If you’re looking to understand the unfiltered social milieu of the 20th-century subcontinent, Ismat Chughtai is the author to turn to. In her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt), I found an insight into the pre-Partition domestic world, dynamic in its robust beliefs and delicate relationships. One of the famous literary deviants of that era, Chughtai published this story in 1942 in the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif and later faced strong allegations against the same.
Narrated by Chughtai from a child’s perspective, the story is purely suggestive, yet deeply meaningful. The candid testimony is sparked by her trademark witty descriptions, lending the story an essence of acknowledgement curtained by innocent language. The controversy around this story is not unknown to many — it was an obscenity trial that dragged the author to the Lahore Court.
But the fact that Chughtai was able to win the case against alleged vulgarity is owed to precisely this clever use of simple language. Through the incidents that take place in Begum Jaan’s house, Chughtai breathes life into the well-known (but far less understood) concepts of sexual awakening and lesbianism.
From Nawaab Sahab’s queer shenanigans to the sexual games that his wife finally resorts to with her masseuse (Rabbu), every tangent of the story highlighted for me how no two people can be deciphered the same way and that what happens under the lihaaf (both literally and metaphorically) can only be left to the imagination. Picture this going public in the conservative misogynistic society of the 1940s!
I believe it is the duty of the reader to contextualise a rich text and do away with their personal bias to the maximum extent. What stories like Lihaaf instigate for me is a deeper keenness to discover the relevance of feminism and feminine understanding in changing social contexts.
So, while it is interesting to read about the dynamic layers of a gendered society, it becomes equally important to study its criticisms and scholarly interpretations to form an unbiased opinion. Being a student of literature made me see the lack of exposure to background readings among this millennial generation. This often sprouts a limited and often misunderstood perspective on important topics such as gender, identity, queerness and feminism.
A deeper study of the story enlightened me on the nuanced concept of lesbianism and how it is often confused with homosexuality today. Adrienne Rich describes lesbianism to be a phenomenon way deeper than consistent sexual engagement. It is, according to her, a perpetuity of growing mutual affinity, shared ideal against male dominance, and inclination towards female autonomy.
What this means is that a relationship categorised under lesbianism is done so not merely on the basis of a sexual experience (the kind described by the author in Lihaaf), but multiple other factors that fail to find standing in Begum Jaan’s relationship with her masseuse Rabbu.
In this light, deeming Chughtai’s narration a ‘lesbian text’ becomes a far more complicated process. The author goes at length to describe the multiple ways in which impressing Nawab Sahib took up Begum Jaan’s days. However, Sahib’s constant fascination with young fair boys clearly alludes to the real reason why the marriage failed to work: he is gay.
Suddenly, there are new questions arising in one’s mind — what is the nature of the relationships being described here? How does one decipher meaning from subtle observations? What about this text make the reader think about lesbianism? Where does our understanding of that concept even arise from? and so on.
A good story, similarly, is not always about the plot itself, but often about the way it is narrated. This is one of the biggest elements that account for Chughtai’s idiosyncratic writing – one that unequivocally exposed and negated the social norms of her time. So much so that her writings are still banned in parts of the world today.
And yet, the action fails to speak louder than words sometimes. Chughtai’s writing has crawled into modern society as a prescribed academic reading and a work of classic feminist literature.
Having said that, Lihaaf also touches upon something deep inside the reader not just with its insinuations, but with the possibility of there being something more, of there being a hidden door into this handpicked domestic tale and the flavoured backstories of a grossly unjust marriage.
Quite naturally, the misogynistic culture of the time is embedded in the crux of this story, being the very reason why the narrator ends up tangled in this web of possibility in the first place. Women through generations have faced discriminatory social and psychological dismissal, age hardly playing a factor in the affliction.
While The Quilt expresses ideas and norms perched in many cultures around the world (to some degree or another), not a lot of writers have been successful in translating its essence in just honesty. The text I read was the translation by M Asaduddin, which takes on a sardonic tone with a touch of malice that somewhat overpowers the beauty of the original perspective.
What an art it is to paint shameless adultery with a pure perspective of innocence! What a timeless lesson it is to dive deep into the minds of the characters without breaking them down or stripping them bare of their eminent social facades. All of this in just a handful of pages.