Three short stories by firebrand writer Ismat Chugtai were brought alive by Heeba, Ratna Pathak and Naseeruddin Shah, says Saimi Sattar

Mention Ismat Chugtai and the response inevitably is Lihaaf — the controversial short story that the writer, who represents the revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in 20th century Urdu literature, was tried for. However, when actor Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah took to the stage with Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, they steered clear of this story and went on to perform the others that explored feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility and other evolving conflicts in modern India. The three stories — Chui Mui, Mughal Bacha and Gharwali  — which were quite different from each other dealt with women and their survival in a male -dominated society.

The first story narrated by Heeba Shah was Chui Mui, which depicted the contrast between two women — one who is supposedly well placed in life monetarily and another one who doesn’t have anything. The first lady is desperate to get pregnant and bear a child so that her husband doesn’t abandon her for another woman. She does get pregnant and while travelling in a train, she encounters the other woman, who holds out a stark contrast to her.

While the lady is travelling with an entourage, this woman, who seemingly does not have anyone, dares to have a child in the train compartment, while the  other one has a miscarriage. One is left questioning as to who is really empowered in the end.

Though the story was engaging, one could not say that Heeba Shah owned the stage — something which was further enhanced when Ratna Pathak Shah came for the second act.

As the lights came on, Ratna, dressed in a gharara, was ensconced in a rocking chair and narrating a tale in the manner of grandmothers. Her transition from narrator to the two primary characters in the story Mughal Bachcha was seamless. Just by her voice modulation and a change in her posture, Ratna transformed from one to the other. The interplay between the shy Gori Bi and the haughty Kaale Miyaan came alive to such an extent that we could almost see the characters. The narration of Kaale Miyan’s insistence on Gori Bi lifting her own veil and his debauchery and the latter’s coyness, which spelt the doom of their union, was done with consummate ease.

The third story by Chugtai which formed the closing act of the play was performed by Naseeruddin Shah and is called Gharwali. Lajo, a woman with no home or family to talk of, lived and worked as a maid in the houses of people. She was often exploited by the male members of the family. When she finally reached the house of Mirza, a bachelor, she felt at ease as there was no woman in his household who would interfere in her work.

The story had its share of double entendres, as the entire mohalla was teaming with Lajo’s admirers but she had her heart set on her employer. Despite her protests, Mirza marries her and forgets her as she had become his property and no longer accessible to others. When she gets involved with a younger man, Mirza divorces her, irrespective of the fact that he too frequented other women. Rather than be unhappy, Lajo was glad that the burden of the Nikah has been taken off her shoulders.

Naseer enacted the different roles with practised ease. With a pout and placing hands sugestively on his hips, he was transformed into Lajo and with a wave of a walking stick and a body language that was more inhibited, he took on the persona of Mirza. All in all, the plays were a treat that is hard to get by.



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