Emerging from the shadows, with Lihaaf and Ismat Chughtai.
In a society where women lived in passivity and fulfilled the role of obedient lovers and caregivers, Ismat Chughtai seemed to be a significant exception. She dared to commit what most women in her time could not even fathom. Raised mostly with elder brothers, since all the elder sisters were married off, her envy for independence from nuptial and maternal roles burned bright inside her mind.
She sought revenge from society with her pen and her thoughts and gave back to it some of the most significant literature known to India. Her striking passion for her work beckoned her to touch upon sensitive issues like sexuality and feminine identity the society did not deem acceptable. Similar was her summoning by the high court for an obscenity trial inflicted on her for her short story Lihaaf, The Quilt, where she dared to tread on an area like homosexuality which was, for pre-independent India, non-existence. Originally written in Urdu, Lihaaf is quite an extraordinary tale about estrangement and a longing for love.
The story is narrated by a child and revolves around the Nawab and Begum Jaan, who are newlyweds yet lack the spirit of it. Begum Jaan is seen as a woman yearning for love, even an affectionate touch from her husband. Yet, he takes to the liking watching young boys wrestle with each other. Day after day, he would desert her to host wrestling matches, and she would endure the pains of being trapped in a marriage where she bears witness to nothing but the four walls of her room.
She has nothing but her loneliness when Rabbo enters her life. Rabbo is one of the house helps and a personal masseuse for the Begum to relieve her of the physical pains of abandonment. Chughtai makes impressive use of symbolism to account for the sexual relations of Begum Jaan and Rabbo since the narratorial perspective is that of a child. What goes on between the two of them is described as an elephant “flapping its ears”, as that isthe best any child could make of it.
The child, who is also the niece of the Begum, finally runs away from her household, for she finds the extent of their relationship quite mortifying. Chughtai paints the picture of the life of a closeted Nawab and quite subtly hints at his sexuality, giving her readers pieces to pick on. She beautifully highlights the need for sexual satiety even in women of a Begum’s disposition, especially in a society that would disown anyone with such a notion.
The powerful interplay between the Begum and Rabbo shows a calm acceptance of her situation. At this moment, she feels at peace. Moreover, Chughtai commits to the task of mirroring and challenging society’s hypocrisy when it comes to gender roles and ideas about regal ideals. To have conceived the sensitivity of such an issue and portrayed it with such grace is something that established Chughtai’s position as a prolific writer.