1952. ISMAT CHUGHTAI HAD BEEN, for nearly a decade, the leading short story writer and novelist in the world of Urdu literature. But across the border in Pakistan, Qurratulain Hyder’s reputation as the disaffected chronicler of the generation lost to the tribulations of Partition was rapidly rising and would soon challenge Chughtai’s supremacy. In Lahore, Hijab Imtiaz Ali was turning to psychoanalytically inspired fictions about alcoholism and the Electra complex. Several other young, female Urdu short story writers, of a generation nurtured on the literature of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, were coming to maturity: Khadija Mastur, Hajra Masroor, Mumtaz Shirin, Shaista Ikramullah, Amina Nazli. And Rashid Jahan—doctor, political activist, Chughtai’s literary mentor and the forerunner of this entire wave of writers—died of cancer in a Russian hospital in July of that year, some weeks before her forty-seventh birthday, almost forgotten by the literary world she had stormed two decades before. Yet she had freed the tongues and the pens of several generations that followed; her impact would be surpassed only three decades later, by Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, the feminist poets of the 1960s who replaced the forensic idiom of Rashid’s work with a lyrical celebration of women’s bodies.
The daughter of Shaikh Abdullah and Wahid Jahan Begum, an illustrious couple of educationists in Aligarh, Rashid came from an enlightened family, and her decision to study medicine was perhaps not surprising. Her literary reputation rested on her contribution to Angaare, a pioneering anthology of short fiction published in 1932. This milestone of Urdu literature had introduced four young writers in their twenties, who in their fiction presented contemporary philosophical and psychological ideas, and also techniques absorbed from modern European writing. The most famous of the four was Ahmed Ali, who, though not prolific, would go on to become one of the most respected Anglophone litterateurs of the subcontinent. Ahmed Ali had introduced the young doctor to the other contributors. Aware of her literary predilections, one of them, Sajjad Zahir, is believed to have persuaded her to write two pieces for the book; another, Mahmud-uz-Zafar, would become her life’s companion.
The contributors, radical and ready to challenge as they might have been, were perhaps unaware of the shockwaves their discussions of sex and religion would send out into an audience that, though probably ripe for a new literary movement, was unprepared for the force of this onslaught on their sensibilities. Rashid was the only woman in the gang of four. Critics have noted that she was also the only one of them that didn’t differ significantly from her predecessors in her choice of milieu or material, but her unabashed vocabulary earned her the censure of readers across the Urdu-speaking regions. Ordinances were passed against her and the others. She was advised to travel with bodyguards but, as a practising doctor, she refused to take such precautions.