Ismat Chughtai, thank you for being our Tedhi Lakeer

Your refusal to follow the codes of propriety in literature and life still makes you a maverick.

 |  4-minute read |   22-08-2015
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Last year, a TV anchor and a dear friend confided that once he almost bit his tongue to stop addressing me on air as “Tedhi Lakeer”, my Twitter handle. This admission led to minutes of raucous laughter followed by a discourse on how our digital identities are now beginning to subsume what we are in real lives. And it begins with the name. How, why and when did I become “Tedhi Lakeer”? Much to my delight, a quick Google search for these two words now springs up my Twitter profile as the first result. However, this story is about what sits on the third spot at the search page. The original Tedhi Lakeer. 

Like many other first generation literature students, my introduction to Ismat Chughtai came in the form of reading her iconic short story Lihaaf in an undergrad class. As told by seniors, we, the first year English Honours students, had an exciting year ahead with enough sex between the leaves. Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, Chughtai’s Lihaaf and Krishna Sobti’s Gulaabjal Ganderiyaan were often judiciously utilised by the senior students during those ice-breaking sessions in the first few weeks. After the Chughtai class, I was thrilled to know that she was born only a hundred kilometres from my birthplace and we shared the same alma mater, Aligarh Muslim University. My first bond, seeped in parochialism, was instantly formed with the author.

I have read almost everything written by Chughtai and a lot of what has been written on her. What has remained in my memory with vivid details is her quasi-autobiographical Tedhi Lakeer. I owe a lot to my tattered copy of Tahira Naqvi’s English translation of this novel. Facing an M Phil viva years ago, I expressed my interest in Indian literature and the processes of translation. The first text I mentioned was The Crooked Line. One of the panellists asked me the name of the translator and I blanked out. The questioner, Prof Harish Trivedi, was a stalwart of translation studies as well as postcolonial literature. When I eventually recalled Naqvi’s name, he remarked with his characteristic flourish, “This is the fate of all translators!” That began a turmoil which is still far from being soothed. Tedhi Lakeer crystallised my interest into a commitment. It also earned me a mentor for my academic pursuits.

August 2015 is Chughtai’s birth centenary month and her contribution to the corpus of Indian literature is being acknowledged in literary circuits with renewed vigour. As one of the “Progressives”, she changed the way women were being represented in Urdu literature. They became the flesh and blood individuals with their own socio-economic back stories. Their sexuality was freed from the male gaze of the ghazal writer. Eroticism in Urdu literature found a formidable advocate in Chughtai. Her refusal to follow the codes of propriety in her literary oeuvre as well as personal life established her as a maverick with all its paraphernalia including lawsuits.

Chughtai’s writings and her personal transactions with fellow writers and artists offer ample examples of her fiercely independent mind. Her ability to reject collaborationism is most evident from the oft quoted anecdotes of her fights with Saadat Hassan Manto. She accosted her close friend and partner in crime for his casual sexism. She also refused to appreciate his libertinism. Chughtai had the courage of conviction to challenge even her strongest allies, a trait that is fast disappearing in our time. We choose a side and fight tooth and claw to defend it, even when indefensible.

Tedhi Lakeer’s Shaman has her charms and foibles, strengths and vulnerabilities in equal measure. So did Chughtai. As do all of us. There are countless lessons to be learnt from Chughtai’s life and works. Her biggest gift to her readers is the inspiration to retain independence in thought and action. She has also shown us the way to retain our sanity and wit in the face of adversity. While the famous obscenity trial faced by Manto and Chughtai in 1945 embittered the former, Chughtai had a good laugh. Getting arrested from Bombay without a warrant and facing the trial in Lahore did little to impact her infectious wit. She used this ‘opportunity’ to meet her fans and buy many pairs of Lahori shoes. Chughtai was a diva much before the word gained currency. 

It was only natural, therefore, to choose "Tedhi Lakeer" as my moniker in the digital tower of Babel that Twitter is. Not only does it empower me, it is also a constant reminder that none of the noise is worth losing my sleep over. It toughens me. It keeps me connected with my literary and cultural heritage. It also strengthens the lesbian continuum by virtue of being a personal tribute to a magnificent older woman.             

Thank you for being with us, Tedhi Lakeer!    


Nishtha Gautam Nishtha Gautam @tedhilakeer

The writer is a gender specialist and assistant professor in Delhi University.

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