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Unveiling the Complex Realities: A thematic analysis of prostitution in Ismat Chughtai's 'The Homemaker' and 'Vocation'.

In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell".

~Ismat Chughtai


Ismat Chughtai, a luminary of Urdu literature, stands as a pioneering figure in the realm of progressive literature. Born in 1915 in Badaun, India, Chughtai's literary journey was steeped in the socio-cultural milieu of her times, propelling her to craft narratives that were both daring and transformative.Her literary works as her observations against the backdrop of a conservative society, ventured into the discovery of sexual identity, challenging societal norms and confronting double standards. This audacious exploration rendered her narratives both thought-provoking and revolutionary.


Among Chughtai's notable works, "The Homemaker and the Vocation" are two of her most influential works.  These groundbreaking narratives traverse the world of prostitution and feminism, a subject veiled in shadows and stigma. With unparalleled empathy and unflinching honesty, Chughtai paints a vivid portrait of the lives and aspirations of sex workers, humanising them and dismantling the prevailing moral judgement. In doing so, she challenges the conventional dichotomy of the 'virtuous' homemaker and the 'fallen' woman, forcing her readers to confront their own prejudices and preconceptions.This research paper aims to illuminate the importance of looking beyond the stereotypes and acknowledging the web of feminism in prostitution. 




In Ismat Chughtai's "The Homemaker," the theme of prostitution is subtly portrayed through Lajjo's demeanour and dialogue. Despite her past devoid of support, she consciously chose the path of prostitution, embracing it without any apparent inclination for an alternative. Her internal monologue reflects her dedication to excelling in her profession:


However, a pivotal turning point emerges when Lajjo discerns a distinctive quality in Mirza that sets him apart from her previous clients. She artfully engages him, skillfully capitalising on his desires. The theme of prostitution serves as a nuanced backdrop, intricately weaving together Mirza and Lajjo's connection, as well as their eventual parting.



In "The Vocation," the theme takes on a comically woven thread, as the narrator's mental landscape is dominated by the presence of prostitutes in her vicinity. Paradoxically, these individuals neither directly contribute to her distress nor harbour personal animosities toward her.


Nonetheless, the narrator's vehement aversion to their profession becomes a focal point, leading to an unexpected revelation: her intense disdain ironically becomes a catalyst for her own recognition of herself. The narrator emerges as a vivid embodiment of societal hypocrisy, wherein concealed internal struggles are projected outwardly as prejudices, a defence mechanism rooted in societal shame and personal conflict.




Seemanthini Niranjana in her book, 'Gender and Space' says “Marriage is a critical turning point for a girl, allowing her to translate into reality latent reproductive capacities and thereby realise her claim to womanhood in the eyes of the community. (Niranjana, 2000) 


This is very vividly shown in the texts of Ismat Chughtai. In a remarkably intricate manner, the fundamental principles underpinning marriage intricately intersect with the realm of prostitution, even when the appearances suggest stark contrast. As per societal norms, those engaged in prostitution are often labelled as women eschewing the sacred customs of marriage and companionship. Throughout history, marriage has stood as the quintessential sign of a woman's identity, dignified by the crimson mark of sindoor on her forehead, the bangles encircling her wrists, or the dignified drape of a saree covering every part of the body. 


Chughtai navigates the complexity of human nature, illuminating the tendency to impose narrow perspectives onto the vulnerable, whether they are perceived as "pure" virgins or deemed "shameless" prostitutes.


Her writing embraces feminism, recognizing women's autonomy even in professions like prostitution. She challenges labels and stigmas, portraying sex workers as multidimensional individuals with desires and struggles, breaking stereotypes.


In her other work, "Lihaaf," Chughtai explores sexuality and repression through a protagonist's interactions with a masseuse, critiquing traditional gender roles and unveiling hidden desires beneath societal norms.


Chughtai was one of the writers who played her way into and out of controversies through her words. In doing so, she raises the important question- so essential when considering the work of women but often relegated to some place in their biography- of where one might place nonfiction in relation to fiction. One, nonfiction, is often treated as the place where the truth of the world lies. The other, fiction, is usually considered the place where a writer explores the delicate line between truths and true lies. Both fiction and nonfiction are essential parts of Ismat's writing, as Tahira Naqvi has so ably pointed out in her introduction to selections from Chughtai's nonfictional prose. 


Through the texts mentioned, we explore the distinction between ideal feminine and corrupted femininity lines of morally righteous occupations 



Women's psyches are made not through some primordial return to the body, but in the crucible of the social, political and economic." (Sadique, p.227) 


Both the stories, 'The Homemaker' and 'Vocation' portray the same section of society through contrasting lenses. The two women in the mentioned stories uphold contrasting perspectives. Lajjo, with her unapologetic demeanour and eccentric behaviours, takes centre stage in society, fully aware of the influence she wields over people. The unnamed narrator in "Vocation" presents her opinions on prostitution with a raw and direct manner. It's evident how these two women, both possessing the common trait of being highly expressive, share similarities but also diverge due to their beliefs. They serve as embodiments of a society where diverse ideas coexist, capable of either challenging or reinforcing patriarchal norms.


The nature of the characters in these stories can also be interpreted. They are neither the victims, nor the perpetrators of the ill-faced society.

Nile Christe (1986 as cited by Dignan, 2004) proposed the idea of the ideal victim. Lajjo and the narrator, also being a victim of society's system, showcases their victimhood. Yet, they encourage these atrocities upon them as the most righteous acts of humankind. In the process, it has affected women around them who became a victim of their insults, judgments and did not get any support from them. 


As further in-depth analysis is done, the characters of Mirza and Sethani come into play. 

Both of these characters control the minds of the protagonists in a mind-bending manner that urges them to break their walls and let in those thoughts that they never dared to have. 


Mirza is a misogynistic who wants nothing but to make sure he has control over his wife and tame her from her whorish ways. 


"A man can do anything to please his mistress, but the wife is altogether a different kettle of fish."

This text can be easily deciphered as hypocritical and depicts double standards of the men of that time.

He is also a perfect example of how men bend their own morals as per their sexual urges. Initially, he was horrified at even the thought of keeping a prostitute under his roof. However, there's a big turn of events slowly, as he becomes sexually engaged with her and marries her even though he clearly couldn't form such a 'sacred bond' with a 'whore'. 


In 'Vocation', Sethani, on the other hand, unintentionally triggers various emotions into the narrator's mind. The narrator feels ashamed of her acquaintance with the fallen women who have entrapped her mind into the unfamiliar wonders of the world of freedom of expression. However, she restricts her mind to the territories of shaming. 


"I wonder why they keep the portraits of naked women in their houses-what is the use of this—perhaps the Sethani wants to hide her horrible wrinkles in 

the shadow of these perfectly formed statues—"


Similarly –

"It was wonderful if it was a cash down proposition ; if not it was sex on credit  and if someone  could not pay even on credit, it was sex on charity."

Lajjo considers her body her biggest asset. She made herself objectified for the sake of society. One can interpret the manner that lajjo has done nothing but given to the society that the thought of even getting an ounce of love seems foreign and fascinating to her. 


Lajo's oscillation between societal norms and her chosen profession triggers a psychological struggle. Her experience captures the internal conflict between her own self-worth and the judgments society imposes on her. This internal turmoil exposes the intricate interplay between personal desires, societal expectations, and the harsh realities of her circumstances.


Hypocrisies of the genteel society through Mirza, which on one hand expects wives to be virginal but mermits its males to philander. Mirza embodies the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in the society, treating her as a possession rather than a partner reflecting the broader gender power dynamics that disempower women like Lajjo.


Such element is also familiar in the works of Simone de beauvoir who used to term 'subject' and ‘ others’ to show the real position of women in a male dominated world the subject refers to the man who controls and rules over the women and the other refers to the women who is supposed to have no identity of her own she is not considered as an "autonomous being" and "appears essentially to the male as a sexual being". (Beauvoir 16)


The narrator in 'Vocation' oozes pride at the thought of being 'superior' to the women in her neighbourhood. She belongs to a more noble part of the city and is to not acquaint with such women. 


"I hope she had not taken me as a courtesan and come to wash my sins with those sacred offerings. How could I explain that I was pure, chaste and noble."


However, her claims can easily be labelled as defence mechanisms against any thoughts of the profession. She refused to eat a morsel that was bought by selling the body, yet she is seen drawing into their supposed world of prostitution deeper and deeper. And yet, whenever she feels too attached to it, she uses these claims to reassure herself. 


Chughtai does not romanticise her female characters or the connections they have with males, despite the fact that they play a prominent role in her novels. After being scandalised and making numerous judgements on her neighbour, the sethani, the young teacher in "Vocation" finally realises that the sethani was only acting in order to survive. Comparing the demands of each of their professions she thought, “The sethani tempted her clients with her get-up for the sake of livelihood. I also do the same — making myself presentable when I go to the court of my clients. The only difference was that my intellect was a squeezed out sugar cane while the sethani was a pitcherful of nectar. I sold my brain and her body!” These stories also lack romanticism and idealism in the relationships between men and women; Chughtai defies the stereotypes of the submissive and obedient wife by portraying marriage as a matter of physical and material convenience rather than exalting it as a sacred union.


The end of the story might be the most climatic ending one can come across. The hypocritical nature of the narrator threw her off guard with a force that highlighted to her of her mistakes. 

Vocation is a shrewd allegory that highlights the pretence of morality and the duplicitous ways in which women perceive one another.




Through a comparative analysis of Ismat Chughtai's "The Homemaker" and "The Vocation," this research underscores the multifaceted nature of prostitution. By examining societal norms, economic pressures, psychological complexities, and empowerment, the analysis illuminates the layers of reality often overlooked in mainstream discourse. Chughtai's narratives offer an empathetic understanding of the lives of people in this profession. 


Her courage to challenge these societal stigma with the power of her literary works and touching upon the uncharted territories of human sexuality that are looked down upon resonate with the world that so desperately needs to rethink their priorities. In a realm where words are often weighed down by societal constraints, Chughtai's works are pioneering examples that liberate minds into broadness and give us a more inclusive understanding of every human's struggle on a deeper level. 


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