Masooma by Ismat Chughtai

Masooma,for this book was not written for the faint hearted. Its writer, Ismat Chughtai, never one to pull her punches, is out to draw blood. The wit and gentle humour of earlier stories, the ones based on her experiences in Aligarh and the smaller provincial towns of Upper India, is entirely missing here. A gritty anger and a biting realism combine with a keen eye for detail to depict not merely the dark underbelly of Bombay (as it was then called) but also scratch the mask of sharif culture and expose its desperate poverty. We see evidence of this in almost her writings; in Masooma too we see Ismat depicting the effects of a world cleft by social and economic injustices upon the life of a young girl. The trade of women and the commodification of a woman’s body, she seems to be saying here, is a direct consequence of human frailty and lust but also of poverty and inequality.

The story of Masooma, a girl from a wealthy and respectable family from the erstwhile state of Hyderabad, takes centre stage. Also, in the telling of this story of a girl’s descent into prostitution, how innocent Masooma is sold by her aristocratic mother to keep the home fires burning and how this girl from a decent family turns into Nilofer, a mistress who changes hands till she becomes no better (or worse) than a common prostitute, and her mother too is transformed from a haughty begum to a seasoned madam, Ismat sheds her coyness and her tendency to use allusion rather overt descriptions.

While Ismat had always written bold stories that challenged traditional morality and worn-out notions of a woman’s ‘place’ in society, till Masooma she had not written anything that can be described as overly ‘sexual’ – not even in Lihaaf. Given her interest in sexual matters, and the fact that both she and the original bête noir of Urdu – Manto – had been hauled up by a Court in Lahore on charges of obscenity, comparisons between the two have always been inevitable.

Ismat’s language is different too in this novel. Here, she uses biting satire as a tool to sharpen her depiction of social realities. In her hands, Urdu had acquired a new zest, a special zing that made it more readable than ever before; in Masooma she shows how it is also better equipped to reflect new concerns, concerns that had been hitherto considered beyond the pale of literature.

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