translated by M. Asaduddin; Penguin Classics; Price: Rs 499
  • Published 1.04.12
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It was about four, perhaps half past four in the afternoon, when the doorbell rang loudly. The servant opened the door, and then drew back in fear.

“Who’s there?”

“Police!” Whenever a theft took place in the mohalla, all the servants were interrogated…

“What’s the matter?” Shahid asked, going up to the door.

“Summons”…

“Summons for what? For whom?”

“For Ismat Chughtai. Please call her.” The servant heaved a sigh of relief…

I had boiled milk for my two-month-old daughter, Seema, and was waiting for it to cool. “Summons from Lahore?” I asked as I held the feeding bottle in cold water.

“Yes, from Lahore.” Shahid had lost his cool by then. Holding the bottle in my hand, I came out barefoot.

“What is the summons about?”

“Read it out,” said the police inspector dourly.

“As I read the heading — Ismat Chughtai vs The Crown — I broke into laughter. “Good God, what complaint does the exalted king have against me to file the suit?”…

I read through the summons but could barely make any sense of it. My story Lihaaf had been accused of obscenity. The government had brought a suit against me, and I had to appear before the Lahore High Court in January. Otherwise the government would penalise me severely.

***

We appeared before the court on the day of the hearing. The witnesses who had to prove that [writer Saadat Hasan] Manto’s story Bu and my story Lihaaf were obscene, were all present…

Bu was taken up first.

“Is this story obscene?” Manto’s lawyer asked.

“Yes,” answered the witness.

“Can you put your finger on a word which is obscene?”

Witness: “The word ‘chest’.”

Lawyer: “My Lord, the word chest is not obscene.”

Witness: “No, but here the writer means a woman’s breasts.”

Manto was on his feet instantly and blurted out: “A woman’s chest must be called breasts and not peanuts.”

The court reverberated with loud guffaws. Manto also began to laugh.

“If the accused shows his frivolity a second time, he will be turned out or severely punished for contempt of court.”…

“If the word ‘chest’ is obscene, why not ‘knee’ or ‘elbow’,” I asked Manto.

“Nonsense!” Manto growled.

***

The court was crowded the next day. Several persons had advised us to tender an apology. They were ready to pay the fine on our behalf. The excitement surrounding the lawsuits was waning. The witnesses who had turned up to prove Lihaaf obscene were thrown into confusion by my lawyers. They were not able to put their finger on any word in the story that would prove their point. After a good deal of reflection, one of them said: “This phrase ‘…collecting lovers’ is obscene.”

“Which word is obscene — ‘collect’ or ‘lover’,” the lawyer asked.

“Lover,” replied the witness a little hesitantly.

“My Lord, the word ‘lover’ has been used by a great many poets most liberally... God-fearing people have accorded it a very high status.”

“But it is objectionable for girls to collect lovers,” said the witness.

“Why?”

“Because… because it is objectionable for good girls to do so.”

“And if the girls are not good, then it is not objectionable?”

“Mmm… no.”

“My client must have referred to the girls who were not good.”…

“Well, this may not be obscene. But it is reprehensible for an educated lady from a decent family to write about,” the witness thundered.

“Censure it as much as you want. But it does not come within the purview of law.”

The issue lost much of its steam.

“If you agree to apologise, we’ll pay up the entire expense incurred by you…” someone I didn’t know whispered into my ear.

“Should we apologise, Manto Sahib? We can buy a lot of goodies with the money we’ll get,” I suggested to Manto.

“Nonsense!” growled Manto, as his peacock eyes bulged out.

“I’m sorry. This madcap Manto doesn’t agree.”

“But you… why don’t you…?”

“No. You don‘t know what a quarrelsome fellow he is. He’ll make my life miserable in Bombay. I’d rather undergo the punishment than risk his wrath.” The gentleman was disappointed that we were not penalised.

The judge called me up into the anteroom attached to the court and said quite informally, “I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is Lihaaf. But Manto’s writings are often littered with filth.”

“The world is also littered with filth,” I said in a feeble voice.

“Is it necessary to rake it up, then?”

“If it is raked up it becomes visible, and people feel the need to clean it up.”

The judge laughed.

***

I am fortunate that I have been appreciated in my lifetime. Manto was driven mad to the extent that he became a wreck. The Progressives did not come to his rescue. In my case, they didn’t write me off, nor did they offer me great accolades. Manto became a pauper in Pakistan. My circumstances were quite comfortable — the income from my career in films was substantial, and I didn’t care much for a literary death or life. I continued to remain a follower of the Progressives and endeavoured to bring about a revolution!

I am still labelled as the writer of Lihaaf. The story brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight.

When I wrote Terhi Lakeer and sent it to Shahid Ahmad Dehalvi, he gave it to Muhammad Hasan Askari for his opinion. After reading it, Askari advised me to make my heroine a lesbian like the protagonist in Lihaaf. I was furious. I got the novel back even though the calligrapher had started working on it…

Lihaaf had made my life miserable. Shahid and I had so many fights over the story that life became a battlefield.

I went to Aligarh after many years. The thought of the begum who was the subject of my story made my hair stand on end. She had already been told that Lihaaf was based on her life.

We stood face to face during a dinner. I felt the ground under my feet receding. She looked at me with her big eyes that conveyed excitement and joy. Then she cruised through the crowd, leapt at me and took me in her arms. Drawing me to one side she said, “Do you know, I divorced the nawab and married a second time? I have a pearl of a son, by God’s grace.”

I felt like throwing myself into someone’s arms and crying my heart out. I couldn’t restrain my tears though; and I was laughing loudly. She invited me to a dinner, which was fabulous. I felt fully rewarded when I saw her flower-like boy. I felt as if he was mine as well — a part of my mind, a living product of my brain, an offspring of my pen.

And I realised at that moment that flowers can be made to bloom among rocks. The only condition is that one has to water the plant with one’s heart’s blood.