Madhuja Mukherjee finds her favourite Ismat character in this photo essay.
Ismat Chughtai needs no introduction. Born on 15 August, and with a name that implies infallibility, Ismat Chughtai prefigured the struggles of common women in the sub-continent. My ‘affair’ with her began at the time I was studying Comparative Literature at the undergraduate level. We were told how Chughtai’s writings belonged to the progressive writers’ impulse, and in what way she was part of the firebrand generation of Urdu writers, whose work shook the world between 1935 and 1955. The realist and harsh tone of the stories of Left-minded authors like Saadat Hasan Manto became part of a heady discussion, since the Soviet Union had fallen apart some time back and wounds were still fresh during the last decade of the previous century. Many thought it was necessary to keep the debates active.
My own interest in Chughtai grew when I read Lihaf and thought that no other text brought together issues of class-gender-desire in such a forceful manner. I fell in love with Ismat instantaneously. After all, who could (or would) write a story about wayward yen two months before her own wedding? The plot of Lihaf, as we know, deals with the fiery desolation of a nawab’s wife, who finds companionship with a female servant. This story of class, patriarchal structures, gender, sexuality, longing, and love was narrated by a nine-year-old girl. Indeed, Lihaf had generated a range of controversy after its publication, and Chughtai was dragged to court, though the case was eventually dismissed. Moreover, while some of the (later) critics considered her work to be limited to “mere” questions of gender—and trivial things like desire—and middle class society, Chughtai’s readings of the everyday existence of women and their negotiation with a man’s world remained meaningful for me. In fact, her writings seemed to be as much ethnographic as they were works of fiction. To borrow from Geeta Patel (2001: 346): 
Ismat Chughtai was nothing if not bold. Writer after writer, friends, relatives, companions, attested to her remarkable, obstinate demand to disturb the civil, to disrupt the ideas that constituted civility, to upend the notions that gave force to how women ought to be. As a supplicant asking for our attention, she was ironic, playful, moving, funny, cutting, witty, she spoke to desire and grief, but rarely succumbed to propriety.
In addition, my love for her swelled later during my Masters in Film Studies, when I studied Garam Hawa (1973). Her association with Manto seemed crucial, along with the milieu she produced through her engaging and descriptive style, as well as through the intense juxtaposition of extraordinary elements. During this time, I penned a screenplay of Chughtai’s ‘Do Haath’ (A Pair of Hands). The plot of A Pair of Hands addressed problems of gender and class. Towards the end of the short story, Ram Autar, a sweeper in the army, accepts in a somewhat nonchalant way the fact that his wife Gori is bearing a child that is not his. Though Ram Autar is reminded that the child is born two years after he had left, for him it’s the pair of hands that matter—the baby, after all, is a potential labourer. Disregarding issues of chastity, morality, and fidelity (as upper class/caste concerns), Ram Autar accepts life as it is.
Though Ram Autar is reminded that the child is born two years after he had left, for him it’s the pair of hands that matter—the baby, after all, is a potential labourer. Disregarding issues of chastity, morality, and fidelity (as upper class/caste concerns), Ram Autar accepts life as it is.
However, it is Gori’s transformation, sexual playfulness, and the vivid descriptions of her face which have haunted me ever since. While Gori was initially meek and wept over Ram Autar’s departure, gradually she emerges out of her coverings. More important, is the point that Gori was dark; she had a blunt nose and a wide jaw. She even had a “squint”; she was fat, and had hands and feet that were far from being pretty. And yet, she never failed to seduce a man and more. Moreover, her sexual exuberance, “inappropriate” behaviour, and her neighbour’s complaints could hardly convince Ram Autar’s aging mother to send her back to her parental home. For the old sweepress, Gori, was her helping hand, and a hardworking daughter-in-law is more valuable than a cow! Eventually, Gori sleeps with her brother-in-law, Ram Rati, and bears his child. Chughtai narrates (2004:175),
These hands were neither legitimate nor illegitimate; they were only hands, living hands that wash away the filth from the face of this planet, that carry the weight of its aging. These tiny hands, dark and soiled, are illuminating the earth’s countenance.
As an “aspiring” filmmaker at that point in time, I sometimes deliberated upon the question that, even if I got a chance to make this film, which actor could/would perform as Gori, with such dynamism? Gori is assertive, sexually driven, a complex and hard-working woman, for whom her body is her source of life. Where could one find Gori, I often wondered, until recently.
In 2014, we shifted to the Jadavpur area of Kolkata, and I met Lalita Malik, age 37 or so. Lalita is our sweepress, and cleans our building. She is from Samastipur, Bihar, and her family lives in the slums near Jadvapur. She and Umesh, her husband, clean dog shit, dry leaves, dirty tyre marks, paper, plastic, food waste and such things that make the ground floor and the garage space filthy. They also collect waste from every apartment. But, it is Lalita’s dark face, her gestures, her hands, and her payel, which brought back memories of Gori. I felt really excited by the fact that Ismat’s Gori had found me, even when this Gori is not sexually promiscuous (as far as I know). One day Lalita enquired, “Didi, don’t you wear saris? Do you have an old one?” On another occasion, I asked, “Where is Umesh? Why are you working every day?” She never replied, simply smiled. Finally, after many such chit-chats, and some persuasion, Lalita agreed to pose as my ‘muse’.
Lalita’s dark face, her gestures, her hands, and her payel brought back memories of Gori. I felt really excited by the fact that Ismat’s Gori had found me.
Lalita was married when she was about 20. She has two sons, though the younger one, about 15, can neither hear not speak. He goes to a school for “special children”, but is weak in his studies. “Can you get a good teacher for him, Didi?” Lalita asked the last time we met.
“Er, you need specially trained teachers,” I mumbled.
“Yes, I know. I got someone, but she asked for Rs 4,000 a month. We earn about Rs 2,500 a month; how can I afford that much?” So true, I thought. “Can you get me another job, Didi?” she said, as I clicked her photos.
I realised that, because of their caste, she does not get work as a housemaid or as a cook. “We do not get work easily…can you give my elder son a job? To clean your car? In your office?” Perhaps, I thought. “My husband is good, but he does not work, you know.”
“Does he beat you up?”
“Why? Why should he hit me? But he is lazy…my sons are lazy too…but, I married on my own.” She smiled.
“What do you do when you are free?”
“When I am free, I like to watch TV—we have a TV.” As she continued to clean our place, I observed her and thought that even so many years after independence, certain subjects that Chughtai raised, like gender, work, and yearnings, remain pertinent. More important, however, is the pressing reality that I will have to find Lalita a job. But, in the worlds in which we reside, who would accept a sweepress as a housemaid or offer her a better-paying job, like that of cook?
She cleans dog shit, dry leaves, dirty tyre marks, paper, plastic, and so on.
Lalita Malik, age 37.
She keeps the house clean.
Lalita married when she was 20. She has two children.
Lalita’s youngest son can neither speak nor hear.
“Can you get a good teacher for him?”
“I got someone, but she asked for Rs 4,000 a month.”
“We earn about Rs 2,500 a month.”
Working day in and out.
“These tiny hands, dark and soiled, are illuminating the earth’s countenance.”
“Can you get me another job?”
“We do not get work easily.”
“When I am free… I like to watch TV”.
 Naqvi, Tahira (1993). Ismat Chughtai: A Tribute. The Annual of Urdu Studies 8. 37-42.
 Patel, Geeta (2001). An Uncivil Woman: Ismat Chughtai. Annual of Urdu Studies 16. 345-349.
 Chughtai, Ismat (2004). A Pair of Hands. Trans. Tahira Naqvi. A Chughtai Collection. Trans. Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. New Delhi: Women Unlimited. 162-175.