Humour has a long-standing relationship with defiance; satire and irony have launched as many revolutions as bullets and missiles. And yet, there is a different kind of humour–a harmless, light-hearted mirth—which does not seek to attack or gain victory. It seeks only to celebrate life and the simple pleasures it affords. Ironically, the very existence of this kind of humour is a powerful act of defiance, an unwitting message to the oppressors that the essentials – beauty, laughter and friendship – cannot be curtailed.
Ismat Chughtai’s account of her obscenity trial embodies this mirth. Along with writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Chughtai was at the forefront of the Progressive Writers Movement which sought to attack social injustice and backward practices through Literature. Both Chughtai and Manto had come under fire for their stories Lihaf and Bu respectively, and were summoned to court in Lahore. Chughtai recorded this experience in great detail in an essay titled simply ‘The Lihaf Trial’. In her signature style, Chughtai recounts the experience of being escorted to jail and other misadventures during the course of the trial.
What a bunch of uninspiring nobodies—I was hugely disappointed. A couple of dacoits and murderers would have been a more exciting fare.
In fact, her essay dwells more on the proceedings outside court than on the actual trial – her camaraderie with Manto, the banter with her sometimes-concerned and sometimes-outraged family members, and excursions into the heart of Lahore. Her only regret at the end of the trial is that she may not get to visit Lahore again.
How beautiful Lahore was. Still invigorating, full of laughter, its arms spread out in welcome, embracing all those who arrive here, a city of cheerful people who love unconditionally, without reserve, the ‘heart of the Punjab.
Despite her bravado, Chughtai was shaken up by the notoriety brought upon by this story. She received anonymous letters full of “profanities” and “insults” directed both at her and her family.
I would open a letter gingerly and if I glimpsed the dreaded snakes and scorpions, I would read it quickly and burn it immediately.
Not one to be subdued, however, Chughtai continued to assert her right to represent the world as she saw it.
My mind tempts my pen and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.