Lihaf is an Urdu short story that made Ismat Chughtai popular for its controversies. Because it was branded as a feminist work (feminism – not attacking men but the social structures. It also involves the freedom to express ‘sexuality’ which is not right according to society) and was banned.
A Terrifying Memory
The story is a ‘terrifying’ memory of an unnamed narrator that happened during her childhood. The memory pops up when she takes the quilt to cover herself in the winter.
When other girls were engaged in ‘girly’ games, the narrator was engaged in fighting with her brothers and her brother’s friends (with the opposite sex). Once when her mother went to Agra, she was left with her mother’s adopted sister- Begum Jaan’s house.
Begum Jan & Her Husband
Begum Jaan was married to a Nawab of ‘ripe years’ (very old man), because of his virtuous nature – that is he didn’t visit prostitutes. (That is he was not interested in women but in young men).
After marriage Begum was ‘tucked away in the house with his possessions and promptly forgot her’. She did try to draw his attention but ‘Nawab didn’t budge an inch’.
Yearning for Love
She spent sleepless nights ‘yearning for a love that had never been’. This is the feeling of every girl who is newly married yet her desires were never fulfilled by her husband that she wanted to gratify her wishes by other means.
‘It was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall’ – by her oil massage. Begum was gaining the glow that she lost. The little girl really fell in love with her ‘fascinated by her looks’. To Begum massage became ‘the basic necessities of life’.
The little girl could not bear the sight of Rabbu massaging or ‘rubbing at all hours’, this also made other maids mutter in disapproval. The little girl was made to sleep in another bed adjacent to Begum’s.
At night she found ‘Begum’s quilt shaking vigorously as though an elephant was struggling inside’, ‘slurping sound of a cat licking a plate’ which had the sexual connotation showing the homosexual relationship between them.
When Rabbu went to meet her son, Begum ‘was out of her element’ that she refused to eat and sleep. Rabbu was replaced by the little girl who offered to ‘rub’ her back. Begum expressed her pleasure with ‘sensuous breaths’, allowing her to touch all the parts of her body.
That night the little girl was made to sleep in the arms of Begum, who started rubbing the body of the little girl which made her feel jittery (nervous). ‘She was pressing her as though she was a clay doll’, ‘She (Begum) was like one possessed’ that the girl wanted to scream.
Rabbu Returned Back
Soon Rabbu returned. The little girl could not stay there any longer. She preferred the company of maids as she was terrified of Begum.
The girl missed her home badly that she started crying. She felt that the ‘punishment was much more severe than she deserved’.
That night the peculiar noise started. ‘Begum’s quilt was swaying like an elephant’, ‘sound of someone smacking her lips as though savoring a tasty pickle’ and ‘the quilt began to assume grotesque shapes’ that the little girls switch on the light in fear.
The little girl’s final statement is “Good God! I gasped and plunged into my bed”, as she saw something that she should not have seen. All these describe the homosexual relationship in Begum that she had developed as her sexual desires were not gratified by her husband. This caused the controversies.
But this short story is narrated by a little girl from her point of view and there is no obscene language used in the story. This was the argument from Ismat that the case was solved, the story became popular and earned fame for her.
Quoted from:- Lihaf (The Quilt) – Ismat Chughtai
Translated from Urdu by M.Asaduddin.