A Take On Lesbianism: Way Ahead Of Its Times

A Take On Lesbianism: Way Ahead Of Its Times

‘Lihaaf’ (‘The Quilt’) is a short story written originally in Urdu by Indian author and screenwriter Ismat Chughtai in 1942. Ismat Chughtai was a literary revolutionary of her times, writing on issues like female gender and sexuality, Indian societal pressures, religious and cultural identities, class conflict and many more, and was also a member of the pre-partition Progressive Writers Movement alongside other celebrated Indian authors like Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. She eventually wrote dialogues and screenplays for Bollywood classics like Garam HawaArzooZiddi, and many more.

First published in the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif, Lihaaf became one of the most controversial texts of its time, with Chughtai being called to trial on charges of obscenity. She was asked to apologise, but refused to, and eventually won the case on the basis that at no point in her story, she had used obscene vocabulary, nor explicitly suggested any sexual acts. This holds true, as Lihaaf has been cleverly crafted, narrated from the perspective of a small girl who does not hold the understanding nor the maturity needed when it comes to subjects like sex and sexuality, rather than an adult.

The Abridged Story

WARNING: Spoilers for the short story Lihaaf below!
Just in case you are not familiar with the story and would like to read it first.

Inspired from the rumoured affair of a begum and her masseuse in Aligarh, the story also depicts characters drawn from Chughtai’s childhood experiences of living in cities like Aligarh, Agra, and Jodhpur. Through her story, Chughtai raises important questions about the Indian constitution of marriage and the subservient role that women have to play in it, the oppression and neglect of female sexuality, the commodification of women to fit the status quo, and more.

In spite of their age difference, Begum Jaan was married off to the much older Nawab by her own family. He dehumanises her to a mere business transaction so that they could go up the ladder of society and reach a higher economic class. The quilt is a metaphor for the implicit and illicit relationship between Begum Jaan and her trusted maid Rabbu. By virtue of being married to a Nawab, Begum Jaan is surrounded by all sorts of material comforts and luxuries (from “fine spun Hyderabadi lace kurtas or her elaborate toilette when she would have herself rubbed with ‘all kinds of oils, perfumed unguents and lotions’”); yet her female sexuality is never paid heed to by her husband – her desires and needs as a woman go unfulfilled as the Nawab is more fascinated by the young adolescent male wards he keeps under his patronage.

While the Nawab seems to be harbouring homo-romantic desires of his own and even continues to enjoy them post-marriage, Begum Jaan suffers in isolation, growing increasingly frustrated as she is confined within a stifling household.

The fact that the Nawab only marries to get a societal stamp of approval and leaves poor Begum Jaan languishing, who had entered the marriage with the purpose of finding a satisfying sexual and romantic relationship, is a critique from Chughtai’s end who proves without a doubt that the Indian patriarchal society subjects its women to endless discrimination and oppression. It not only accords them a lower status and provides lesser opportunities; it also gives them no agency in comparison to their male counterparts. This even leads to Begum Jaan contemplating whether the event of her birth was a fault in itself. And she wonders if  that was the main reason for her pain and suffering.

Rabbu’s Presence

She gets a new lease of life in Rabbu. Rabbu earns the credit for being the one “who pulled her back from the brink”. The way Ismat Chughtai writes about Begum Jaan post-marriage is a redeeming feature. She chooses not to leave her protagonist hanging in a life of utter despair. Instead she gives her the agency to find a companion, however subversive that choice may be. So we do not know if Chughtai supported and/or endorsed lesbianism and other alternate sexualities through her story. But, she was definitely a sensitive, feminist, and forward thinking writer of her time. Simply by giving Begum Jaan sexual autonomy in the otherwise usually stifling and repressive Indian marriage and household.

The Critique

However, considering it was India of the1940s, it is understandable and quite clever that Ismat Chughtai wrote a lesbian story. Implying it to be one solely through connotation. She uses the narrative device of a child to give certain vagueness  to describe the relationship between Begum Jaan and Rabbu. The frolicking that ensues between the two under the lihaaf. The child notices that their relationship becomes a topic that gets discussed either in hush-hush tones amongst the other domestic help in the Nawabi mansion, often with ridicule.

However, she does not give any explanation as to why this was the case. Even in the climactic scene, when the narrator is brave enough to overcome her nightmarish imagination of the moans and screams that Begum Jaan would make (while probably having Rabbu perform cunnilingus on her, one can only imagine), she finally witnesses what is happening, but is unable to face it, diving under the bed and swearing. The story ends right there. We never actually get to see or understand what was it exactly that the narrator saw. But something that had her so shaken. But by never explicitly stating the details of the events, Chughtai managed to not paint lesbianism in a negative light. Rather implying it as a means to take back sexual agency. Instead exemplifying the story to make it the consequence of what happens when female sexuality remains repressed.

Lihaaf: Then And Even Today

The legacy of “Lihaaf” lives on. Its story and characters contextualised and adapted in more South Asian works of art. Even after more than 75 years from its date of publication. Abhishek Chaubey brilliantly used the story in his film Dedh Ishqiyaand addresses the word ‘lihaaf’ in this scene where you see an amorous play of their shadows on a wall. As the two silhouettes collapse into each other, Khalujaan (Naseeruddin Shah) says, “Thand lag rahi hai… lihaaf maang lein” (“It’s getting cold… shall we ask for a quilt?”)? Deepa Mehta’s Fire(1996) is also loosely based on this short story. Its two protagonists Radha and Sita find solace in each other. While trying to escape their own oppressive and abusive marriages in a common household.

Movie Trivia

The launch of the first look and poster of Lihaaf  happened on12May at the India Pavillion at Cannes Film Festival 2018. Directed by celebrated Pakistani actor-director Rahat Kazmi, Oscar-winning producer Marc Baschett hasco-produced it. The screenplay juxtaposes the story of “Lihaaf” and Chughtai’s trial which went on for three years. It simultaneously unveils the relation between Begum and Rabbu. The story is as accounted in Chugtai’s memoir Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, or ‘A Life in Words’.

Tannishtha Chatterjee plays the author, while Sonal Sehgal (who has also co-written the screenplay with Kazmi) plays Begum Jaan. Namita Lal plays Rabbu, since she has already enacted that role in an international theatre adaptation. Mir Sarwar and Shoib Nikash Shah feature in additional roles. The film is yet to hit Indian cinemas tentatively in November this year. But release of the trailer remains awaited. But for the first time the story will see a direct adaption into a mainstream feature film. This collaborative effort is exciting because it combines artists from both India and Pakistan. In order to bring an Indian lesbian cult classic to life.


This article first appeared here.

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