How Wajida Tabassum explored desire, debauchery of Hyderabad’s aristocracy

Wajida Tabassum's work challenges the orthodox notions that imprison women, forcing them into a lifetime of self-denial.

Lascivious nawabs, lustful begums and wily servants were recurring figures in the short stories by iconic Urdu writer Wajida Tabassum (1935-2011). With fearless honesty, she bared the desires and debauchery of Hyderabad's aristocracy in the mid-twentieth century, depicting marriages fraught with unfulfillment and strange customs, and forbidden passions that stirred the soul of her characters.

Tabassum, an unsung icon whose works are not as readily available in English as those by her male counterpart Saadat Hasan Manto, was unafraid to delve into taboo subjects and challenge the social conventions of her time. Her stories, both powerful and poignant, bring to light the complex and often contradictory nature of human desire, captivating readers with their vivid depictions of forbidden passion. More importantly, they challenged patriarchal norms that sought to control, repress and shame women’s sexuality.

In the annals of Urdu literature, Tabassum remains a figure at once celebrated and controversial, like Manto, for her unflinching exploration of human sexuality and relationships — lauded and reviled in equal measure. Her frank portrayal of the realities of the society she lived in, despite facing the scathing criticism of the cultural gatekeepers of her time, had earned her the epithet of ‘female Manto.’ While her critics dismissed her as they felt that she crossed the limits of decorum and decency, others hailed her as a sahib-e-asloob, a writer with a distinct style.

Wajida Tabassum. Tabassum’s works have remained inaccessible to English readers for decades, except for a few scattered translations. Photo courtesy of Hachette India
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