Ismat Chughtai, a raging communist way ahead of her time, penned down Lihaaf, originally in Urdu, in the year 1942, while she was in Lahore.
She was tried in the court of Lahore for the obscenity of this story, but the case was dismissed. Thanks to Chughtai’s sheer sharpness and creativity, she wrote the whole story between the lines; there wasn’t a particular part that could be called explicitly obscene, so the case was boiled down to the word “aashiq”, a word that is used in loads of poems and prayers for gods.
It is safe to say, Chughtai was as radical a feminist as one could be in the pre-independence era. But this is not going to be fangirl session about Chughtai... or it might be, just a little bit.
Lihaaf, prima facie, seems like a forbidden love story between two forlorn women with heated scenes taking place under the quilt. This was one of the reasons that the story faced obscenity charges.
Lihaaf is narrated by an adolescent girl who prefers to get in fights with her brothers and their friends, unlike other girls her age- as she puts it- who spend time in collecting admirers. When her mother has to go out of town for a week, she leaves her with Begum Jaan.
Begum Jaan is a beautiful middle-aged woman, who was married young to Nawab Sahib, a rich and noble man, by her poor family. Nawab Sahib never gave her enough attention and she succumbed to feeling like her youth was wasted away. She initially indulged in necromancy and magic to try and get Nawab Sahib’s attention, but to no avail.
Nawab Sahib was completely engrossed in his work and his hobby, which was to borne all expenses of young men in gossamer shirts that required constant interaction with young, handsome men with slim waists for whom he was providing education and employment. He is also described as noble since he never was seen with prostitutes. Begum Jaan seems to be slightly jealous of Nawab Sahib spending all the time with these young men. But wait, there’s more. She also seems disgusted by the fact that Nawab Sahib would prefer to spend all his time with Gossamer Shirt Clad Boys over his young and beautiful wife.
I feel Nawab Sahib’s inclination towards men, his aversiveness to sports and prostitutes, his ignorance for his wife almost scream “it’s probably because he’s a closeted gay like most of us all”. I use ‘almost’, for Chughtai’s description of him is more than just hinting at him being gay, she’s mocking his ‘un-manliness’.
Moreover, she speculates Begum Jaan’s life as being started when she gave up on necromancy and shifted to education, romance and literature, or perhaps when this one particular maidservant, Rabbo, came into her life. Begum Jaan could now project her longing for lust and romance, that she has been deprived of but has read in her books, on Rabbo.
The adolescent narrator describes Rabbo with great mistaste, probably coloured by her own jealousy of not being as close to Begum Jaan as Rabbo. She uses casteist slurs for Rabbo since she is described to be a dark-skinned and chubby maidservant.
Rabbo is the closest to Begum Jaan, physically. She is the only one allowed in her baths and showers. She sleeps with Begum Jaan under the same quilt, and Begum Jaan is addicted to her touch and massages. The narrator also expresses her shock at the amount of touching that’s there between Begum Jaan and Rabbo, and she says, she’d rot with that much amount of human touch.
When the narrator comes to stay with Begum Jaan and has to sleep in her room, she witness an ‘elephant-quaking-under-the-quilt’. It is very clear that Chughtai is describing a possible act of woman-on-woman sex through the eyes of a child. But one very important observation we made during the discussion was that, there is more touch and intimacy in the story than there is sex between these two women.
On reading further, you can see Chughtai’s sarcastic descriptions of Begum Jaan and Rabbo’s relationship, through the eyes of the adolescent narrator. More so, the sarcasm makes the story less of a homosexual romance than it makes it a barter of touch and intimacy between two women.
These two women do not share the same social standing. Begum Jaan is a rich wife from a poor maiden family, who has never been given a time of the day or a child by her husband, but all the riches and resources to pass her time.
Meanwhile, Rabbo belongs to a lower class and fulfills her mistress’s wishes because her mistress makes an active effort to fund her son’s education.
This intimacy between the two seems more like a barter of commodities, which is obscene in the unethical sense of fetishization of Rabbo’s body- the over sexualization of a lower class woman’s body by her upper class mistress. We are not even sure if Rabbo entertains Begum Jaan’s needs with enthusiastic consent. Begum Jaan assumes the role of a patriarch in this relationship.
Begum Jaan is addicted to human touch from Rabbo-- massages or otherwise. When Rabbo has to leave to get back her son who ran away for some unexplained reason, Begum Jaan is left feeling untouched, and somewhat empty. The pains, ‘the itch’ seems to come back to haunt her. When the narrator offers to massage Begum Jaan, she is made to touch Begum Jaan more than she is willing to, or is comfortable with. She runs away.
The other servants also disapprove of Begum Jaan’s uncanny obsession with Rabbo and mutter abuses under their breath. This highlights the social unacceptability of primarily a woman-woman relationship, and then a woman-woman relationship between a mistress and her maid.
Rabbo returns and the narrator meets the elephant-quaking-under-the-quilt once again, but this time she resolves to face the elephant without the quilt. When she does see who/what this elephant is, she is scarred. She is traumatized to the point that she stops getting into fights with people, she tries to be like other girls her age. She begs her mother to take her home as soon as possible.
Chughtai, very intricately and boldly, layers this representation of an intersectional reality in the undertones, draws a quilt over it, only for those who can bear to witness intersectional problems in real time and have the boldness to see beyond this quilt.