"Lihaaf" is a short story written in Urdu by Ismat Chugtai in 1941. It was published in the literary journal Adab-i-Latif. The story published in the tumultuous period of the national political movement, became a focal point of controversies, leading to the author getting charged with 'impropriety', leading to a trial in Lahore Court. Not only this, Chugtai was charged with impropriety which led to her trial in Lahore court to defend her charges. She was advised to apologise and pay the fine instead, she went to the court and won that case because the court was unable to find out the content in the context of homosexuality. In this story, Chugtai shows sexual relations between Begum Jaan and her maid Rabbu, but by reading her autobiography and other pieces of her writing, we can easily illustrate that she is not supporting the deviant relationship. She wrote in her autobiography that her mind is a camera which records what it sees. In this story, the narrator is a nine-year-old girl, so the language is not obnoxious but yet it was controversial according to the time it was published. She was criticized by society for this writing, but such criticism could not stop her from writing.
The plot of the story starts with the description of Nawab and his beautiful wife “Begum Jaan”. Begum Jaan despite being surrounded by all the material comforts and servants leads a very unhappy life. All the material comforts were nothing for her without the company of Nawab. She was married to Nawab because of his economic prestige, but she was living her life as a neglected commodity of a house. She thrived on the love and attention which she deserved from the Nawaab, but the result was unlike. She tried different ways to seduce the Nawab but he never showed interest in her. Finally, she blossoms again with the help of her maidservant Rabbu. The entry of Rabbu into her life was a turning point. Rabbu became a Begum Jaan's masseuse which became a therapy that brought Begum Jaan comfort and pleasure. The story is narrated through the eyes of a nine-year girl and the story is about the sexual bonding between Begum Jaan and Rabbu. Chugtai chose her narrator, a young girl who sees that something is going on between Begum Jaan and Rabbu but her innocence understands nothing. This story revolves around Begum Jaan, Nawab and Rabbu battling with identity issues through their sexuality while constantly attempting to maintain a good societal image.The story has a multi-layered plot and various themes which raises different issues. Lihaaf is one of Chugtai’s unexpected masterpieces.
Lihaaf, as a story, tends us to ask questions like why Nawab and Begum Jaan were married. Despite Begum Jaan being the most appropriate bride for Nawab, who has almost all the qualities which can be approved by society, he was not interested in her. One interpretation can be that the deep-rooted patriarchal society and its norms which pressurize him to marry Begum Jaan. Or maybe he never liked her as his companion for life, but this vagueness of answers narrows down when we go further and read the text about his strange habit where he used to entertain young, fair and slender-waisted boys in his house, whose expenses were borne by him. This makes us ponder about his sexuality and whether he was a Homosexual or not. The next major point we came across is about Begum Jaan who since the start of the text is seen as an object who suffers victimization and suppression by Nawab and how she has become a prisoner in her own zenana, where she doesn’t enjoy liberty. But at last, after having a passive life Begum Jaan finally revolted and try to find out ways to explore her sexuality. She attempts to seek recluse inside the haveli in association with the members present there. Rabbu suits most of her desire and needs. With Rabbu, Begum Jan develops sexual relations. Here, we find her personality exfoliating in the manner of D. H.
Lawrence who feels ‘blood being wiser than the intellect’. Call of Begum Jaan’s passion leads her to live life on her terms and she treads on the path of lesbianism. This is not because of her attitude towards what was considered unnatural sex, rather it is the outcome of the situation. And Rabbu, a woman with a stout figure and robust personality, could give the desired degree of satisfaction. So shall we consider both Begum Jaan and Rabbu as a lesbian? If one were to read Chughtai's memoir and her accounts of "Lihaf" and its various contexts in other nonfiction pieces, one would know that the story was no conscious challenge thrown by Chughtai; indeed she came to see it as a mistake and a fault. As for feminism, Chughtai did not stand by the story at all and, ironically, it was Manto who forced her not disavow its politics and not to compromise.
Furthermore, is it possible to call it a ‘lesbian relationship’? The lesbian subject is whose identity is centred around the conscious choice of women as erotic and romantic partners. Neither Begum Jan nor Rabbu is such a subject even if by lesbian we understand ‘same-sex desire’ in women’s context, still, it is difficult to differentiate between the two. As the story plot progresses, we get to know that Rabbu needs to visit her relatives against the wish of Begum Jaan, from that time Begum Jaan was out of her element, and when the narrator rubbed Begum Jaan’s back and she expressed her satisfaction with sensuous breaths, Begum then asks the narrator to lie near her, then she touches the narrator which made the nine-year-old girl uncomfortable. The narrator was embarrassed. She tried to protest, but could hardly do that. The narrator expressed her inexpressible situation that same evening. This makes us notice a very cunning and brutal side of Begum Jaan where she harassed a nine-year-old girl, and these traumatic events have affected the psyche of a child. This makes us think about how the whole story is a continuous cycle of suppression, assault and a very existential threat to the identity of every character described in the story.
Nawab is suppressed and victimized by the patriarchal society to suppress his desires which leads to his ignorant behaviour towards Begum Jaan. On the other hand, we notice how suppression and ignorance Begum Jaan have suffered although she rebelled against it and fulfilled her desire through Rabbu, then she also victimizes and harasses a nine-year-old girl to satisfy her needs, which left a deep scar on the psyche of the narrator. Lihaaf - a quilt is used to protect ourselves from the cold in winter. It gives us warmth. It provides relief and comfort. When we cover ourselves under a quilt we simultaneously cover ourselves from outer surroundings. We get detached from the outer atmosphere. In the story, the usage of the word ‘Lihaaf’ as a metaphor has a different meaning and kind of experience for every other character mentioned in the story. What a nine-year-old girl noticed that night and on other days when Rabbu was not there and Begum Jaan made the narrator uncomfortable.
For the young girl, Lihaaf is a scar on her memory which traumatised her. But if we notice the usage of the word ‘Lihaaf’ can also be seen both as defiance and ignorance. Metaphorically, Nawab protects himself to hide his sexuality from patriarchal society by indulging in the institution of marriage hence, marrying Begum Jaan despite his disinterest towards this reunion, for him, Lihaaf was Begum Jaan with whom he could practice compulsory heterosexuality, which protected him from getting in counter to his true self-identity. For Begum Jaan, the Lihaaf symbolises a rebellion against the ill-treatment and suppression done by her husband. Despite Lihaaf, a blanket is an object which covers us and also restricts our movement, but for her, it turns down to be exactly the opposite when she spread her wings and explored her sexuality.
Lihaaf, by Ismat Chugtai, gives us a very broad perspective of how we can interpret its plot. As a metaphor, 'Lihaaf' is also suitable for the description of the society which has covered itself, with the lihaaf of the patriarchal rules and norms and it formulates a kind of cage, not only for itself, but also for the people who are part of this group. The story ‘Lihaaf’ justifies its semantic meaning. The story, in its essence and spirit authentically and authoritatively represents the actual meaning of quilt or Lihaaf when it throws light on our turning a blind eye to the social evils, sufferings, ignorance etc. which is the result or cursed boon of our conservatism and mind-blocking attitudes. Ignorance is the root of most of the evils. Giving cover to evils promotes corruption everywhere, be it in life or society. Exploitation and subordination, suffering and subjugation, torture and suppression are the curses which women generally encounter not only in rural, uneducated societies but also in the educated society of the cities are the subject matter of the story.
Since this story was written on this date, after the decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court of India, society still has taboos about the issues like sexuality, harassment and acknowledgement of the LGBTQA+ community. The plot also questions society’s blind trust in the institution of marriage and how, according to them, it is the final solution for all kinds of problems faced by individuals and which keeps individuals under continuous pressure to compromise towards the extent that they have to compromise on being their true self, and have to hide their emotions which suffocate their mere existence and ‘always remain to be in a closet’. In this story, we also came across how society stigmatizes gender-appropriate behaviour and how it continuously hammers it negatively, for example, the narrator as a nine-year-old girl is always asked to be quiet and polite, she was not even allowed to play with her brothers.
The discussion about sexuality and identity at this time can also bring cringe among people because of the lack of proper education about this issue. Although we have seen various examples in Indian cinema where we see the acknowledgement of same-sex relationships, sexuality and identity. Although Chughtai did not write ‘Lihaaf’, with the idea of supporting same-sex relationships or lesbianism. Chugtai’s reaction after how society accepted her writing and the way society reacted to Chugtai’s Lihaaf led her to negotiate between traditionalism and modernism.
The job of progressive writers is to question and work on what is meant to be a modern writer. Her story can be placed within the larger sphere of modernity that talks openly and opposes traditionalism. The feminist stance of the story brings in fine nuances in the interrogation of the patriarchy and fortifies the feminist reconstruction of the self in which gender identity markers are diminished. The authoritative approach of male-centric is annihilated and gender extremism is eviscerated thereby, unveiling and voicing feminine sexuality in terms of sexual desires and dreams.