The shrine in Karbala, Iraq, of Imam Hussain and his faithful companions martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD (Shutterstock)
The shrine in Karbala, Iraq, of Imam Hussain and his faithful companions martyred in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD (Shutterstock)

Review: One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala by Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Chughtai’s last novel, a retelling of the legendary Battle of Karbala, fought in 680 AD, can also be read as a political allegory about the suppression of dissent
By Lamat R Hasan
PUBLISHED ON MAY 06, 2021 05:10 PM IST
410pp, ₹575; Women Unlimited
410pp, ₹575; Women Unlimited

Ek Qatra-e-Khoon (One Drop of Blood) is controversial Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s last novel. Chughtai’s retelling of the legendary Battle of Karbala, fought in 680 AD, is a huge departure from her trademark body of work, which is secular, feminist and rebellious.

Chughtai became notorious with her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) on a young begum’s sexual escapades with her domestic help and was tried for obscenity. Later in life, she “cursed the fame she had achieved” with it.

The subject of her last novel is the timeless tale of the oppressor and the oppressed - the heartbreaking story of Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) grandson Imam Hussain’s martyrdom, as also of his 72 companions comprising his family and friends, by the second Ummayad Caliph Yazid I. Written in 1972, when she was 61 years old, the book draws from the marsiyas or elegies of Mir Anis, one of the greatest marsiya writers of the 19th century.

However, Chughtai was saddened by the response of publishers. There were no takers for a religious novel. They wanted her to write a sensational novel and were willing to give an advance. The book was finally published in 1976 by Fan aur Fankar, a year after the imposition of Emergency by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Chughtai’s many-layered work is as much a fictionalised narrative of the excesses perpetrated by the founder of the Ummayad dynasty, Amir Mu’awiya, and his son Yazid on the descendants of the Prophet as it is a political allegory. Chughtai told her interviewers back then that this 1,400-year-old story is also a contemporary one. However, her critics dismissed it as having no bearing on contemporary Indian society.

Ismat Chughtai in a photograph dated 01 April, 1992. (Babu Ram/HT Archive)
Ismat Chughtai in a photograph dated 01 April, 1992. (Babu Ram/HT Archive)

In his introduction, Bilal Hashmi compares the marble of Yazid’s palaces to Teen Murti Bhawan, the Nehru family’s residence, and Amir Mu’awiya’s installation of Yazid as heir apparent to Indira Gandhi’s heir apparent Sanjay Gandhi.

He writes, “Why, for instance, does Ismat describe the punishment meted out to Yazid’s adversaries as an ilaj – a reference, perhaps, to the dreaded, forced sterilisations inflicted upon the urban poor during the dark period (Emergency)?”

Both Hashmi and Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi state that Ek Qatra-e-Khoon is far more complex than had been previously believed. Naqvi had been toying with the daunting task of translating it since 1984 - “each time passing it over for some other book” of Chughtai’s. Her translation is invaluable as she manages to capture the essence of the original work.

The author paints to perfection the historical context when Imam Hussain was born to Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) beloved daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatima and his favourite relative and companion Hazrat Ali. Imam Hussain was their second child and they knew he was special. “He is truly blessed. One day, he will be the helper and leader of the world. People will remember his great deeds until the end of time,” the Prophet announced at his birth.

Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Bibi Fatima’s is a close-knit family and the Prophet dotes on his grandchildren – Hasan, Hussain and their little sister Zainab. The little incidents detailed in the book are heart-warming. The Prophet’s grandchildren sitting on his back as he prostrated in namaaz or on one occasion, the Prophet hiding them inside his cloak. When Hazrat Bibi Fatima looks at them longingly, the Prophet takes her and Hazrat Ali, too, into a grand embrace under the cloak.

Their good times do not last. The Prophet passes away and within a year Hazrat Bibi Fatima too dies. Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain’s idyllic childhood and the sense of security that came from being the bravest man’s sons is crushed when their father is assassinated. Still young boys, they uphold their family’s legacy successfully till Imam Hasan is also killed.

Imam Hussain decides to lie low for the sake of his family and friends, even as he makes it clear that he would not endorse Amir Mu’awiya’s philandering son Yazid as the next Caliph. It is crucial for Mu’awiya to take Imam Hussain on his side as he is the Prophet’s direct descendant, with a huge following. The Prophet has been dead only five decades and his legacy is fresh in everyone’s memory.

A confrontation is avoided for years till Mu’awiya is old and is desperate to install his favourite son. Following the sudden demise of Mu’awiya, Imam Hussain is forced to leave Medina with his family and companions. He decides to relocate to Kufa, from where he has been receiving several invitations. However, on the way to Kufa, Yazid’s forces ruthlessly decimate Imam Hussain’s family and friends, who fight with a lot of heart, on the barren plains of Karbala.

The youngest martyr is Imam Hussain’s infant son Ali Asghar. An arrow is shot into his little neck by the enemy. Imam Hussain is the last to fall. Their sister Hazrat Bibi Zainab keeps her promise to her brother and rises to the occasion, making sure his blood does not flow in vain. Even though just days before, when they arrived in Karbala, she was broken and in a daze: “Oh God, is this a river or a mirage? Are these bubbles or human skulls floating in the water? Are these waves or swords clashing with each other? I cannot bear to look.”

Naqvi reminds the reader that Chughtai may have shocked her publishers with this “religious” work, and that too at the end of a grand writing career. But isn’t this how she always was? Mocking the world with her perspective? she asks.

“…here’s Ismat, the rebel, doing her favourite thing: rebelling. She rebels against the notion of not writing a ‘novel’ about Karbala… Chughtai’s decision to write this novel, therefore, is actually as unexpected as it is predictable.”

Ismat Chughtai (left) in a picture dated 16 February, 1986. (HT Archive)
Ismat Chughtai (left) in a picture dated 16 February, 1986. (HT Archive)

According to Naqvi, Chughtai made the switch after writing short stories and novels depicting the film world. “Little by little, I grew tired of all such themes. When there was nothing left to write, I began to read the marsiyas of Anis – in five volumes.”

In another interview she said she was deeply moved by the killing of Ali Asghar, an incident that had a deep impact on her since childhood. Chughtai was not a Shia Muslim. Therefore, her retelling of this story is even more significant. Her nuanced work is a political allegory, a marsiya – an elegy - for our times too. Voices of dissent continue to be snuffed as in Yazid’s time.

But then there’s hope. To quote Chughtai’s wise words: “Today too, when a Yazid raises his head in some part of the world, Husain steps forward and crushes him – even today, light wins against darkness.”

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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