Writer Ismat Chughtai has been named the queen of Urdu literature. Critics agree that nobody, other than Manto, comes close to her in the skill of writing tales in crisp, classic Urdu. Another session of Zambeel Dramatic Readings at The Second Floor (T2F) captivated the audience with their performance, but this time, with Chughtai’s magical dialogues in the play titled Dozakh.
Before the play started, author and critic Asif Farrukhi talked a little about Chughtai. “Urdu prose has four main characters, all defined as the game of chess. If Manto is the king, then the queen is Chughtai herself. She was Manto’s peer and a great progressive writer,” said Farrukhi. “She took a step forward in times, it was unimaginable, and today we have duly forgotten her.”
Touching upon themes of aging, fear, loneliness, separation and death, Dozakh is a play close to reality. It’s a story of two old widows living together in deplorable circumstances; they live on the mercy of their neighbours to feed them.
The dependency model is oblong here, where the two widows can’t live with or without each other. The play begins at dawn when one is sleeping and the other is on the prayer mat irritated by the bees buzzing around hampering her prayers. Hence, the conversation begins in which Naulasi Khanum (Mahvash Faruqi) curses the bee for disrupting her prayer and wakes up Umdah Khanum (Shama Askari).
This leads them to verbally abuse each other until Umdah’s late husband’s niece Khairun (Asma Mundrawala) shows up. Khairun secretly wants to take Umdah for all the household chores, but as soon as Umdah realises her wicked plan, she stays where she is, cursing the other widow.
Verbal abuse in classic Urdu, idioms and catch phrases with Urdu grammar had a great impact on the audience. Former BBC correspondent Raza Ali Abidi, who laughed whole-heartedly as he listened to the dialogues between the two main characters compliments Chughtai’s style. “The rendition was par excellent. Nobody can write like she [Chughtai] did in this language.”
While this reading was a celebration of Chughtai’s writing, performer Asma Mundrawala said Dozakh is also one of her lesser known works which needed to be highlighted. “It is not in print and we have found it after much difficulty in a private collection. This had its complications as well,” she said. “Over a period of time and subsequent reprints, there are errors in the text that we had to cross check from another printed version found in Lahore.”
“One of the things that attracted us was its use of language that is so akin to Ismat Chughtai,” said Mundrawala. “There are words that are probably not in everyday use now but carry a charm about them. Another reason was that its format was that of a play. This was a new challenge for us as it is written specifically for stage.”
Mundrawala also said that the themes of the play bear relevance to our society even today. “Chughtai’s spirit lives on in her masterful writing and in the way she tackles subjects with such ease,” she added.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 28th, 2013.