On the occasion of Ismat Chughtai’s 107th birth anniversary, we revisit her novella Teen Anari, a narrative about three children—Kakku, Beelu, and Teetu—through an excerpt from Syeda S Hameed’s essay Teen Anari-A World of Laughter and Lessons, from the book An Uncivil Woman: Writings on Ismat Chughtai, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil.
We laugh our way through the story of the tiger that escaped from the zoo and took shelter under Beelu’s bed. Beelu is the inveterate liar, whose tales are dismissed by elders as fibs. One night, he comes trembling to report that a tiger is sitting under his bed. The child is squarely scolded for lying and sent packing to his room. While the elders are discussing how spoilt the boy has become, the local thanedar (police officer) appears with the circus ringmaster; the runaway tiger’s trail has led them to the house. A dramatic scene unfolds: lamentations of the elders, old women cursing and swooning, grown men crying, children rolling with grief. The fragile innocent angel child has alas been devoured by the tiger, they fear. One yell from Kummi Apa reveals that the little angel is in the bathroom, half asleep in a squatting position, hidden between the water vessels. While the household descends on the sleeping child, hysterically pouring affection, anger, remorse, and guilt, Beelu gets a permanent halo. From that day on, his licence to lie has been made irrevocable. He will never be reprimanded or disbelieved, that is guaranteed. ‘Even if he says one day, there is a crocodile in my closed fi st, no one would dare to question the story. After all who knows, there may be, may be ..!’
The other two fun stories have to do with Teetu’s broad nose and Munnan Bhaiyya’s revelation of the delectable taste of leather. One is a physical complex: Teetu’s shame at his broad fat nose.
Munnan, the inveterate bully, suggests the remedy: a clothespin clamped on the nose at night to transform the squat nose into an aquiline one. The other story is another Munnan prank, bordering on the cruel, the stuff which happens in boarding schools. Munnan reveals the secret delight of snacking on shoe leather, provided the shoe emits the right fl avour. The three boys, who have never heard of or seen aam papar, a favourite snack of old and young alike made from sun-dried mango pulp, fall for it. They are often found by elders secretly smelling shoes. In each of the stories, the climax happens when an elder gets into the act. While Teetu, sleeping with the clothespin on his nose, is getting horrid nightmares, Amma, mistaking the clothespin for a long legged spider, gives it a whack with her hand fan. In the shoe story, Kummi Apa’s new pink pumps are mutilated in an effort to dig out ‘sweet’ leather.
What follows is their usual fate. In the first instance, Teetu almost loses his nose from the combined torture of the clothespin and the whack. In the second, the three are deprived of their Eid money, which will now be used to pay for a new pair of shoes for Kummi.
That is the last adventure of the three holiday entrepreneurs. Somewhere in all this fun, Chughtai decides to slip in a few lessons, creating another interesting narrative layer. The challenge is to do it without compromising the endless spread of fun and mischief, so she imparts these lessons through children’s games.
One story is about the citizen’s fundamental duty to pay taxes, and the other is about the dignity of the teaching profession. The first lesson is pegged on Wasim Bhai, who lives in dread of the tax inspector. One day, he comes in a distraught state and instructs the three to watch out for any random man who comes asking for him. They are to say he has gone to Marhara and, on pain of death, never reveal that he is right there hiding inside the house. Thus Wasim, Sufi Aala, and the odd servant, become the means for Chughtai to reveal the complex reality of taxation to the three.
In the other story, Kakku, the gang leader of the young pranksters, gets transported into an elaborate dreamland where he gets a surprise appointment letter. He will now become a teacher in his very own school. Thus begins the gruelling story of Kakku as he is ragged, ribbed, and insulted by students. It is the mirror image of what he was doing to his teachers just the other day!
The story is about learning by doing; while students clamour for the teacher’s blood, Kakku finds what being a student—and a teacher—is all about. Kakku’s dream takes grotesque shapes. He is teaching a class of ruffians who will play any trick for laughs, the same age-old ones that often border on cruelty and make an idiot out of the teacher, making him cry so he will never dare teach a class again. The story swings into fantasy when monkeys and children play with the hapless teacher. The fantasy turns grotesque and Kakku rises sweating from his disturbed sleep. Suddenly, Kakku, the class bully, begins to understand what the noble profession of imparting knowledge is all about—whether it is the school teacher or Sufi Aala or Mujeeb Bhai, all of them are only trying to make the boys better human beings.
The novella ends with the holiday, which, while it lasted, seemed painfully slow. The three are back on the stairs of Taj Akbar taking stock of the past three months. They feel a new, though subdued, excitement. New trousers have been stitched; Aala has brought new school bags from her recent trip to Bombay; there are new, neatly folded raincoats; and sharpened pencils are sticking out of their bag pockets. A new year stretches ahead of them, along with new boys (to tease and to grill) and new teachers to learn from. The holidays, all said and done, were okay. Their pranks did not land them in big trouble. And now they look to the future. The world is quite beautiful, after all. There is so much to do, large dams to be built, aeroplanes to fly, rockets to be launched to the moon. And yes, pockets have to be fi lled with delicious chocolates. They have suddenly grown older.
Chughtai has used the children to leap into unexplored territory, as she did in ‘Lihaaf’ and ‘Gainda’. In many of her novels and stories, the female characters are children and adolescents. In this novel, her exploration of female sexuality is set aside for the moment. This is the rough world of boys, where girls are an irritant to be ignored and shunned. But the household itself consists of women—old, dominant, querulous, and affectionate. This says plenty about her irrepressible mind and dancing pen.
For us, her readers, Chughtai opens a window to a world where elders can whack or thrash children without, for a moment, thinking whether they were their own or belong to another family branch. It is a world where children may ‘dread’ their elders, but without the slightest trauma because of the underlying confidence that they are loved and wanted as much by grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins as they are by their own parents. The slaps, whacks, and punishments are part of growing up in a large, warm, noisy home in western UP. This has to be understood in a cultural context without subjecting it to the psychosocial analyses of the contemporary world.
(Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press)
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