In the winter of 1932, a raging storm broke in conservative circles in the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), at the centre of which was a woman writer named Rashid Jahan. One of India’s earliest Muslim women doctors, Rashid Jahan is considered Urdu literature’s first ‘Angry Young Woman’, and would become ‘notorious’ for pushing the boundaries of how ‘shareef’ (respectable) women were supposed to behave. The roots of Rashid Jahan’s ‘notoriety’ lay in the controversy of 1932 that would forever give her the moniker ‘Angareywali Rashid Jahan’.
The trigger was the publication of an Urdu anthology of ten short stories and plays titled ‘Angarey’ (Embers) in December 1932. The stories and plays had been written by four young and idealistic authors – Sajjad Zahir, Ahmad Ali, Mahmuduzaffar and Rashid Jahan – who hoped the anthology would be “a declaration of war by the youth of the middle class against the prevailing social, political and religious institutions”.
The stories, inspired by works of James Joyce, Virginia Wolf and D H Lawrence, railed at people’s enslavement to social and religious dogmas. While the writers had hoped to provoke (hence the name ‘Angarey’), even they were taken aback by the strong backlash it evoked. One of the writers, Sajjad Ali, would later remember in a public interview, “People read the book behind closed doors and in bathrooms with relish, but condemned us editorially and in pamphlets…”
The backlash was swift, with the then All-India Shia Conference at Lucknow holding a public event condemning the book calling it a “filthy pamphlet” that had “jeopardised the feelings of the entire Muslim community”. The reaction of the Urdu Press was vitriolic, with newspapers claiming “We could not find anything in them intellectually modern except immorality, evil character and wickedness”.
Maulvis across UP issued fatwas (religious edicts) against the book and questions were raised against it in the UP Assembly. In March 1933, the booked was banned by the UP government for “outraging the religious feelings of Her Majesty’s subjects” and all copies were ordered confiscated and destroyed. Not surprisingly, the most vitriolic hatred was directed at Rashid Jahan, the only woman among the authors, with threats to have acid thrown on her face.
But all these controversies did not faze the then 28-year-old Rashid Jahan, who continued to provoke with her writings and inspired a generation of Indian women writers, mostly notably Ismat Chugtai, who was just 14 years old at the time of the Angarey controversy. While Chugtai achieved great fame and popularity, Rashid Jahan, the original ‘infant terrible’ of Urdu literature, has been relatively forgotten. The most comprehensive account of Rashid Jahan’s life is found in literary historian Rakshanda Jalil’s book Rashid Jahan: A Rebel And Her Cause (2014).
Rashid Jahan’s worldview was shaped by her exceptionally progressive parents. She was born in 1905, to Sheikh Abdullah of Aligarh (not to be confused with Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir) and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum. The eldest of five daughters, she grew up in a home where all the women were engaged in educational and literary pursuits. Her father was a social reformer and a strong votary of women’s emancipation, who ran an Urdu Journal Khatun, which campaigned for women’s education and enlightenment. From a very early age, Rashid was exposed to discussions on women’s education, health, purdah and other social issues. Her sister-in-law, Hamida Saiduzaffar, would later recount in a 1973 interview to the Journal of South Asian Literature, how Rashid had once casually remarked to her:
It was at a very young age, at school in Aligarh, that Rashid was exposed to the Indian freedom movement, through her principal Miss Hazra. In 1919, when she was just 14, she joined the Swadeshi Movement and began wearing only khadi (hand-spun). In 1924, after acquiring a degree in Science from Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, she entered Lady Hardinge Medical College in Delhi to study medicine. As a medical student, she organised literacy classes and free medical clinics for the poor women of Delhi.
In 1929, Rashid completed her medical degree with a specialisation in obstetrics and gynaecology, and joined the UP medical service in Lucknow. She was one of the earliest Muslim women doctors in India. It was her life experiences as a doctor, interacting with patients across social classes that would shape her thinking as well as her writing.
Through her works, she attempted to touch on subjects considered taboo such as sexual health, pregnancy, birth control, abortion as well as infidelity and morality. It was in Lucknow that she met young and contentious writers like Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmad Ali and Mahmuduzaffar – the ‘Angarey gang’. Thankfully, all of them managed to emerge unscathed from the ‘Angarey’ controversy of 1932-33 due to the fact that they all belonged to influential families.
Rashid Jahan joined the Communist Party of India as a full-time member in 1933 and became an active member in the Uttar Pradesh (UP) wing. She preferred to be known as ‘Comrade Rashid Jahan’. In 1934, the following year, she married one of her co-authors, Mahmuduzaffar, an Oxford-educated scion of a prominent family from Rampur. She resigned from medical service in Lucknow and joined her husband in Amritsar, where Mahmuduzaffar was Vice-Principal of the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College there.
The notoriety generated by ‘Angarey’ had added to the aura of this power couple. During this time, Amritsar was one of the most vibrant centres of the communist movement in Punjab. Here, Rashid came in close contact with the working class. Her friend, Hadjra Begum, in her book, Kuch Rashid Jahan Ke Bare Mein (1977), writes:
“While she had adopted Communism at an ideological level by the time she arrived in Amritsar, hitherto her experience of the poor working class was confined to her medical practice and training. She knew the mazdoor as a patient, not as friend and comrade who could work alongside her, shoulder to shoulder.”
But this would now change. Her friend Sajjad Zaheer, who had left for England during the ‘Angarey’ controversy, had returned in 1935 with a draft manifesto of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). It was the banning of Angarey that had led to the establishment of this institutional space for radical writers. Its manifesto echoed the sentiment of ‘Angarey’ and read:
“The object of our association is to rescue literature and other arts in whose hands they have degenerated so long, to bring arts into the closest touch with the people and to make them actual organs that will register the actualities of life and to lead us to the future that we envisage”
Rashid Jahan was instrumental in organising the First Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow on 9th April 1936, where noted author Munshi Premchand, who had been invited to deliver the Presidential Address, outlined the aim of literature. In 1937, Rashid moved to Dehradun with her husband, where she became actively involved in the ABPWA activities. From then on, her life was very busy, divided between her occupation as a gynaecologist, her political engagement in the Communist Party, her work in literature, her editorship of the literary journal Chingari and her family life.
After Angarey, Rashid Jahan is believed to have written 25 to 30 short stories and around 15 to 20 plays, sadly most of which have been lost. But whatever little remains available with us is extremely powerful and poignant. The 1930s and 40s was the time when a large number of women were joining India’s freedom movement. They also questioned the ‘idealised’ stereotypes of Indian women perpetuated by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. Literary historian Madhulika Singh, in her research paper Radical Writings On Women: The Work of Dr Rashid Jahan, writes:
“Her writings did not follow the Sati-Savitri paradigm of Indian women, rather her women characters stand up, show defiance, resistance, are strong-willed, argumentative and assertive”
Even though she wrote about women and sexuality, it was a far cry from the kind of writing-for-women that male authors of her time did. Her depiction of scenes from a woman’s life was hard-hitting, particularly those who lived under a veil of seclusion and exclusion. Her writing also showed incredible empathy for women who lived less-than-empowered lives, no matter how far from her own life theirs was.
She used the speech and idiom of women speaking to women, and displayed an uncanny ability to mimic the dialect of women – both the ‘begumati zubaan’ of upper-class ladies from privileged Muslim households as well as the typical dialect of the lower classes.
One of Rahid’s most acclaimed short stories is Dilli Ki Sair (A Trip To Delhi). It is a story of Mallika from Faridabad, who is on a sightseeing trip to Delhi with her husband. On reaching Delhi railway station, Mallika’s husband saunters off with a friend, leaving his wife alone on the platform. The woman, in purdah, describes the strange sights and sounds of Delhi railway station. In the story, Mallika remarks:
“The Delhi station! Bua, even the Fort would not be as huge. Wherever one looked, one saw nothing but the station, the railway lines, engines, and goods trains. And what scared me the most were those blackened men who live in the engines!”
It is a satire on women so sequestered in purdah that a railway station is the most amazing and intimidating thing they have ever seen. Rashid’s other acclaimed works was the play Pardey Ke Pichhe (Behind The Veil), also published in Angarey. It is a lament of the oppressive life behind the veil, in the form of a conversation between two ‘khandaani’ women. Her story Salma critiques the practice among prominent Muslim families who send their sons abroad to study while keeping the women in purdah, leading to a cultural gulf between husbands and wives.
One of her most hard-hitting stories is Andhe Ki Lathi (The Blind Man’s Stick), in which a Nawab marries his two identical-twin daughters to two brothers. The girls have no say in the marriage proceedings and are sent to their husbands’ home, after the wedding. The two sisters are given absolutely no opportunity to get to know their husbands. It is only on the night after the wedding, when one of the sisters is asked her name by her husband, that the husbands realise that there has been a mix-up of the brides and that the sisters had been taken to the wrong rooms!
Rashid’s stories like Iftaari (Evening Meal During Ramadan), Garibon Ka Bhagwaan (God of the Poor) and Istikhara (Prayer For Judgement) offer harsh critiques on the religious orthodoxy and hypocrisy of the time. In Iftaari, a Begum, restless to break her fast, obsesses about food and paan (tobacco). She asks her maid to give day-old jalebis to a beggar and then beats her black and blue when the maid herself eats one of the jalebis. In the same story, Rashid Jahan writes of a poor Muslim locality, where three mullahs (priests) leech off the earnings of poor, working-class Muslims. They lend money to the poor on interest (forbidden in Islam) but are meticulous about their prayers and fasts.
In Garibon Ka Bhagwaan, the protagonist, a poor widow with four children, Durga dreads the Brahmins for they remind her of the great difficulties she had to endure to put together money for her husband’s funeral rituals. Trembling with fear every time she sees them returning from these ‘death feasts’, she secretly hopes she would have nothing to do with them. But when her eldest son falls sick, she spends money on a potion from a local ‘vaid’ (medical practitioner) or amulets from the Brahmins, but these bring no improvement to his health. Left with no money to take her son to hospital or feed her other children, she witnesses her son’s slow and painful death. Driven mad with grief and rage, she runs around the locality hysterically screaming ‘Kaha hai garibon ka Bhagwaan?’ (Where is the God of the poor?).
Much like her stories, in her personal life too, Rashid Jahan was considered ‘bold and provocative’. Rakshanda Jalil in her book writes about how, as a Muslim gynaecologist in a khaddar sari and a sleeveless blouse, her hair cropped short, travelling to the hinterland on her own on work, Rashid Jahan raised eyebrows. Rashid’s greatest admirer, renowned writer Ismat Chugtai, wrote in her autobiography: “She spoiled me because she was very bold and would speak all sorts of things openly and loudly, and I just wanted to copy her.” Jahan’s nephew, India’s former foreign secretary, Salman Haider, (in the book’s foreword) writes how Rashid Jahan would be trailed by plainclothes policemen where ever she went due to her communist leanings.
Rashid Jahan passed away in Moscow in 1952, where she was undergoing treatment for uterine cancer. She was just 47 years old. Her legacy lives on in the stories and plays she wrote and in the hearts and minds of the generations of women she inspired. Her life can be aptly described by the three-word epitaph on her gravestone in Moscow – ‘Rashid Jahan – Communist, Doctor and Writer’.
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