Understanding Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf: a nuanced tale of sexual frustrations and unconventional sexual relations, from the perspective of a precocious young girl.
Lihaaf deals with a lonely wife exploring her sexuality, finding solace in the company of the one around her, and a baffled young mind.
Lihaaf, meaning the quilt, is a metaphor of concealment and secrecy that often a woman’s sexuality, desires and existence is subjected to, and is also a trope for the narrative. Being written through the eyes of a young, precocious girl who attempts to comprehend a reality she simply cannot understand, it finds purity in the ambiguity of sex. It is a nuanced tale of sexual frustrations and unconventional sexual relations.
One of the most prominent pieces in India’s queer literature, with a highly contemporary theme, Lihaaf is an ode to Ismat’s courage. Ismat Khanum Chughtai was born in a large middle class, conservative Muslim family of Badayun (Uttar Pradesh), yet, her writings defy every sort of conformist regressive thoughts and constructs.
Her boldness in probing the harsh realities of social milieu prompted readers to assume that it was a man writing under the name of a woman. When Lihaaf was published in Adab-e-Latif in 1942, it immediately created a furore and Chughtai had to face extremely hostile reactions. For a long time, she was labelled as obscene for writing only about sex. She had to defend herself against charges of obscenity in the Imperial Crown Court in 1944.
The circumstances she had to endure, just to write Lihaaf were daunting. Think for yourself, in the mid-1900s, a recently married bride, belonging to an extremely conservative Muslim family writing about queer sexual desires of a woman, something that is still courageous in the Indian society.
Lihaaf revolves around Begum Jaan, who is a victim of social circumstances, and a questioning young girl whose life gets marked by Lihaaf. Chughtai uses the innocent consciousness of the young girl to present a situation that is never spelt out but is nevertheless conveyed in all its complexity. Whenever the adult writer tries to communicate about the relationship that happens under the quilt, she is hindered by the young narrator, and the desire is concealed. Chughtai using a younger perspective quantifies and binarizes even the most complex sexual thought while communicating every detailed aspect of it to her readers.
It makes them question, what really is ethical? And are ethics absolute, or just slaves of social circumstance? Nevertheless, acceptance of Begum Jaan even in today’s society is extremely liberating and progressive. Hence, a must-read this pride month.
Feature Image Credits: Amazon