Pornographic or Polemical? The Forgotten Short Stories of Wajida Tabassum

Last year, I picked up an anthology of short stories published by Virago, a leading British publisher of feminist writings. The collection Such Devoted Sisters (1993) featured several writers I had hoped to find — Katherine Mansfield and Christina Rossetti — and one I did not expect to chance upon in an anthology dominated by white women writers. Wajida Tabassum.

I had not heard her name at all previously. Until now, my knowledge of polemical women writers of Urdu literature had satisfied me. I had written my MA thesis on the works of Ismat Chughtai. Rashid Jahan, Chughtai’s literary predecessor, was a familiar name. Quaratulain Hyder’s novels adorn the shelves of several bookstores in Delhi and beyond. A few years ago, the works of Khadija Mastoor and her sister, Hajra Masroor, made their appearance in the contemporary literary landscape. But the conspicuous absence of Wajida Tabassum from South Asian literary, cultural, and academic spaces was perplexing. I failed to find any physical copy of her stories, either in original or translation.

Tabassum, born two decades after Ismat Chughtai, was her literary successor in some ways. The reader can observe this in her preoccupation with gender-related concerns and the eroticism in her language. Yet, Tabassum’s style and language are also distinctive, and any comparisons with the preceding writers undercut the radical potential of her fiction. She wrote when the Progressive Writers’ Movement had begun to decline in a newly decolonised India. Literary solidarity and intellectual friendships were waning. Writers such as Manto, Rajinder Bedi, and Chughtai foregrounded women’s everyday lives in the broader discourses of nation-building, religion, and citizenry. The ideological underpinnings that drove their realist fiction were now disappearing. In contrast, Tabassum’s fiction explores the microcosm of the home and the brothel. She focuses on the interiority of her protagonists, diving deep into the lives of Muslim women occupying aristocratic spaces as begums, courtesans, mistresses, and domestic help.

Furthermore, she was far removed from the centres of dynamic literary activity such as Lucknow and Delhi, where the progressive writers flourished. She spent her youth among several feudal families of modern-day Andhra Pradesh. Her characters inhabit the confines of upper-class Hyderabadi Muslim households. They speak the Dakkani dialect of Urdu. This variant of Urdu has a confluence of Telugu, Konkani, and Marathi, and its rusticity distinguishes it from its refined northern Indian counterparts like Rekhta. For instance, the repeated use of “nakko” instead of “nahin” for no.

Also read: Misogyny, Entitlement and My Inability to Read V.S. Naipaul

The anthology by Virago Press where I had found her name included Tabassum’s most famous story, “Utaran” (originally published in 1975), translated as “Hand-me-downs”. The short story had first appeared in English translation as “Castoffs”  in the second volume of Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita in 1991. It also appeared in Urvashi Butalia’s Katha: Short Stories by Indian Women in 2007. Mira Nair adapted the story on screen in her film, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love. “Utaran” may have endured the test of time because of its English translations and cinematic adaptation. But Tabassum was a prolific writer who had written fifteen short stories in her first anthology and over twenty other books. Her stories also regularly appeared in the popular Urdu magazine Beeswin Sadi. However, today these remain curiously amiss from contemporary anthologies and English translations. While it is difficult to identify the precise reasons for Tabassum’s obscurity, my essay is simply an attempt to pay homage to this radical writer by drawing attention to the riveting themes of her untranslated stories.

“Thoda Haur Upar” (loosely translates to “A Little Upward”) unfolds in the magnificent haveli of a nawab and his begum. The narrative reveals the plight of the begum as she rages against her husband’s multiple sexual affairs with the palace employees. The story emphasises her helplessness as he returns to the bedroom late every night and openly flaunts his adulterous behaviour. Finally, an unsatisfied begum begins sexual adventures of her own and seduces a young boy who massages her feet, leaving the nawab furious and cuckolded.

“Na Koyla Bhayee Na Raakh” (“Neither Coal nor Ash”) is the passionate monologue of a woman against her lover who transforms into a cunning and apathetic man after climbing up the social ladder. In a heart-breaking climax, the lover arranges her marriage with his friend.

The widely read “Utaran” depicts the lives of two adolescent girls. Pasha is an unsympathetic aristocratic girl and Chamki, her friend, is the daughter of Pasha’s “housemaid”. They grow up together as friends separated by economic barriers and deep-seated class prejudice. Resentment foments as Pasha condescendingly passes her discarded clothes and jewellery to Chamki as “castoffs”. Chamki uses her sexual prowess to take revenge on Pasha’s wedding night.

While “Utaran” was condemned for its portrayal of a promiscuous woman, “Nath Utarai” (Removing the Nose Ring) is arguably Tabassum’s most polemical short story. Nath utarai refers to the practice of prostituting a young girl in a grand ceremony where she is adorned like a bride. The “husband” pays a large sum for removing her nose ring. The removal of the ornament signifies her loss of virginity and marks the beginning of a life of sexual slavery. In the story, Jahan Ara, a teenage girl who sings and dances at weddings, acclimatises to a life of sexual abuse. She is finally sold off to a controlling man in Bombay. She encourages his opium addiction to enervate him and earns financial freedom through sex work on her terms and conditions. Years go by, and an ageing Jahan Ara thrusts her young daughter into prostitution when an old and philandering nawab offers to pay a hefty price for her nath utarai. Things take a tragic turn when the daughter unknowingly falls in love with the nawab’s son and has sex with both men on the same night. She discovers her pregnancy but does not know who the father is. “Nath Utarai” is a harrowing portrayal of the inter-generational continuity of sexual exploitation and prostitution. It also reveals the hypocrisies of a patriarchal society that commodifies women whilst also expecting them to be “virgins”. 

The language of Tabbasum’s stories is graphic and replete with double-entendres. She compares women’s breasts with truck horns that men can grope as they please. Jahan Ara’s daughter describes her intercourse with the father and the son on the same night as “two bulls ploughing a field one after another” (my translation). Such language may unsettle and offend even a contemporary reader, but it exposes the trauma of sexual violence in all its menacing detail. The women in her stories attempt to dismantle patriarchy in their minimal spaces of agency. They weaponise their sexuality, express outrage, and long for financial freedom and bodily autonomy. They are not always righteous, but Tabbassum maintains a disinterested voice throughout and her implicit sympathies often lie with the marginalised woman. She indicts the social and cultural conditions that reduce women to the binary prototypes of virtue and villainy.

Apart from gender-related concerns, Wajida Tabassum found the apathy of the upper-class aristocracy contemptible. The upper classes in her stories are often morally corrupt and duplicitous, such as Pasha in “Utaran”. Her unafraid portrayal of predatory noblemen, landlords, and kings who sexually abuse marginalised women had rattled her contemporaries. The depiction of a sexual relationship between a noblewoman and her young masseur in “Thoda Haur Upar” is transgressive because it thwarts gender-based expectations of monogamy and also shatters the assumptions of an endogamous and passive upper-class woman.

Despite the popularity of these stories in her day, Wajida Tabassum was reviled and ultimately written off. Her contemporary readers felt that her stories had a corruptible influence on women. She continued writing despite these accusations. However, the lack of revival endeavours in the present day suggests that her work is still perceived as titillating rather than intellectually engaging. But perhaps literary resuscitation is possible through translation and re-circulation of her stories in print.

Aditi Upmanyu is pursuing her M.Phil. in English literature at the University of Delhi. You can find her on Facebook here.