(1915 – 1991) Ismat Chughtai was born on August 15, 1915 into a middle class family in Badayun India. The ninth of ten children, Ismat spent a large portion of her childhood in the company of her brothers, which according to her contributed to the boldness in her nature and writing. Her early influences primarily consisted of her elder brother Azeem Beig Chughtai, who was an established writer when Ismat was in her teens. Others included Thomas Hardy, Dostoyevsky, Somerset Maugham, Chekhov, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, Majnun Gorakhpuri and Niaz Fatehpuri. One of her favourite writers, Munshi Premchand was influential because of his attention to the craft and technique of the short story.
While she read avidly and studied Greek drama, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Bernard in college, she ventured towards writing her first short story Fasaadi, which was published in the literary magazine Saaqi. Another person who left a lasting impression on Ismat was Rasheed Jahan, a doctor and writer whom she met at the first meeting of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow in 1936. Following her B.A and B.T (Bachelors in Education) she was appointed principal of a girls’ college and later Inspectress of schools in Bombay. It was here that she met Shahid Latif and they were married in 1942.
Ismat wrote the short story Lihaaf two months before her marriage. The story addresses the subject of lesbianism and is cleverly told from the viewpoint of a nine year old girl, who can relate everything she sees without being burdened by the restraint an adult narrator might experience in recounting such a tale. The story created a controversy for its subject matter and Ismat was condemned by readers and critics alike. She was charged with obscenity and taken to court. The trial was held in Lahore and lasted two years, but the case was ultimately dismissed because no offensive words could be found in the story.
Ismat’s first two collection of short stories Kaliyaan and Chotein were published in her brother Azeem Beig Chughtai’s lifetime. Others that followed include Aik Baat, Chhui Muee, Dhaani Baankein, Do Haath, Khareed Lo, Aik Qatra Khuun and Thori si Paagal. She wrote novels Terhi Lakeer and Saudaai and novellas Ziddi, Dil ki Duniya and Masooma. Her other works include Hum Loge (short stories and essays), Yahaan se Vahaan Tuk (essays), Shaitaan (collection of plays) and Afsaanay Draamay (stories and plays).
Ismat also write twelve film scripts in collaboration with her husband and made five films independently. She may be seen acting in Shashi Kapoor’s film Junoon (1979). She received the Samman Award for Urdu Literature in 1990 when she turned seventy five.
Ismat Chughtai died on October 24, 1991.
The importance of Ismat Chughtai’s craft, her greatness as the grand dame of Urdu fiction and as the indomitable spirit of the Urdu afsana is continually affirmed by the interest in her writing today and by tributes paid to her by contemporaries and present day readers and writers.