Ismat Chughtai, ‘Lihaaf’ and Lifting the Veil Off Same-Sex Desire
(This article is being republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Ismat Chughtai’s death anniversary. It was first published on 15 August 2016.)
The story takes you behind the curtain, plays in the shadows of same-sex desire, and lifts the veil off the longings of women in Muslim households.
Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf has been one of her most controversial works, one that got her summoned to the court on charges of obscenity.
On Ismat Chughtai’s death anniversary, The Quint curates from her short story.
Lihaaf tells the story of Begum Jan, who is married into a rich Muslim household, imprisoned in a life of desolation after her husband “tucked her away in the house withhis other possessions and promptly forgot her.”
The story is narrated in the voice of a young girl, who, with her limited vocabulary, cannot quite articulate Nawab Saheb’s preoccupations.
The story discusses marriage as a social obligation, the inequality in the arrangement and the subsequent oppression of the woman, all through the young girl’s words.
Gripped by a sense of failure, Begum Jan sinks to a pitiable condition. However, Chughtai does not render her helpless. She allows her the agency to find pleasure again, this time with a woman.
It was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall. Soon her thin body began to fill out. Her cheeks began to glow and she blossomed in beauty. It was a special oil massage that brought life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find the recipe for this oil even in the most exclusive magazines.
In her housemaid Rabbu, her oil massages and her touch, Begum Jaan re-discovers sexual desire.
None of this is overtly spelled out; it’s expected to be understood between the lines, felt in the references, absorbed through the metaphors.
The quilt serves both as a trope and as a leit motif in the story. It hides beneath it the homosexual relationship between the two women. The metaphor also signifies the quilt’s inability to provide Begum with any warmth, something she finds in and with Rabbu.
And she would massage with such vigour that even imagining it made me sick. The doors would be closed, the braziers would be lit and then the session began. Usually Rabbu was the only person allowed to remain inside on such occasions. Other maids handed over the necessary things at the door, muttering disapproval.
The quilt is also a metaphor for secrecy and hypocrisy with respect to homosexuality in the 20th century. It was considered a ‘diseased condition,’ and what Chughtai does is to launch an attack on this perception without ever needing to explicitly mention it.
The story talks about the complexity of same-sex desire in Colonial India, all through the simple vocabulary of a girl who does not understand it.
I again began rubbing her back, which was smooth as the top of a table. I rubbed gently and was happy to be of some use to her. “A little harder... open the straps,” Begum Jaan said. “Here... a little below the shoulder... that’s right... Ah! what pleasure...” She expressed her satisfaction between sensuous breaths.
Chughtai deploys the imagery of an elephant to express the young girl’s sense of confusion. That sense confusion is also symptomatic of the uncertainty associated with the understanding same-sex desire at that time.
The elephant in the room was disturbing for the girl, and the story for readers at that time.
With Lihaaf, Chughtai envisaged female sexuality and homoeroticism through the use of a figurative language that speaks to its audiences, even today.
The excerpts have been taken from Ismat Chughtai’s short story ‘Lihaaf’, translated from Urdu by M Asaduddin.