Lihaaf ( دیکھو) by Ismat Chughtai is one of the most controversial pieces in Urdu literary community.
It caused enormous ripples in the community, which was once characterised (and still categorised) as one of the most conservative branches of South Asian literature. The agitation was so great that Chughtai was summoned to court with her friend Saadat Hasan Manto over their controversial pieces: Lihaaf and Buu, respectively.
This article aims to provide a new, contemporary perspective on this famous work that was revolutionary for its time.
About Ismat Chughtai
Ismat Chughtai remains one of the most iconic authors to have graced the annals of South Asian literature. Born to a family of civil servants, she spent a childhood in varied locations throughout northern India- from Badayun, to Jodhpur, from Agra to Aligarh.
Despite her self-professed candidness about discussing taboo subjects such as sex with her siblings, she faced considerable difficulties from her family when attempting to complete her higher education.
But she won that battle. She became one of the first Muslim women to get a BA in British India.
Her dedication to feminism and women’s rights further propelled her to express herself in her writing as a member of the Progressive Writer’s Association of British India(Anjuman Tarraqi Pasand Mussanafin-e-Hind)- a movement some considered the greatest in magnitude, second only to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s education movement.
Lihaaf : A complex web of human emotions
Lihaaf is set in pre-partition India and told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is the niece of the protagonist, Begum Jaan.
Begum Jaan is the wife of an esteemed Nawab who is renowned for his infallible character, partially due to his lack of dealings with prostitutes as was common in those times amongst the nobility. The implied reason for this, however, is that he is attracted to members of the same sex.
Due to the lack of the companionship she desired from this marriage, Begum Jaan begins to lose the will to live but is saved by her mysterious masseuse, Rabbo. While Rabbo is not a classic beauty, she is deft with her hands and constantly “massages” Begum Jaan.
Under the veneer of a servant-master relationship, Rabbo and Begum Jaan begin a romantic relationship, as the narrator slowly realizes while the story progresses.
The narrator notices the behaviour of Begum Jaan during Rabbo’s infrequent absences, and also undergoes a stark change in opinion about her beloved aunt-like figure during the few days she lives with her.
From Lihaaf, a multitude of poignant observations can be made and multitudes of questions asked.
The first observation the reader makes regarding the story is its portrayal of women’s sexuality. Chughtai certainly plays a good feminist by awakening the audience to female sexual desire, something up to this point consigned to the exclusive macho club of men.
Harkening back to the cultural setting of the piece, the reader must realise that women at that time were subject to severe gender segregation; staying in purdah(veiling) whenever stepping out of the zenana(women’s quarters) or nil or limited interactions with males not related by blood or family ties.
In a setting such as this, a woman’s sexual desire was treated even worse than her social standing- it was imagined that it simply did not exist.
Under societal pressure, many men married simply to please their family and promptly enshrined their companions in the zenana. Chughtai fills the gaps of the information provided to us about the zenana(usually written by male chroniclers). She shows us how women, not able to fulfill their basic innate desires resorted to other means of companionship.
However, Chughtai does not do justice to the principle of intersectionality, albeit a foreign concept at the time.
It implied that Begum Jaan only took Rabbo as a lover because she was denied the affection she needed from her husband. It portrays the psyche of Chughtai (who herself was one of the most progressive-minded authors of the time) and society at the time, according to which a homosexual relationship is intrinsically inferior to a heterosexual one.
In later interviews, Chughtai stated that in that era, people simply did not discuss alternate sexualities.
Consequently, we can draw the conclusion that while the piece was avant-garde for its time, it certainly had shortcomings that can only be addressed now from a 21st-century perspective.
Another saddening point to note is that the story was one of the few pieces actively discussing and portraying alternative sexualities, but in this, it failed to portray individuals of the community as people with values.
This is closely tied to the following observation on pedophilia.
Chughtai skilfully weaves and ties the horror and fear felt by a victim of sexual abuse without even describing it explicitly.
The wife of the esteemed Nawab, Begum Jaan is hitherto portrayed as one of the narrator’s favourite adults. The unnamed protagonist is in awe of her. But the events that transpire shatter her trust and belief.
The narrator is shown to be too young to even understand what she is the victim to, when Begum Jaan assaults her on the pretence of giving her a massage. Only the sheer sense of fear and betrayal speaks for itself. She even curses her mother for leaving her at the residence of such a vile human. . While Chughtai has been(and should be) commended for her ability to bring up the topic of homosexuality and sexual assault, perhaps we should contemplate the necessity of tying the two together. In the era of its publication, Lihaaf was possibly the first time a reader was exposed to the two themes.
Tying them together would inevitably colour the opinion of the majority against an already oppressed sexual minority. It would establish the notion in people’s minds that a homosexual individual is necessarily a pedophile and sexual predator.
Had the two been separated, the piece would certainly gain much more merit from the perspective of today.
One element that must be commended is how Chughtai portrays the ignorance and societal attitudes towards homosexuality in Lihaaf.
Despite the multitude of hints and innuendos portrayed by Rabbo and Begum Jaan’s chemistry and dialogue, the narrator remains starkly aloof to the nature of their relationship.
Some leeway can be granted due to the young age of the protagonist, but readers such as myself inevitably question blind ignorance to obvious facts. When the truth is brought out into clarity, the narrator still insists on denying what she saw.
In the penultimate paragraphs of the story, the narrator finally gathers the courage to turn on the lights of the bedroom and see what was causing the “shaking elephant” effect inside the quilt of Begum Jaan.
However, the narrator quickly states “Good God! I jumped into my bed”. This was certainly no sight for a young child to behold, but the very pronounced reaction seemed more due to the genders of the two people involved rather than the act itself.
It is a representation of the majoritarian society constantly trying to conceal aspects of their surroundings that make them uncomfortable, rather than trying to understand the needs of their fellow human beings.
Chughtai still remains a symbol in herself; a symbol of speaking up and taking a firm stance against bigotry.
Many other lessons can be learnt from her works by our current generation of budding activists, chiefly the importance of intersectionality and the struggles of feminists in the budding stages of the movement.
Oppressed minorities gain a fighting chance if they bond over their common experience of being buried alive by society. It is our job to question even the most infallible of our role models.
Chughtai is one of them. She woke the spark of independent thought but never thought of using the power of wind and fire combined to create an inferno that even the most committed of bigots would not be able to contain.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Artykite.
Browse our collection of products based on Ismat Chughtai’s work here.
About the Author
Aks(عکس) is a 19-year-old budding writer and student of history. His pen name means reflection in Urdu; which is what he hopes to represent in his writing.