Masooma by Ismat Chughtai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The misfortunes of Masooma began when her father made off to an undisclosed location (Pakistan?) with all the money and property of the family, and three older sons. Her father was supposed to send for the rest of the family once he settled down. But this never happened. Masooma's mother, along with 3 girls and a baby boy was left to fend for herself.
Women of high birth are cloistered and completely dependent on their men. They are not expected to step out into the world and fend for themselves. Begam Sahiba, Masooma's mother, was such a woman. Men had lined up to marry her when was of age. Her parents had picked among the grooms available. They wanted her to be married to a professional man who was khandani to boot. She lived like a queen all her life. Till one fine day when her husband disappeared.
She sold whatever she could to make ends meet. When all failed, she came to Bombay(as it was known then) and becomes a film producer's mistress. The film producer, Ehsaan, was more of a hustler, ran out of money. His eye fell on the beautiful teenage daughter of the Begam, Masooma.
Masooma, who was slated for a comfortable life, whose name was selected out of Quran Sharif, who was the much feted daughter after 3 sons, suddenly found her life take a nasty turn. She was passed on from one man to another and took on the exotic name of Nilofer for this alternate life that she had.
In the early chapters, Masooma remains a shadowy figure. She is seen as an emotionally high strung girl who beats up Ahmed, the first man chosen for her. At this stage in her life, it is her mother and Ehsaan who control her. Later, she learns the importance of her lovers, the money and gifts they bestow upon her.
Despite being perceived as a woman who sucks the menfolk dry of their money, we see that it is Masooma/Nilofer who is being ruthlessly used by men to further their greed and satisfy their lust. She holds no importance to them as a person. She is the convenient receptacle of their ill-repute. Being men, her lovers come out smelling of roses and prosper, while she is seen as a dirty woman.
Ismat Chugtai has a formidable reputation in literary circles. To write a novel like this in the early part of the past century was indeed daring. Her works did not pop up in my school syllabus like the stories of Munshi Premchand, Mohan Rakesh, Upendranath Ashq etc. It is only in reading extra-curricular literature that I got to know of her.
The picture that Ismat Chugtai paints is not pretty. Her socialist sensibilities make her depict the world of the Capitalists who use dirty tricks to evade taxes, ruin the lives of the proletariat to further their businesses. They even use charity work as a mask to further their ends. These are people Masooma has to depend upon to keep her body and soul together.
I do not think this book is the best work of Ismat Chugtai. It has a hurried feel to it. And often Masooma (poor girl) seems just a vehicle for the author to vent her ire against Capitalists. Like I said earlier, Masooma seems a shadowy figure at the start. She comes into her own towards the end, but even so, her personality is not really rounded. All other characters in the novel fade into the background or are brought to the forefront as per the need of the moment. The presence of the author is very evident in the book.
But there is no denying the power of Ismat Chugtai. It is her unforgiving depiction of the underbelly of the society that is very valuable.
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