26 September 2007

Lifting the Veil

Author: Ismat Chughtai
Publishers: Penguin
Publishing Date: 2001
Price: Rs 250
Pages: 261

Genre: Short stories

'In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It's my belief that experiences can never be obscene, if they are based on authentic realities of life'

These are the first few lines that introduces readers to enfant terrible of the Urdu writing world, Ismat Chughtai and it's hard not to marvel at the original thought process here. However, this also means that Ismat's stories sometimes tend to get too direct, tasteless and pedestrian in both words and thoughts.

In what can be described as a superb introduction (I couldn't site the author’s name here) to this book, the reader is acquainted with the sort of person Ismat was, which in a large way influenced her writing style and choice of subjects. As the book describes, Ismat was a born rebel, who wouldn't accept great works of literature or theories without scrutiny. Highly individualistic, Ismat believed that a healthy skepticism was the first essential condition to arrive at the truth.

Which is exactly why, when she started writing (1945 onwards), she managed to break several existing moulds of writing, thereby shocking the daylights of out conservatives.
The short story that brought her into mainstream writing was Lihaaf (The Quilt), which spoke about lesbianism for the first time. There was a huge uproar and even the post-D H Lawrence British were displeased and Ismat found herself saddled with legal cases for promoting 'obscenity'
The story itself talks about Begam Jaan, who is left lonely and sad at home, by her husband who keeps himself engaged with 'young, slender-waisted' students --(there's a homosexual hint here too).
Finally, Begam Jaan's waning spirits are lifted when she finds a 'partner' in her maid, Rabbu.
Ismat's choice of narrator here is a child, who is witness to not just the ongoing scenes between the women but is also close to being 'molested' by Begam Jaan on one occasion.
Lihaaf is probably one of Ismat's most well-known stories, also one of her her most critiqued ones. Feminists were quick to lap it up, hailing it as one of the primary works in Urdu literature that recognizes female sexual desire and portrays it both convincingly and courageously.

While this is not hard to agree with, I'm not convinced that the story really does any service to the cause of 'alternative sexuality'.
Ismat, using a child as a narrator, views lesbianism both with a certain amount of horror and cruel humour. Also the imagery below supports this argument.

"The quilt crept into my brain and began to grow larger. I stretched my leg nervously to the other side of the bed, groped for the switch and turned the lights on. The elephant somersaulted inside the quilt, which deflated immediately. During the somersault, a corner of the quit rose by almost a foot'
'Good God!' I gasped and sunk deeper into my bed.

Considering the common theme that runs in most of Ismat's stories, it's clear that she sympathises with the sexual repression of women in a middle-class hypocritical society. Viewed under this light, Lihaaf is ultimately a sad story about the desperation that comes over a lonely, sexually deprived woman.

The best stories in this book are The Invalid (a superb narrative that casts a wonderfully incisive look into the psyche of a patient), Tiny's Granny (heart-wrenching), Gainda (on the sexual urge in a child), Homemaker/Gharwali (entertaining, dealing with 'sexual erasure' that is expected from 'clean' middle-class women)

Then, there are two other stories, mostly autobiographical; My Friend My Enemy, which speaks about her love-hate, high-strung relationship with writer-friend Manto and In The Name Of Those Married Women, which deals with her legal troubles involving The Quilt.
These are again great stories, recounted with her trademark bluntness and sharp wit.

Two other autobiographical stories are Hell-bound and Childhood. The former is a hard-hitting, pitiless portrayal of her writer-brother, Azim and while, it is probably one of the most engaging and impactful stories in the book, I also found it a bit tasteless in its ruthless dissection of a man long dead.

"Childhood" is mediocre writing, wherein Ismat chronicles her life as a child and the tough times she spent with her mother.
Now, Ismat's writings are never particularly reflective but this is an utterly charmless story, with poorly fleshed out characters an clich├ęs galore. There are quite a few other stories as well here, which can easily be skipped.

The fact that Ismat belonged to the realist tradition of writers meant that she never adopted any complicated narrative style. In fact, her writing is clearly derived from the oral tradition of storytelling.
With her racy, uninhabited and spontaneous style of writing, she assures that all her stories move at break-neck speed. But her stubborn refusal to adopt certain modernist narrative techniques also means that many of her stories appear extremely formulaic. Also, the bigger trouble is that one never really gets into the psyche of her characters.

Ultimately, Ismat's biggest achievement will remain that she brought out repressed female sexual desire from the curtains of middle-class morality. Her boldness proved to a boon to several other women writers, who were able to free themselves of the existing taboos in literature and give wings to their feelings.

-Sandhya Iyer

13 September 2007

The Hungry Tide

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Pages: 403
Year of Publication: 2004
Publishers: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 250

Element encounter

The entire action of the novel takes place in India's Sundarbans. The jacket of the book tells you about the setting, ‘Between the sea and the plain of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed braved the man-eating tigers and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the mud’
However, the picture changed towards the start of the last century, when a visionary Scotsman bought a few of these fragmented islands from the British to form a utopian settlement, where people irrespective of race, caste, culture could live together.

Considering the sheer scope that this theme allows in terms of enumerating the legends, folk-lore, history and geological wonders, it's no surprise that it caught the author's interest.
Also, it enables Ghosh to highlight the raging social debate about forest conservation vis a vis human settlement.
The story follows Indian-born American marine biologist, Piyali Roy, who is in search of rare river dolphins. During this adventure, she encounters two  different men. Kanai - a smug, urbane Delhi entrepreneur and Fokir, an illiterate but a proud local man of Lusibari.
While Piya is in Sudarbans for her project, Kanai is at the islands at the behest of his aunt, Nirmala.
Their paths cross and it is through their interwoven lives that Ghosh looks at the various elements of his theme. Piya, through her conscientious drive to unravel the hidden wonders of nature, is instantly attracted to Fokir's animal instinct and raw charm. Kanai, on the other hand, leaves her cold. Piya is not impressed with Kania’s superciliousness, and between the two men, finds herself constantly  leaning towards the natural, unalloyed world that Fokir represents.
Ghosh brings in the debate about human settlements in forested lands through Piya and Kanai.

Given the vagaries of nature in this place, with its unrelenting storms, changing tides and thriving wild life, Piya believes God probably intended it that way and any human intrusion that harms it must be disallowed.
On the other hand, Kanai supports the theory of human beings getting preference over animals. But again, Piya argues that this kind of short shrift shown to lesser beings will never end, whether they are animals or human beings.
The face-off between Fokir and Kanai that happens during their boat trip, is rightly then the sign of the growing hostility between the ‘civilised world’ and rustics. Here, Fokir’s fear of the outsiders (Kania) can be alternatively read as nature’s resistance to people like Kanai who ‘intrude’ upon its territory.

There’s another story that runs parallel to this one. Kanai reads out notes from his uncles' diary which allows the author to introduce the readers to a different time period in Sundarban’s history, it’s myths, legends, compulsions etc...
Ghosh's novel is textured and effortlessly transports you into the land he describes. Every swish of the wind and swirl of the water are beautifully captured.

The novel does become tedious in the middle with scholarly details of every kind infused in the pages. If pitched as a travelogue this imight have been excusable but otherwise most will just be sifting through these pages.

 Ghosh puts his interest as an anthropologist above the story, which brings the action to a complete standstill at one point. 

As for the characters, Ghosh approaches some of them with great understanding –Piya’s character is beautifully etched but there are others like Nilima, whose character slips into melodrama. Also, the manner in which Kanai is established as a cad in the novel is also a bit tastelesly done.

Ghosh, while offering no real answers through his novel vis a vis the larger issues at hand, does offer an engrossing work of literature about a lesser known world.