Posted by Shreya Bansal
Ismat Chughati is considered to be one of the most controversial and radical writers of all time. In an era when stories of women by women were rare, her work significantly revolved around the everyday accounts and ambitions of women.
One of her most popular works is the 1942 short story ‘Lihaaf’ or ‘The Quilt’. Chughtai narrates the story from the perspective of a young girl who is sent to live with her mother’s best friend Begum Jaan, who has been recently married to Nawab sahab, a teacher and a well respected man in the community.
During her stay the girl is introduced to homosexuality in a two-fold manner: first, with the attraction of Nawab sahab with ‘young and slim waisted boys’ and the other with the relationship between Begum Jaan and the house maid, Rabbo.
While Nawab Sahab always keeps Begum Jaan inside the house and fails to show any interest in her, he’s always keen towards the boys that come for his evening tuitions. Begum jaan is dissatisfied and ‘bored’ with her husband’s lack of interest in her and finally finds peace with her relationship with Rabbo. The young girl notes the growing relationship between the two in various instances and finds herself feeling that Rabbo isn’t worthy of Begum Jaan’s beauty and status. In the absence of Rabbo, Begum Jaan also finds her interests moving towards the young girl and tries to usher her with clothes and luxuries.
The quilt has been described as a white elephant in the story and metaphorically describes Begum Jaan’s desires, distant from the eyes of society but close enough for anyone to perceive. The young girl therefore becomes the window to a house that has many mysteries revolving around its various individuals that may seem “normal” from the outside.
The story is way ahead of its time because it primarily talks about a tabooed subject like homosexuality, in its revelation of Nawab Sahab and his interest towards young boys rather than his wife- a woman considered to be magnificent by their community. The author has tried to not only provide references to homosexuality in India, half a century ago but she has also cut through the stereotypes associated with homosexuality. Secondly the narrative gives a bold account of female sexuality and desires; “Lihaaf” is a story through the perspective of a woman, shedding light on the desires and needs of another woman.
Historically, many accounts on women that are not narrated by them or from their perspective present them in the light of just being victims of sexual violence. They’re portrayed as commodities and it is for the men to either protect or assault.. It is therefore radical to speak about a woman taking sexual agency. By talking about Begum Jaan’s explicit sexual desires, Chughtai gives us an alternative historical portrayal of women, that elevated them above the status of victims.
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Featured image source: News18