Zakaria Vargis John
1st MA English with Communication Studies
Contemporary Critical Theory/ MEL 232
16th February 2104
The construction of femininity in Ismat Chughtai’s Sorry Mummy
Feminism interrogates patriarchal structure of society and it opposes women’s subordination to man in public and private spheres of life. Women have often been called upon to make sacrifices and suppress their personal desires. They have often been left on the margins of the social set-up as far as their personal desires and fulfilment of those desires is concerned. Women are not a minority in our society but their “lives, experiences and values have been treated as marginal” (Sherry) and men’s experiences have been assumed to be central to society. One also needs to contest the often stated view that in India women have always enjoyed a place of respect and dignity, that they have been respected as ‘devis.’ It needs to be seen that “the respect and privileges which accompany the position of a ‘devi’ (Goddess) are not only anti-individualistic,” they are also anti-humanistic and “deny women a personhood” (Jain). Describing woman as a ‘devi’ amounts to negating her normal human life and demanding from her a ‘divine’ kind of behaviour where she blesses others and bestows favours on others. On the other extreme in our society, women are just treated as sexual objects or things of exchange, again denying their humanity, their wishes and desires, their individual self. The present paper focuses on selected short stories of Ismat Chughtai to examine how these depict suffering of women in a patriarchal set-up.
The whole concept of feminism focuses on the idea, movement and ideologies, which aims at giving equal political, social and economic rights to women. Ismat Chughtai was born in the year 1912. She was known for Urdu writings and her writings spoke for others through short stories. In her collection of short stories The Quilt and Other Stories, Ismat Chughtai portrays the limited options available to women, whether single or married, under an oppressive patriarchy. In these stories the options available to women are that either the characters are dissatisfied by the lack of emotional fulfilment available to them within marriage or they suffer communal criticism because of their unwillingness or inability to conform to traditional standards. In each case, Chughtai dismantles the notion that marriage, the institution society prepares women to expect, is the culmination of a woman’s life “Sorry Mummy” is one of those books, which has few short stories in it. The name of the book and the name of the first chapter is the same. This Hindi story by Ismat Chugtai starts of by describing a woman, whose name is Ms Michelle. Due to her wealth and status, she woman was well known in the society. Her house was known as a party place for all the youngsters and other famous personalities. The description about this woman and her daily life tells us as to how one can influence others through wealth and status. The neighbouring families would call her as their mother on one hand but, the wives of the surrounding houses would look at this woman with jealousy and anger. The party at her place would be filled with all prominent guests and couples. This was the time when film industry was booming in the city of Pune. Ms Michelle would be busy supplying dance girls to these industries for their growth. From all the four corners of life, Ms Michelle was given high importance due to her status and wealth. Ms Michelle’s husband had passed away few months back in an accident and due to the big loss she went romancing with other men. All was in vain as she could not find anyone like that of her husband. Just to remove the pain, she would spend some time with young men and after some time again she would break her own heart. Time and again Ms Michelle used to make new love and give a grand party to very well-known people. Ismat Chughtai explains that this woman would be a help to couples and other men who needed help in such matters as love. Her happiness was in the pathetic life she was living in and she would call herself a sinner, with a happy face. The story continues further and it describes how she was linked with Mr Verma, who was a great film director. The story tells the reader about how Ms Michelle used her life in a wrong way. She made friends with many known people. On one side she impressed people with her wealth but on the other side she was getting trapped. The story takes a turn when it describes about her downfall. She fell for many other men and they took advantage of her. The story has a very sad ending because in the end, Ms Michelle is raped.
The whole story talks about a woman and her orientation. She was easily able to attract anyone she wanted. A woman, who does not have a husband can take various roads for further living. Here, this lady, to seek pleasure fell into a trap. In this story, there is not much mention of any male character. The whole story revolves around women. Ismat Chughtai brings in one or two male characters but, does not give a detailed description about them. She talks about wives of the neighbouring places, wife of the film director, dance girls and the protagonist herself. This gives us an idea of the writing pattern of Ismat Chughtai. Every story of Ismat Chughtai shows the condition of a woman. More than the physical condition, it is the inner struggle which a woman faces in her day to day life. Mostly these struggles come up due to a harsh treatment by the husband or by any individual of the opposite sex. The condition becomes pathetic due to social isolation and subjugation. In all these cases, one tries to fulfil the hidden desires through some or the other way. In this story, Ms Michelle, who was in deep love with her husband, tries to fulfil that desire through getting involved with other men. She uses her wealth and fame to invite them. When we look at the modern perspective, she tries to modernise herself and become like a young woman in order to attract younger men.
Through this story, Ismat Chughtai reminds the reader about Sigmund Freud’s theory. As Freud explains in his “interpretation of dreams” that transference is a form where a person’s repressed desire or suppressed emotions embedded in their unconscious, are projected in various other forms. In this case the death of Ms Michelle’s husband left her unsatisfied- a void in her heart and a sense of incompleteness to her body. She transferred these supressed desires into flight flirtation with other men. This could be seen as an immoral act but, to adhere to Freud’s interpretation, it is only a manifestation of her internal being.
Woman is not only considered inferior to man but is largely perceived by man only as an object of sexual gratification. Ismat Chughtai candidly reveals in her stories, the working of sexuality in middle-class Muslim households. Behind every story lies a specific intent but Ismat Chughtai’s stories do not preach, they just present some images of reality in our society. Female sexuality is kept invisible or mythologised as passive in patriarchy, more so in Muslim families where ‘purdah’ is an additional custom to keep the woman’s physical person hidden. Ismat Chughtai not only exposes the abuse of woman’s body for man’s gratification but she also delineates woman’s sexual desire – a theme or subject considered forbidden in the patriarchal set-up.
Mrs Michelle’s body has been seen as an object in itself. Although she is sexually emancipated and uses her sexuality as an agency but the very violation of her body in the end of the story shows the subjugation of women to the patriarchal norms. The narrator feels sorry for the magnificent arena of Mrs Michelle which ultimately ends in the hands of a man. She through her life kept the men waiting and in the end had to be brought down by the other.
Hence it could be rightly said that Chughtai explores the various dimensions of what she sees as a woman and it comes up beautifully in the aforementioned short story. This focus on woman’s sexual desire and its fulfilment in a relationship with a woman is Ismat Chughtai’s way of asserting the protagonist’s humanity and her basic human needs. A woman’s identity is not defined only by her relation to the male world and male literary tradition.
Chughtai, Ismat. Sorry Mummy. 2005. New Delhi: 2007. Print.
Katoria, Megha. "Woman and Sexuality: Gender-Class Interface in Selected Short Stories of Ismat Chughtai." n. page. Print.
rajakumar, mohanalakshmi . "Dismantling Patriarchal Marriage in The Quilt and Other Stories." n. page. Print.