Translation of "Mutthi Maalish," from Urdu (Lahore: Naya Idara, 1967). Translation copyright 2010 by Muhammad Umar Memon.
August 15, 1915 - Buduan, India
October 24, 1991 - Mumbai, India
It has been sevrn years since I posted on a story by Ismat Chughtai, time is getting away ftom me. One of my priorities this month, as part of my limited participation in womenintranslationmonth# is to share with my readers translations of a few stories originally written in Urdu. Ismat Chughtai is considered a pioneer writer on issues concerning the lives of Urdu women.
(Urdu is spoken by close to 100 million people around the world. It is the official language of Pakistan, a status which it shares with English. It is also spoken and understood in parts of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Middle East, and many other countries around the world where Pakistani communities have settled. -
from the BBC)
“Of Fists and Rubs” contains very disturbing descriptions of abortions preformed on women from the poorest elements of Indian Society, women with no access to any form of medical care. I say this first as it is graphic enough to be disturbing.
As the story opens a woman is waiting in a long line to cast her vote:
"Bai, O Bai! How are you?” The woman wrapped in a dirty-looking kashta bared her filthy, yellow teeth and grabbed my hand.
“Oh, it’s you, Ganga Bai . . .”
“No, Ratti Bai. Ganga Bai was the other one. She died, poor woman.”
“What a pity! Poor woman . . .” And my mind zoomed back five years. “Rubs or fists?” I asked.
"Rubs,” Ratti Bai winked. “I kept telling her not to, but why would she listen, the blasted woman. Who are you voting for, Bai?”
Of course I wondered what rubs or fists might refer to, evidently a common expression.
The woman, of a higher caste than Ratti, first encountered her and Ganga Bai, when she was in the hospital giving birth. Both worked there, doing the lowest of jobs beneath that of nurses. The two women seem to hate each other. Each calls the other a slut and a whore. Each wait on the woman and lose no change to tear each other down. The woman finds out both want to go home to their villages. Both are married to abusive men, normal for them. Both work on the side as near prostitutes. One of the occupational hazards is pregnancy.
Now we learn the meaning of "rubs or fists". They refer to alternative methods of back street abortions.
"Rubs” work perfectly during early pregnancy—like a doctor, absolutely first-class. The Bai makes the woman lie down flat on the floor, then holding herself with a rope suspended from the ceiling or to a club, she stands on the woman’s stomach and works it with her feet real well, until the “operation” is performed. Or she makes the woman stand against the wall and after combing her own hair she ties it tightly into a topknot. Then, after dousing it with a fistful of mustard oil, she bangs it against the woman’s legs like a ram. Certain young women used to hard labor don’t respond to this. Then it’s time for “fists.” After dipping her unscrubbed hands with their grimy nails in oil, she just pulls the throbbing life from the womb.
Most of the time the operation goes off without a hitch on the very first assault. If the performing Bai happens to be a novice, sometimes one of the hands is broken off, or the neck comes out dangling, or even a part of the woman’s own body that needed to stay inside spills out.
Not too many die from the “rubs,” but the woman generally falls prey to all kinds of disease. Different parts of her body swell up. Permanent wounds@ form and never heal, and if her time’s up, she dies. “Fists” are used sparingly, only when everything else fails. Those who survive aren’t able to walk. Some drag on for a few years and then croak."
We learn a lot about the lives of the two women, both in the hospital at work and back home in the village. Debt bondage has caused many small farmers to no longer be able to support their families. Their wives go to the big city where caste discrimination, sexual abuse and often an early death await them.
This is a very powerful story.
“Ismat Chughtai (Urdu: عصمتچغتائی) (August 1915 – 24 October 1991) was an eminent Urdu writer, known for her indomitable spirit and a fierce feminist ideology. She is considered the grand dame of Urdu fiction, Along with Rashid Jahan, Wajeda Tabassum and Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat’s work stands for the birth of a revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in twentieth century Urdu literature. She explored feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility, and other evolving conflicts in the modern Muslim world. Her outspoken and controversial style of writing made her the passionate voice for the unheard, and she has become an inspiration for the younger generation of writers, readers and intellectuals.” From Goodreads