Book Review: A Life in Words: Memoirs by Ismat Chughtai

Title: A Life in Words: Memoirs
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Translator: M. Asaduddin
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Classics India
ISBN: 978-0-670-08618-4
Genre: Memoirs, Autobiography, Non-Fiction
Pages: 282
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

It is sometimes sad to know that readers (most of them) only remember Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf” or “The Quilt”. She has written a lot more and the “more” is even more interesting than “Lihaaf”. I remember the first time I was introduced to her works. I had turned twenty-three and my friend had taken me to watch a play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain” produced by Motley, – which featured two short stories by Manto, a story by Chughtai and an essay by her as well with reference to the court trial that almost got both the writers imprisoned in the 1940s for so-called “obscenity” in their writing.

I was mesmerized after watching the play. The urge to know more of her and read more works by her was immense. I had read a bit of Manto earlier, however Chughtai took my attention and held it there. Prithvi theatre bookshop was the ideal place to find her books, though translated in Hindi (now I cannot read Urdu. I only wish I can someday). I remember reading almost all of her books, except her memoirs, “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” which I ultimately did. I did struggle a bit as I do not read so many books in Hindi (and am not proud of the fact). The beauty of the language was brilliant. The words used to describe her life from early childhood to being a mother and a wife and a famous writer before all of that resonated way after finishing the book.

I received the much-awaited English translation of “Kaghazi hai Pairahan” from Penguin Books India, aptly titled, “A Life in Words: Memoirs” and delightfully translated by M. Asaduddin. The minute I started reading this edition, memories of the Hindi edition came sweeping by. The same intensity with which Ismat Aapa (I cannot think of anything better to call her) wrote in the original (I am assuming) is captured vividly and precisely in this translation.

One cannot define Ismat Chughtai’s character as anything but colourful and introspective. May be to a large extent that passed down to her by her large and varied family. When you read the memoirs, it almost feels like you are reading a story. One gets the necessary information about her works as well – from short stories to novels to essays (as footnotes) which is needed while reading about a writer. What I loved the most about this book was Chughtai’s family and their antics. Ismat Aapa was born into a large family – she had nine siblings – so one can only imagine the life lead during the Indian Independence and seeing times through Partition, her schooling, her youth, her stubborn nature, her want to get educated and then subsequently the need to write and tell tales.

Chughtai’s tone is fictional and caustic throughout the book. There are a lot of diversions which are fun, despite the danger of losing track of semi-plots and characters, but I guess that can be overlooked when reading memoirs. It is quite natural that the tone will shift, which works well to hang on to the reader’s attention. There are pieces which I loved – for instance, “Aligarh” – which depicts the writer’s hostel life, “In the Name of Those Married Women” – the piece on the much talked about courtroom trial of Manto and Ismat, “Sujat” – revolving around politics and “Chewing on Iron” – depicting class differences.

For me, reading this in English was a treat, thanks to the wonderful translation by M. Asaduddin, who has translated Chughtai’s other works. The translation is subtle and he doesn’t shy from using the words as used in Urdu by the writer sometimes, owing to the fact that there is a glossary as well, which serves the purpose well.

“A Life in Words: Memoirs” by Ismat Chughtai is an honest and stark account of a writer’s life – from childhood to youth to old-age. The ideas in the book are numerous – from women’s liberation to class differences to the inner-life of a Muslim girl. Here is a book that is integral to its ideas, structure and words. I cannot recommend this one enough and while you are at it, please read more of Chughtai’s works. You will not be disappointed at all.

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