In the two bold and gripping novellas brought together in this volume, the inimitable Ismat Chughtai writes of subversive women—subversive in unexpected ways—as they experience romantic and sexual desire, defy societal restrictions, struggle, scheme and sometimes court tragedy.
Obsession (Saudai), deals with one of Chughtai’s favourite themes, the ‘master-servant’ romance—in this case, two brothers, sons of a feudal household, in love with the same orphan girl. And Wild Pigeons (Jungli Kabutar)—based on the experiences of a famous Bollywood personality—probes the theme of infidelity, dissecting the emotions not only of the partner who is betrayed but also the one who betrays. In Chandni and Abida, the main protagonists of the novellas, Chughtai gives us two of the strongest women in Indian fiction—clever, self-willed, flawed and, in the end, far braver than the men in their lives.
In The Heart Breaks Free, set in pre-Independence UP, Bua, a free-spirited woman in a conservative Muslim household, is goaded into submission by the women in the family. But even as Bua surrenders to the forces of circumstance, Qudsia Apa, an uncomplaining abandoned wife, stuns everyone by transforming into a rebel. She rejects the life of celibacy and denial forced upon her and picks her own life partner, showing future generations the value and pleasure of subversion.
The Wild One is the love story of a servant girl, Asha, and her ‘master’, Puran, in a feudal household where such a relationship can only be a horror and a tragedy unless it is conducted in secret and quickly forgotten. Yet, when Puran can’t muster the strength to defy his class, it is gutsy Asha who manages to beat the odds and win him for herself.
Provocative, witty and intensely human as always, Chughtai delivers in these novellas scathing critiques of the cant and hypocrisy of Indian society.
Set in the film world of the 1950s, this powerful novel may well be regarded as a work that celebrates all the talents of the legendary Ismat Chughtai—a writer who was brave, frank, provocative, entertaining even when she told the darkest of stories, and impossible to ignore. It traces the journey of Masooma—the innocent one—a young woman from a once wealthy family of Hyderabad who arrives with her mother in Bombay to become a star, but is soon embroiled in a game of exploitation, lust and treachery. She is transformed into Nilofar, a commodity that can be easily bought and sold; and in an effort to survive brutal and rapacious men—producers, actors, pimps and procurers—the mother and daughter descend into a world of corruption and moral decay themselves.
This brilliant translation of Ismat Chughtai’s original Urdu novel Ajeeb Aadmi is the riveting story of Dharam Dev, the famous actor, director and producer, and his all-consuming and doomed passion for Zarina Jamal, the young dancer from Madras whom he brings to Bombay and transforms into a charismatic actress. He looks on in anguish as his betrayed wife, Mangala, a well-known playback singer, sinks slowly into alcoholism. When Zarina abandons him, he is overwrought and dies of an overdose, friendless and alone.
In an interview, Chughtai described this novel about the Bombay film industry as a story based on the life of a producer-director who killed himself after the dancer he had made into a star left him in the lurch. ‘I go into why he commits suicide,’ she said, ‘why girls run after him and producers like him, and the hell they make for these men and for their wives.’
This irreverent, sharply observed narrative of infatuation and ambition is vintage Chughtai.