Lihaaf: Curtain on the Cracked Mirror

Insanely Average

A not-so-conventional young kid suddenly finds herself at the house of her aunt Begum Jaan. As she never fails to pick a fight, her mother, while going far from home, leaves her at her aunt’s for a few days where she would not find anybody to fight with. She shares the bedroom with her aunt who is tied with a Nawab through the bonds of marriage only nominally. Nawab stays busy with the students he teaches and shelters in the household and is completely oblivious to his wife. Begum Jaan finds the sole shower of peace in her dreary life with the touches of Rabbu. 

Rabbu is one of her female servants who is seen to give Begum Jaan oil and paste massages all day every day. She is often seen doing that even late at night. However, as our little girl shares the bedroom with Begum Jaan, she often witnesses something weird at night. She sees the quilt of her aunt shaking vigorously as if an elephant was struggling inside. The shadow of the shaking quilt leaves a dark reflection on the wall against the bed. Finally one day she gets to know something she did not ask to know— the struggling elephant inside the quilt is Rabbu and Begum Jaan.  

The short story, ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt), by Ismat Chughtai, ends this way. Ismat Chughtai is an Urdu writer who is famous for the progressive, communist, rebellious, and humanitarian approach she took to her writings. ‘Lihaaf’ is one of the most notorious yet renowned literary productions of her career. At some point, Ismat got sick of life as the story became bigger than the writer herself. ‘Lihaaf’ is significant not merely for the homosexual intimation it portrayed, but for the background it was written in. It was published in a literary journal Adaab-i-Latif somewhere between 1941 and 1942, a time before India achieved independence. Ismat Chughtai, being a woman living in shackled British India, dared to move her pen to write about sexual desire and different sexual expressions of a Muslim woman in a Muslim household. However, the story is deeper and more nuanced than it prima facie seems. It’s astonishing how Ismat touched so many subtle nuances of crisis and exploitation in such a short arrangement.  

The child narrator of the story seems to be portrayed as a tomboy who loves to play with boys. Her mother abhors this as she is a believer in the segregation of women by discarding free mixing. Ismat questions this belief through the words of the girl which is praiseworthy considering what time it was written. The child asks, “…are they maneaters that they would eat up her darling? And who are the boys? My own brothers and their puny, little friends!” This tiny little girl overrules a primitive social practice that the society would die for to retain.   

Ismat Chughtai also successfully addresses the hypocrisy that society displays in the name of marriage. She calls out the marriage of convenience between Begum Jaan and Nawab. Nawab is far older than Begum Jaan, but it did not matter to her family since he was rich and educated. However, the character of Nawab is cued to be either a gay man or a homoromantic asexual. He escapes from his responsibilities towards Begum Jaan as soon as they get married and is busy taking care of his students. His grey sexuality gets some colour when Ismat writes that Rabbu’s son stayed with him for some time and Nawab Saheb bought him new clothes and other gifts. Nawab’s character adds an extra layer of friction to the conflicts subcontinental gay men experience due to their sexuality. 

Begum Jaan, on the other hand, receiving only carelessness and disregard from her husband finds out a different way to please herself. Though it’s ambiguous whether she wanted to explore just another sexual experience out of vengeance towards her husband or she is queer herself, Begum Jaan gets sexually involved with another woman. ‘Lihaaf’ is outstanding in this regard that Ismat empowers a woman with the ability to make such a fundamental yet momentous decision when women are still seen to be powerless to date. However, Ismat draws an exquisite power dynamic between Begum Jaan and her maiden, Rabbu. The child narrator narrates that she hears arguments and tiffs between these two and hears Rabbu crying one night which implies that Rabbu has been abused all throughout. This is further confirmed as readers get to know that Begum Jaan once bought Rabbu’s son a shop and got him a job. As such, it becomes apparent that Begum Jaan wanted to have the upper hand in their relationship and manipulate her maid for sexual pleasure. 

The biggest concern of the story is the experience the child unnecessarily goes through. Begum Jaan did not care that the child in the room may awaken, be frightened or be mentally affected by whatever was happening in the room. However, the worst that occurs to the child is the sexual assault committed on her by Begum Jaan. Begum Jaan physically offends the child and makes the child feel vulnerable and helpless though she leaves her at some point. The mother of the child wants her to be safe, but ironically she is violated in a seemingly safe space. As the child narrates, “My heart yearned in anguish for Amma. This punishment was much more severe than I deserved for fighting with my brothers.”

Ismat submits the dichotomous binary notion of beauty through the characterisation of Begum Jaan and Rabbu. She recounts the uncontrollable attraction the child feels towards Begum Jaan. She reverberates the common practices of using amulets, talismans, black magic, and scriptures to receive love from the desired person. She unorthodoxly delineates a female character, Begum Jaan, to be a sexual freak which is evident when Rabbu stays absent from the house. By doing these, Ismat lifts the veil over the reality we flee from.

The title ‘Lihaaf’ aptly reflects the veil of ignorance the society is enwrapped in as a whole. Various stakeholders of the society choose to stay silent and let the lihaaf be on the social and familial issues so that their interests do not get leapt over. They choose to be in denial of the existence of those issues so that they do not have to be accountable to anyone in any regard. In doing so, they give birth to the biggest farce and a wicked fallacy in the name of societal norms. Ismat Chughtai does an excellent job of pointing out the realistic flaws of these social norms by lifting the veil.

Insanely Average is experiencing an obvious stage of life; twenties. Self-analysis and introspection as the beauty of twenties has taken over her thought process. This cis-gender homosexual female aims to be average in life. Insanely average.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.