Two tales of subversive women

In the two bold and gripping novellas brought together in this volume translated by Tahira Naqvi, the inimitable Ismat Chughtai writes of subversive women 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.

The following are excerpts from the two stories.

Image courtesy Speaking Tiger

From Obsession

Chandni screamed as if it wasn’t Chandar she had bumped into in the gallery but an evil spirit.

She couldn’t sleep in Usha’s room. All around her the new surroundings took on strange and terrifying shapes to frighten her. The doors and windows had been bolted from the inside but her gaze still strayed towards them. She tried very hard to distract herself, but no sooner had she stopped feeling tense about the doors and windows than she would feel that the wall was slowly splitting into two, dark shadows were emerging from within and would seize her any second.

She was afraid of falling asleep. She got up, splashed some cold water on her face, changed her clothes and came out. The long corridor was isolated. In the bluish late-night light shadows leapt from all sides to attack her. Taking quick strides she came to the end of the corridor and that was where she bumped into Chandar and screamed.

“Arre wah, you silly girl, you’re scared of me now?” Startled, Chandar laughed at her.

“Chandarji…hai, I will die.” She placed her head on his chest and began to sob violently.

“You’ve gone mad. I thought I heard someone opening the front gate and I came to see if it was you.”

“Chandar, I’m afraid, the walls of the house scare me, they will devour me. Take me away from here or I will suffocate.”

“What kind of talk is this, Chandni?”

“If you don’t take me away, I’ll go alone.” Angered, she pushed Chandar aside.

“But what’s the reason for this? How cold your hands are.” Chandar blew on them, holding them in his own.

“Reason? I can’t tell you the reason. All I can say is that if you don’t take me away from here this very minute you will see my corpse tomorrow.”

“Chandni, don’t talk like that. I’ll die with you.” Chandar pulled her into his arms.

“But I don’t want to die! I’m alive in the hope that one day you will put sindhur in my hair. Then I will put my head on your chest and die. Take me away from here, Chandar, don’t let me die.”

“Who is killing you? Let me take you to the doctor tomorrow.”

“The doctor doesn’t have the cure for my ailments.”

“But—”

“No ifs and buts, or you’ll regret this. Take me far away from here and then I will tell you everything. If my suspicions are unfounded, you can come back.”

“You won’t tell me here?”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

“But let’s wait until the morning.”

“No, I may not have the strength to stay alive until then.”

“All right. Here, take the key, put on your coat and sit in the car. I’ll bring my coat.”

She took the key, returned to her room and put on her coat. A glance at the sleeping Pimo brought tears to her eyes. She gently kissed her head, came down and got into the car to wait for Chandar.

“You took so long,” Chandni said, playfully slapping the key in his hand when he came. The burden weighing on her heart was already feeling lighter. Chandar didn’t reply and quickly started the car. Suddenly a pedestrian in black clothes appeared in front of them, but instead of slowing down Chandar accelerated. Chandni screamed and clung to him as the man barely escaped being run over.

“You’re angry, aren’t you, Chandarji,” Chandni said, hugging his arm. She didn’t know where to start. Looking serious, Chandar was staring ahead at the road. His face was hidden by his hat and the upturned coat collar, but there was a strange kind of tension in the air.

“Chandarji, are you angry?” she touched his hand anxiously. “Are you?”

“No.” Chandar’s voice sounded gravelly.

Chandni stammered out the whole story, one incident at a time. Chandar didn’t seem at all furious and Chandni felt encouraged. The speed of the car increased.

“I swear on my life, Chandar, Masi saw everything with her own eyes, that was why she had a haemorrhage, she was so angry. If she hadn’t died, the secret would have come out. Usha Didi also knows everything. You and Pimo are the only ones who are so innocent you know nothing. Munshiji was the first to figure it out. The wretch taunted me. I tricked him: the young one is useless, everything is in the hands of the older brother, he is the master of everything. Hunh! The very sight of his face makes me sick. What a demon! And what a saintly air he puts on! I would die rather than even spit on his life, my stupid fool is good enough for me.”

Chandni draped her arms around his neck. “I don’t want a raja, Chandar, I’m yours and will always be yours. Whether you marry me or keep me as your servant, in this life I am already yours.”

A tremor passed through Chandar’s body and he lowered his head. Agitated, he accelerated.

Suddenly Chandni was gripped by fear. Why doesn’t Chandar say something? He’s angry! He adores Barre Sarkar, he worships him—he hasn’t lost his mind because of all this talk, has he?

“Chandarji, you don’t believe me? Please don’t drive so fast. Look at me, please,” she implored, pulling Chandar’s face toward her.

Then Chandni’s eyes opened wide, fear rendered her speechless. Like a wounded pigeon she tried to open the door and jump out, but Barre Sarkar broke into a savage laugh and, grabbing her waist, pulled her in roughly.

[…]

From Wild Pigeons

Majid closed the door behind him and entered the drawing room through the dimly-lit passage. Abida was standing on a stool, lovingly cleaning the imaginary dust from Ammi Jaan’s picture with a corner of her pink dupatta. She craned her neck to see Majid but the words froze on her tongue. Their eyes met and locked.

“Mmm…Majjan…” She stepped down from the stool.

Seeing Majid stumble as if he were drunk, she reached towards him like a fluttering butterfly but didn’t have the courage to touch him. Majid’s body was taut like an arrow strung on the bow and his eyes were burning.

“Here you are,” she said as if from a great distance.

“Yes,” Majid replied from even further away.

“Why did you leave the house when you were so tired?” Abida asked reproachfully. “Come, sit down.” She brought his special chair forward but he kept looking through her.

“Shall I ask for tea?” She turned to go to the kitchen. The look in Majid’s eyes terrified her. When she returned with the tea-tray she found Majid standing where she had left him. His hands hung helplessly by his sides as if they had forgotten what their function was. Abida put the tray on the table. Then she sat down on the carpet.

“What did she say?” She spoke abruptly.

“She said she would decide after talking to you.”

“Oh.” She put two teaspoons of sugar in the cup. Picking up the teapot with a corner of her dupatta, she started pouring. “You wouldn’t have missed the train if you had waited till Sunday. Why did you go to her? Why did you have to beg before a base woman like her?”

“Well, you’re an expert in fixing things that go wrong. When the matter is entrusted to you, it will automatically be resolved.”

“That ungrateful woman! How dare she treat you with such disrespect.” Abida felt her blood boil.

“Just the opposite! She’s buried under the weight of your kindness and cannot take a single step without your consent.”

Abida was at a loss for words.

“I don’t know if I put sugar in your tea or not.” She touched the sugar pot with shaking hands.

“Every single pore of her being is trapped in the mesh of your benevolence and generosity. Your devotion has erased the black stains of my infidelity. I gave her unhappiness and disrespect. But you gave her a mother’s love, a sister’s sympathy and a friend’s sincerity. You became the oar of her sinking boat and saved her from a life of perpetual uncertainty. You sent her money in my name, but she knows perfectly well that you sold your jewellery and…”

“Damn the wretched jewellery.” She started stirring the tea rapidly.

“She’s seen many lovers but this is the first time she’s had to deal with a lover’s beloved like you. She’s extremely scared of you.” Majid was smiling impishly but Abida’s heart lurched when she saw that the look in his eyes reflected sarcasm not devotion.

“I…I…” she said nervously.

“If you want, my destiny can be reversed. If you order her to take pity on your beloved husband as a reward for all your kindnesses and your generosity, tell her that he will be destroyed and his unfortunate heart, which is actually your heart, will be shattered otherwise.”

Placing his hand on his heart, Majid continued dramatically. “I am your beloved Majjan. I am yours, my heart, my brain, my kidneys and lungs, are all yours, the morsel in my mouth reaches your stomach, if I can’t digest my food, you have to vomit, if my veins are slashed it is your blood that flows. You, you, you are all of me…and I’m just an illusion, a complete fantasy.”

Abida’s lips moved but no sound emerged. She was staring at him.

“If you put in a good word for me she will gather me in her embrace, I will have your permission to take her into my arms, and with your best wishes she and I will…”

“Majid…what are you saying?”

“You covered up my sin. I won’t be able to deny your benevolence for many lifetimes.” He was out of breath.

“Majid, you’re exhausted…please.” She seemed to be looking for something in her lap.

“I won’t rest.”

“Listen, Majid…”

“No, I don’t have time to listen…it’s your turn to listen today.”

“Say what you want… I’m listening.” She looked at her hands as she turned them upside down.

“Did you know where I had gone?”

“When you didn’t get back from the office on time, I thought.”

“And you knew what answer I would receive.”

“I…I had…” she stammered.

“You know what’s unknown. Why did you have to ask then?”

“I…well…Majid, you…” Her lap was empty. She felt as if she had stolen something.

“Because you believe in playing every single chess piece on the board.”

“Allah!” There was nothing in her hands.

“And this was your last assault. You had been pushing me for several days. There’s deception in a woman’s temperament—I don’t want to repeat this hackneyed sentiment nor do I believe it. But Abida, you were not honest with me.”

“You’re not in your senses, wait until you are feeling calmer, more peaceful…”

“Peace, peace, peace! I’m repelled by this word.” The veins stood out on his forehead. “The time for peace has passed. I’ve barricaded all of the enemy’s trenches. My resignation was accepted today.”

“But you could have asked for more leave…”

“It seems that the time for my leave-taking is not that far.” The congestion in his lungs meant he couldn’t breathe properly.

“Majju, I beg you.” She began sobbing loudly.

“Even if I wanted to live, I can’t now.” He stared wildly at the walls around him. “I can’t become a puppet for someone’s entertainment. You are probably praying to God that I should become a cripple so that you can be my hands and feet, become my tongue and serve me for the rest of your life.”

“God forbid! I beg of you, Allah…” She was trembling from head to toe.

“And perhaps I never loved you. I saw you and I thought my life would be incomplete without you. This is not love, this is selfishness. I acquired you to make my life complete. And you…you heard stories about my waywardness and resolved to possess me. You were fond of domesticating wild pigeons, weren’t you? Wild animals fed from your hands.” Words became entangled with each other and fell one upon the other.

“Oh God… Oh God… I will die.”

“No, you won’t die, your heart will continue to beat in your chest, and after I’m gone my heart will also beat in your bosom… I…you have gathered my entire being into yours, now it…it will never be dispersed…never fall into an abyss. With the heights of your being it will soar higher, higher still…higher than my reach…my breath will sob on your lips, the light of my eyes will shine in yours.” Nonsensical words began to fall from Majid’s lips, his eyes bulged and his face became burnished like burnt copper. He began to scratch it with both hands.

And just as Abida was trying to hold him up, he fell face down.

 

Also watch:  "आपा की आपबीती" — Poet and novelist Padma Sachdev in conversation with Ismat Chughtai on her birth anniversary.

These are excerpts from Obsession and Wild Pigeons, written by Ismat Chughtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi and co-published by Women Unlimited and Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publishers.
Ismat Chughtai (1915–1991) was born in Badayun and is counted among the earliest and foremost women Urdu writers. She is the author of several collections of short stories, novellas, a novel, Terhi Lakir (The Crooked Line), a collection of reminiscences and essays, My Friend, My Enemy, and a memoir, Kaghazi Hai Perahan (The Paper-thin Garment).
Tahira Naqvi, a translator of Urdu fiction and prose, taught English for twenty years, has taught Urdu at Columbia, and now heads the Urdu programme at New York University. She has translated Ismat Chughtai’s short stories, her novel and her essays. She has also translated the works of Khadija Mastur, Sa’dat Hasan Manto and Munshi Premchand. Naqvi also writes fiction in English. She has published two collections of short fiction, Attar of Roses and Other Stories of Pakistan and Dying in a Strange Country.