Enfant terrible

Rashid Jahan, Urdu literature’s angry young woman, inspired a host of other women writers although her body of work was slender.

Published : Sep 17, 2014 12:30 IST

Communist. Doctor. Writer.

THE epitaph on the grave of Rashid Jahan in Moscow encapsulates her life in these three words. Her nephew—younger sister’s son —Salman Haidar, who retired as India’s Foreign Secretary, is right when he says in the foreword to the book under review that “it is the third of these attributes that brought her greatest recognition and renown in her lifetime”. He is also right in his assessment that while she may herself not have produced high-quality literature, writers of greater renown took, and continue to take, inspiration from her work. This is supported by Rakhshanda Jalil, who informs one in her introduction that “a generation of women writers—notably Ismat Chughtai, Attia Hosain, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and Sadiqa Begum Soharvi—acknowledged the influence of Rashid Jahan on their lives and writing”.

Rashid Jahan, who died at the age of 47 in 1952 in Moscow, was truly a phenomenon and had earned notoriety early in her life as Rashid Jahan ‘Angaaraywali’ on account of her unconventional writings published in a collection called Angaaray . Rakhshanda Jalil has written a sympathetic account of her life and times in this book whose contents overlap to some extent those that one finds in her detailed study of the progressive writers’ movement in Urdu.

The book is divided into two sections: Life & Times and Stories & Plays. The first section offers the reader a glimpse into the various stages of the evolution of a girl from an enlightened, well-to-do Muslim family into a well-known writer and dramatist. The first chapter, entitled “Rashida: Her Father’s Daughter”, deals with Rashid Jahan’s childhood and family background and is an essential reading to understand the personality and creative urges of the girl who came to be known as Rashid Jahan. It is as much a story of her remarkable father, a Kashmiri Pandit who began his journey as Thakur Das but came to be known as Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah (and as Papa Miyan).

Despite being a staunch follower and admirer of Syed Ahmad Khan, the new convert was not impressed with his standpoint that did not favour education for women for fear that it would bring waywardness to them and encourage them to give up parda (veil) and compete with men. He had embraced Islam because of its egalitarian teachings and had cast his own family, caste and creed aside for its sake. He could not turn his back on these teachings. Moreover, writers such as Maulavi Zakaullah, Nazir Ahmad and Maulana Altaf Husain Hali had started speaking to and of women. Hali’s Majlis un-Nisa (Conversations among Women, 1904-05) made an impassioned plea that educated women made better wives and mothers. His heroine Zubaida Begum is taught the Quran, Arabic, Persian and Urdu as well as mathematics, geography and history by her father. In 1902, Shaikh Abdullah was married to Begum Wahid Jahan, the youngest daughter of Mirza Ibrahim Beg, a leading light of Delhi’s cultural elite. She had studied Urdu and Persian and had also received rudimentary instruction in English and arithmetic from an English woman. She proved to be a major influence in the life of her husband and her children.

Encouraged by the changing intellectual climate and by his wife, Shaikh Abdullah started the women’s journal Khatun in 1904 in Aligarh with the aim of using it as a platform for women’s education. Shaikh Abdullah, Wahid Jahan (known as Ala Bi) and her sisters wrote in the journal on various subjects and Hali composed his famous poem Chup ki Daad (In Praise of the Silent) especially for it. Next year, Papa Miyan and Ala Bi were blessed with a daughter whom they named Rashid Jahan and who was called Rashida by friends and family. Next year, Shaikh Abdullah opened a school for girls in Aligarh that offered space—physical as well as intellectual—to women.

While his efforts received moral as well as financial support from the Old Boys’ network of MAO College and wealthy Muslim merchants of the Bombay Presidency, the local people were not entirely happy. Street urchins were “encouraged” to chase the dolis (palanquins) carrying the little girls to school, raise their curtains and hurl abuses and obscenities. There was even propaganda that the school was in fact training “nautch girls”.

Perhaps the reason for this was, although Rakhshanda Jalil does not say so, that unlike MAO College, the school for girls was “avowedly non-denominational” and non-Muslim girls were not kept away. In fact, Shaikh Abdullah appointed several Christian, Hindu and Sikh teachers and kept it free from any kind of communal bias. Rakhshanda Jalil traces the process of Rashid Jahan’s growing up in this stimulating environment and later in Lucknow and Delhi with great care. At the age of 16, Rashid Jahan joined Isabella Thoburn (IT) College in Lucknow. While she was in Aligarh, her father would read her stories from Shakespeare and her mother introduced her to women’s journals such as Khatun, Ismat and Tehzeb-e-Niswan . Her teachers, particularly the Bengali headmistress Miss Hazra who was a Christian, made her familiar with the revolutionary ideas of swadeshi and Home Rule, the ill-effects of Partition of Bengal and the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.

Therefore, it is not surprising that despite being a student of science, Rashid Jahan developed a keen interest in literature and immersed herself in the works of Dickens, Keats, Shelley, Hardy, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Maupassant and Balzac. It was at IT College that she wrote her first short story—in English, not in Urdu, entitled When the Tom-Tom Beats. It was later translated by Ale Ahmad Suroor, who would later become one of her close friends and a prominent literary critic, into Urdu as Salma and acquired considerable popularity. It would not be out of place to mention that Suroor was Rakhshanda Jalil’s maternal grandfather. IT College opened up new vistas before Rashid Jahan. Here, there was virtually no parda , and girls swam and played tennis, badminton and basketball. They debated and acted in plays, recited poetry and were introduced to contemporary literary and cultural trends. In short, they were in touch with the outside world as it existed and did not lead an insulated life. This exposure to a “liberal English-style education” prepared Rashid Jahan to pursue a career in medicine at Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi, where she moved in 1924.

By this time, she had matured into a young, vivacious and bold woman who would cast a mesmerising spell on generations of young girls and dazzle scores of young men whenever she visited Aligarh.

Rakhshanda Jalil draws this picture of young Rashid Jahan: “With her cropped hair, her penchant for wearing either plain cotton saris or long kurtas over tight pajamas and no jewellery or make-up, her air of extreme self-assurance and her free and frank interaction with members of the opposite sex, she was quite unlike other young women from a sharif household. Studying in Lucknow and Delhi, she travelled alone by train.”

The author quotes Ismat Chughtai, one of the most celebrated Urdu writers of the last century, who has vividly described in her autobiography Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (The Raiment is Paper Thin) the “effect” Rashid Jahan had on young minds. Ismat Chughtai, herself the enfant terrible of Urdu literature, said in an interview about Rashida: “She actually spoiled me. That was what my family used to say. She spoiled me because she was very bold and used to speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her. She influenced me a lot; her open-mindedness and freethinking. She said that whatever you feel, you should not be ashamed of it, nor should you be ashamed of expressing it, for the heart is more sacred than the lips.” One must say that Ismat Chughtai faithfully followed the advice of her role model Rashida and wrote quite a few short stories that scandalised the world of Urdu literature and earned her several law suits for alleged “obscenity”, a charge that Rashid Jahan too faced in her later avatar as a writer. Not much is known of her life at Lady Hardinge Medical College and only a glimpse could be had in some of her short stories such as Mera Ek Safar (One of My Journeys).

Her first posting as a medical officer of the United Provinces’ medical service was at Bulandshahar in western Uttar Pradesh, from where she was transferred to Lucknow. It was here that she blossomed into Comrade Rashid Jahan and eventually into Rashid Jahan “Angaaraywali”, Urdu literature’s first “angry young woman”. Always conscious of social and economic inequalities and injustice, she became friends with Left-leaning young intellectuals such as Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali and Sahibzada Mahmuduzzafar, whom she would marry in 1934. Of these, Zaheer and Mahmud were already members of the Communist Party and she too became one in 1933. This was a time when becoming a Communist meant a life of hardships and suffering.

As Rashid Jahan’s nephew Salman Haidar recalls in his foreword, “As we grew older, we became more aware of some of the darker shadows. She was an active member of the Communist Party on account of which she was put in jail while her husband Mahmud went ‘underground’. Even when not in jail, she was often tailed by the CID [Crime Investigation Department], and while outwitting them was a bit of a game, there were hardships to be borne.” Since her childhood, she had suffered from health problems, thyroid disorder being one of them. Ultimately, it was cancer that took away her life in 1952.

Sajjad Zaheer, who had cut his teeth as a Communist in England, put together a collection of 10 short stories and plays written by himself, Ahmad Ali and Rashid Jahan. Entitled Angaaray, it was banned barely three months after its publication in December 1932 (see box). It brought such notoriety to Rashid Jahan that she came to be known as “Angaaraywali”.

The collection contained only a story Dilli ki Sair (A Tour of Delhi) and a one-act play Parde ke Peechhe (Behind the Veil) of hers. Both these writings present women from sharif Muslim families frankly talking about their experiences, observations and problems. It is their frankness that was not liked by the orthodox clerics and traditionalists who chose to see indecency and obscenity in them.

Rakhshanda Jalil has translated Rashid Jahan’s works into English and they read well. A look at them reveals that only one book of her short stories Aurat aur Digar Afsane (Woman and Other Stories) was published in 1937 during her lifetime. Three books were published in 1974, 2006 and 2012. As the author observes, Rashid Jahan’s influence on Urdu literature is not commensurate with the body of her work, which remains slender. Perhaps, in terms of literary quality too, they may not rank among the best. However, there is no denying the fact that the name of Rashid Jahan continues to evoke an aura, a strange fascination, and also awe.

Rashid Jahan wrote at a time when there was no Simone de Beauvoir or Germaine Greer on the horizon, gender issues and gender equality were not part of the dominant intellectual discourse, and there was no tradition of bold writing in Urdu literature. It was she who made the emergence of not only women writers such as Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder but also male writers such as Manto possible, and prepared the readers of Urdu literature for future shocks.

Rakhshanda Jalil has appended a useful bibliography at the end of the book for those who are interested in pursuing their studies further. She has written a very readable book.

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