The following is an excerpt from a letter Chughtai wrote to Ram Lal, a well-known Urdu writer whose views on the god Krishan caused a huge uproar in society:
Arre bhai, you caused much distress when you called Kanhaiyaji a womaniser. He alone was a god of some calibre. Certainly the most progressive and literary. I mean, having created the Gita, he was one of us, one of our tribe, wasn’t he?
He was unique because he counted even women among human beings. In the world’s different literatures, there is no comparable expression of a woman’s love for a man, portrayed so freely and with such courage. No other tradition has drawn attention to the woman as a lover and man as the beloved.
Even in French and English classics, the woman is the beloved. Usually only the prostitute has indulged in free love but her lover is characteristically depicted as vulgar and commercialised. But Krishanji has given romantic love the status of Bhakti, an act of devotion.
Radha was a married woman who had an unbounded passion for Krishan and was turned into a figure worthy of worship. One cannot find another instance of such rebellious and reckless love.
For the woman has been set on earth in the mould of the beloved, over whom the lover holds sway. If the respectable woman, resorting to subterfuge, dares to engage in illicit love, she either drowns or dies after taking poison.
A married woman’s husband is her god, but the wedded Radha belongs to Krishan and not to her husband. What was the name of Radha’s husband, the one with name and status? I don’t even know his name, but the whole world knows the name of her beloved.
India Dissents: 3,000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument; Edited and with an Introduction by Ashok Vajpeyi; Speaking Tiger Books
And that is not all. If a man, who was not related to a woman, even dared to glance in the direction of the mother or sister of another man, he would have had his eyes plucked out. However, when Arjun falls in love and the father of his beloved rejects his suit, Krishan tells him, ‘I will find a pretext to bring my sister to you and you can run away with her.’ How many men born of women would have the courage to help a sister elope with her lover?
Krishan gave sexuality the status of the sacred. Then, as now, the coming together of a woman and man was surely prohibited. It acquired legitimacy only after much bargaining. The relationship was not based on the attachment between a man and a woman but depended on pecuniary interactions. Men could acquire flocks of women as material possessions, and the lives of widows, the living dead, could even be snuffed out on funeral pyres of their husbands.
Krishanji did not purchase Radha with gold, nor did he stamp her with the mark of ownership. He drew her to him with the melody of his flute and no power on earth could restrain her. No other tradition, of any country or religion, provides similar examples of independence in a woman’s actions although there are many instances of male autonomy.
Look at history, emperors, kings and nawabs maintained women in herds. Did they attract them with their won charm or did they purchase them? People forced these women into their keeping, receiving in return jagirs and titles. Here was a gamble, a game of cards, in which mothers, sisters and daughters were the trumps played. Why did Krishan regard sexual freedom as a component of religious conviction?
Has anyone researched the social mores and prohibitions of the time? Were women regarded to be as lowly, helpless, and half-dead then, as they are now? Bought and sold like chattel? Ignited on a funeral pyre like unwanted rubbish that has accumulated in the home?
In what state could one expect to find the mental health of a society where relations between women and men had degenerated to this level? Could men have been sexually satisfied by women who were treated no better than the shoes on their feet?
A surfeit of sumptuous feasting results in indigestion and worse, but can the appetite be satiated by devouring an object? One can die without food, but those who condemn the poor to remain hungry by forcibly taking away their rights, learn soon enough that, of all the cravings which their oppressive acts seek to satisfy, sexual indulgences take the highest toll.
The communities of women maintained by the oppressors, bring with them the financial burden of their families, whose men have to be provided with women of their own, and so it goes on.
A major share of the nation’s wealth is diverted towards supporting the ruler and his minions in luxury. This has been the history of imperialism and it continues today in the form of capitalism. The people die of hunger; only thieves and bandits prosper.
Krishan overpowered the serpent Kalia and many other forms of evil. However, Kanhaiyaji ultimately faces defeat when he was transformed into an idol to be worshipped. Devotees sway to the rhythm of songs celebrating the union of Radha and Krishan, but if they were to learn that their own wives were clandestinely meeting with some Kanhaiya, neither the wife nor the lover could hope to be spared.
They bow their heads before a Krishan of stone but have failed to grasp the wisdom of his words. They have forgotten that if the man is free while the woman is enslaved, their union can only be fraudulent.
— Translated by Madhu Prasad and Sohail Hashmi.
(Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger Books)