Art & Culture

Ismat Chughtai on obscenity charge, Manto, Lahore and hot dogs

Ismat Chughtai
Ismat ChughtaiMay 22, 2015 | 10:53

Ismat Chughtai on obscenity charge, Manto, Lahore and hot dogs

It was about four or half past four in the afternoon when the doorbell rang loudly. The servant opened the door, then drew back in fear.

‘Who’s there?’

‘Police!’ Whenever a theft took place in the mohalla, all the servants were interrogated.

‘Police?’ Shahid got up in a huff.

‘Yes, sir.’ The servant was shaking with fear. ‘I haven’t done anything, sahib. I swear by god.’


‘What’s the matter?’ Shahid went up to the door and asked.


‘Summons? But...well, where is it?’

‘Sorry. I can’t give it to you.’

‘Summons for what? ...For whom?’

‘For Ismat Chughtai. Please call her.’ The servant heaved a sigh of relief.

‘But tell me this...’

‘Please call her. The summons is from Lahore.’

I had prepared milk for my two-month-old daughter, Seema, and was waiting for it to cool. ‘Summons from Lahore?’ I asked as I held the feeding bottle in cold water.

‘Yes, from Lahore.’ Shahid had lost his cool by then. Holding the bottle in my hand, I came out barefoot.

‘What is the summons about?’

‘Read it out,’ said the police inspector dourly.

As I read the heading — Ismat Chughtai vs The Crown — I broke into laughter. ‘Good god, what complaint does the exalted king have against me that he has filed the suit?’

‘It’s no joke,’ the inspector said severely. ‘Read it first, and sign it.’ I read through the summons but could barely make out the sense. My story "Lihaaf" had been accused of obscenity. The government had brought a suit against me, and I had to appear before the Lahore High Court in January. Otherwise the government would penalise me severely.


‘Well, I won’t take the summons.’

‘You have to.’

‘Why?’ I began to argue, as usual.

‘What’s up?’ This was Mohsin Abdullah sprinting up the stairs. He was returning from some unknown destination, and his whole body was covered with dust.

‘Just see, these people want to inflict this summons on me. Why should I take it?’ Mohsin had already passed his law exams and obtained a first class.

‘I see, which story is this?’ he asked after reading the summons.

‘It’s an ill-fated story that has become a source of torment for me.’

‘You’ll have to take the summons.’


‘Don’t be stubborn,’ Shahid flared up.

‘I won’t take it.’

‘If you don’t, you’ll be arrested,’ Mohsin growled.

‘Let them arrest me. I won’t take the summons.’

‘You’ll be put in prison.’

‘In prison? Good. I’ve a great desire to see a prison house. I’ve urged Yusuf umpteen times to take me to a prison, but he just smiles. Inspector sahib, please take me to the jail. Have you brought handcuffs?’ I asked him endearingly.

The inspector was flustered. Barely restraining his anger he said, ‘Don’t joke. Just sign it.’

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Shahid and Mohsin railed at me. I was chattering merrily. ‘When my father was a judge in Sambhar, the court used to be held in the mardana, the part of the house meant for menfolk. We would watch through the window thieves and robbers being brought in handcuffs and chains. Once a band of fearsome robbers was brought in. They had a beautiful woman among them. A stately figure in coat and breeches, she had the eyes of an eagle, her waist was supple as a leopard’s, and she had a luxuriant crop of long, black hair on her head. I was greatly impressed by he...’

Shahid and Mohsin made me thoroughly confused. I wanted the inspector to hold the feeding bottle so that I could sign, but he retreated with shock as though I had held a gun to him. Mohsin quickly snatched away the bottle from me, and I signed.

‘Come down to the police station to sign the surety document. The surety is for five hundred rupees.’

‘I don’t have five hundred rupees with me now.’

‘Not you. Someone else must stand surety for you.’

‘I don’t want to implicate anyone. If I don’t present myself in court, the money will be lost.’ I tried to show off my knowledge of the law. ‘Please arrest me.’

The inspector didn’t get angry this time. He smiled and looked at Shahid, who was sitting on the sofa holding his head in his hands. Then he said to me gently, ‘Please come along. It’ll take a couple of minutes.’

‘But the surety?’ I asked, pacified. I was ashamed of my stupid behaviour.

‘I’ll stand surety for you,’ said Mohsin.

‘But my child is hungry. Her ayah is young and inexperienced.’

‘Feed the child,’ said the inspector.

‘Then please come in,’ Mohsin invited the policeman. The inspector turned out to be one of Shahid’s fans and flattered him so much that he forgot his irritation and began to talk pleasantly.

Mohsin, Shahid and I went to the Mahim police station. Having completed the formalities, I asked, ‘Where are the prisoners?’

‘Want to see them?’

‘Of course.’

There were ten or twelve men lying in a huddle behind the railings.

‘These are the accused, not prisoners,’ said the inspector.

‘What crime have they committed?’

‘Brawls, violence, pickpocketing, drunken fights...’

‘What will be the punishment for them?’

‘They’ll be fined or imprisoned for a few days.’ I felt sorry that I got to see only petty thieves. A couple of murderers or highwaymen would have made the visit more exciting.

‘Where would you have put me up?’

‘We do not have arrangements to house women prisoners here. They are taken either to Grant Road or Matunga.’

After returning from the police station, Shahid and Mohsin chided me severely. In fact, Shahid fought with me the whole night, even threatened to divorce me. I silenced Mohsin by saying that if he made too much fuss I would disappear and he would lose his five hundred rupees. Shahid could not bear the disgrace and humiliation of a public suit. His parents and elder brother would be terribly upset if they heard of it.

When newspapers published the news, Shahid received a touching letter from my father-in-law, which ran thus: ‘Try to reason with Dulhan. Tell her to chant the names of Allah and the Prophet. A lawsuit is bad enough. That, too, on obscenity. We are very worried. May god help you.’

Manto phoned us to say that a suit had been filed against him, too. He had to appear in the same court on the same day. He and Safiya landed up at our place. Manto was looking very happy, as though he had been awarded the Victoria Cross. Though I put up a courageous front, I felt quite embarrassed...I was quite nervous, but Manto encouraged me so much that I forgot all my qualms.

‘Come on, it’s the only great story you’ve written. Shahid, be a man and come to Lahore with us... The winter in Lahore is very severe. Aha! Fried fish with whisky...fire in the fireplace like the burning flame in a lover’s heart...the blood-red maltas are like a lover’s kiss.’

‘Be quiet, Manto sahib,’ Safiya reprimanded him.

Then, filthy letters began to arrive. They were filled with such inventive and convoluted obscenities that had they been uttered before a corpse, it would have got up and run for cover. Not only me, but my whole family including Shahid and my two-month-old child were dragged in the muck...

I am scared of mud, muck and lizards. Many people pretend to be courageous, but they are scared of dead mice. I got scared of my mail as though the envelopes contained snakes, scorpions and dragons. I would read the first few words and then burn the letters. However, if they fell into Shahid’s hands, he would repeat his threat of divorce.

Besides these letters, there were articles published in newspapers and debates in literary and cultural gatherings. Only a hard-hearted person like me could put up with them. I never retaliated, nor did I refuse to admit my mistake. I was aware of my fault. Manto was the only person who would get furious at my cowardice. I was against my own self, and he supported me. None of my friends or Shahid’s friends attached much importance to it. I am quite sure, but probably Abbas got the English translation of "Lihaaf" published somewhere. The Progressives neither appreciated nor found fault with me. This suited me well.

I was staying with my brother when I wrote "Lihaaf". I had completed the story at night. In the morning I read it out to my sister-in-law. She didn’t think it was vulgar, though she recognised the characters portrayed in it. Then I read it out to my aunt’s daughter who was fourteen years old. She didn’t understand what the story was about. I sent it to Adab-e-Lateef where it was published immediately. Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi was getting a collection of my short stories published and included it in the volume. The story was published in 1942 when Shahid and I were fast friends and were thinking of marriage. Shahid didn’t like the story, and we had a fight. But the controversies surrounding "Lihaaf" had not reached Bombay yet. Among journals, I subscribed only to Saaqi and Adab-e-Lateef. Shahid was not too angry, and we got married.

We received the summons in December 1944 to appear before the court in January. Everyone said that we would just be fined, not imprisoned. So we were quite excited and began to get warm clothes stitched for our stay in Lahore.

Seema was a small baby. She was weak and whimpered in a shrill voice. We showed her to a child specialist who declared that she was in good health. Nevertheless, it was not wise to expose her to the severe cold in Lahore. So I left her with Sultana Jafri’s mother at Aligarh and set out for Lahore. From Delhi, Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi and the calligrapher who ‘copied’ the manuscript joined me. The Crown had made him one of the accused as well. The suit was brought not against Adab-e-Lateef but against the book published by Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi.

Sultana had come to the station to pick us up. She worked in the Lahore radio station and was staying at Luqman sahib’s place. It was a gorgeous mansion. Luqman sahib’s wife had gone to visit her parents along with her children. Thus the entire place was at our disposal.

Manto had also reached Lahore, and soon we were flooded with invitations. Most of the callers were Manto’s friends, but many also wanted to have a look at a strange creature like me. We appeared before the court one day. The judge only asked my name and wanted to know if I had written the story. I admitted to the crime. That was all!

We were greatly disappointed. Our lawyer kept on talking all the time. We couldn’t make much of it as we were whispering among ourselves. Then the date for the next hearing was announced, and we were free to freak out. Manto, Shahid and I roamed around in a tonga, shopping. We bought Kashmiri shawls and shoes. When we were buying shoes, the sight of Manto’s delicate feet filled me with envy. I almost broke into tears looking at my rough and graceless feet.

‘I hate my feet,’ said Manto.

‘Why? They’re so graceful.’

‘They are absolutely womanly.’

‘So? I thought you have an abiding interest in women.’

‘You always argue from the wrong angle. I love women as a man. This does not mean that I want to be a woman myself.’

‘Come on, forget this man-woman controversy. Let’s talk about human beings. But, do you know, people with delicate feet are very sensitive and intelligent. My brother Azim Beg Chughtai, too, had very delicate feet. But...’

And I was reminded of how his feet had swelled up before he died and become a detestable sight. And Lahore, decked like a newly wedded bride with apples and flowers, was transformed into the sandy graveyard in Jodhpur where my brother was sleeping in his grave under tons of earth. Thorny bushes were planted on his grave so that hyenas did not dig out the corpse. Those thorns began to stab me, and I left the fine pashmina shawl on the counter.

Lahore was beautiful, lush and lively. It greeted everyone with open arms. It was a city of people who were amiable and who loved life. It was the heart of Punjab.

We wandered about the streets of Lahore, our pockets stuffed with pistachios. We popped them into our mouths one after another as we walked along, deep in conversation. Standing in a lane we gorged on fried fish. My appetite was wonderful. In the salubrious climate of Lahore, whatever one ate was digested easily. We entered a hotel. My mouth began to water at the sight of hot dogs and hamburgers.

‘Hamburgers contain “ham”, that is, pig meat. We can have hot dogs,’ Shahid said, and we, like good Muslims, stuck to the religious prohibition and abstained from eating hamburgers. We stuffed ourselves with hot dogs, washing them down with the juice of Qandhari pomegranate.

However, we soon realised how crafty the white race is. If hamburgers contain pork, hot dogs contain pork sausages. When he heard this, Shahid felt like vomiting although it was two days since we had eaten the hot dogs. It was only when a Maulvi sahib expressed the view that if one ate it unwittingly one may be forgiven that Shahid felt somewhat relieved of his emetic fits.

In the evening when Shahid and Manto got themselves drunk, the hamburger-hot dog controversy was revived and raged on for some time. Eventually, it was decided that one should abstain from both because it was impossible to prove conclusively which was halal and which was haram. Under the circumstances, they settled for chicken tikka.

We made the rounds of Anarkali and Shalimar, and saw Noor Jahan’s mausoleum. Then followed endless rounds of invitations, mushairas and gossip.

And suddenly, my heart sent up a thanksgiving prayer to the Crown of England for providing us this unique opportunity of enjoying ourselves in Lahore. I began to look forward eagerly to the second hearing. I did not even care if the verdict was that I be hanged. If it occurred in Lahore, I would certainly achieve the status of a martyr. The people of Lahore would give me a befitting funeral.

(This excerpt has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.)

Last updated: October 24, 2016 | 10:29
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