The Short Stories

11 Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

Ismat Chughtai: The Quilt

The Quilt

       An Introduction

‘Lihaaf’ or the ‘Quilt’ was written in 1941 and published some time later in 1942 in Adab-e-Latif. The story brought immediate notoriety to Ismat because the theme around which the whole narrative revolved was not just taboo but something that was never even acknowledged an existence, never mentioned in polite society. Not only did it focus sharply on female sexuality foregrounding the sexual needs of a woman, it went many steps further in making a deliberate and conscious choice of an alternative sexuality rather than a conventional heterosexual behaviour. To write of such matters at a time when sex was discussed among women only in whispers was Ismat's expression of the revulsion she felt for those women who suppressed their sexuality and meekly submitted to the oppressive male. Commenting on this particular aspect of her writing Ismat once wrote: ‘“I detest the wailing, spineless women giving birth to bastards and detest the faithful, sentimental and cringing wives with exemplary eastern values. Girls committing suicide, crying their hearts out, or begging for love from their lovers are taboo in my books!”’ ‘Lihaf’ was a courageous exploration of the alternatives available to women in a sexually repressive patriarchal world. It was a frontal attack on that world which in turn was understandably shocked out of its self-absorption.

Ismat was summoned to the court on charges of obscenity. The case dragged on for two years in Lahore. While attending the case proceedings Ismat met Saadat Hasan Manto who was facing a similar charge for his story ‘Bu.’ Ismat recalls how the judge expressed a grudging administration for her work she writes:

The judge called me into the ante-room attached to the court and said quite informally: “I’ve read most of your stories. They aren’t obscene. Neither is ‘Lihaaf.’ But Manto’s writings are often littered with filth.”

 "The world is also littered with faith,” I said in a feeble voice.

“Is it necessary to rake it up then?”

“If it is raked up, it becomes visible and people feel the need of clean it up.” I replied.

It was Ismat’s desire to bring out into the open the unspeakable realities of the hypocritical society. Such things did exist even though people turned a conveniently blind eye to them. In fact, Ismat had drawn on autobiographical material (as she did for most of her stories) for ‘Lihaaf’ and based it on a real life experience. She recalls how as children, she and her brother often used to hear women gossiping about a certain woman and her affair with a maidservant.  As soon as the children were caught eavesdropping they were shooed off, making them aware that this was a forbidden topic. She recalls that the narrative is about the wife of Nawab Swale Khan of Aligarh who himself was a homosexual. So it wasn’t as though the theme was merely a figment of Ismat’s over active imagination. It was a sensitive rendering of a childhood experience whose correct import was understood by Ismat only after she matured into a woman herself. When questioned about the obscenity in her stories and in 'Lihaf' in particular, Ismat said in an interview:

In my stories I’ve put down everything with objectivity.  Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell.  It's my belief that experiences can never be obscene if they are based on authentic realities of life.  These people think that there is nothing wrong if they can do things behind the curtains…. All of them are halfwits.

I wrote about a woman's loneliness who had all worldly comforts but who was deprived of her husband's company I wanted to portray her tension and desperation.

People with filth in their minds saw it reflected in the story but missed the essential point that Ismat was making.  After a two-year trial Ismat was acquitted because her lawyer argued that only those people who know that lesbianism exists can recognize its presence in the story.

       Detailed Analysis

‘Lihaf’ is a story about Begum Jan, the beautiful wife of the Nawab who though surrounded by all material comforts, fawning relatives and hordes of servants, nevertheless leads a lonely existence as her husband remains preoccupied with ‘fair complexioned, slender-waisted young boy students.’  She yearns for her husband’s love and attention but getting none withers and wilts away like a neglected plant till she finds solace in the arms of her maidservant Rabbu and blossoms once again.  Narrated through the eyes of a young precocious girl of nine, this story about sexual bonding between two women, in other words about Lesbianism, achieves a remarkable balance between ‘reticence and suggestiveness.’  The choice of a young narrator who sees a lot but understands nothing, gives Chughtai an opportunity to deal with a theme that was even forbidden a mention in any social circle.  But to consider the story as being just about lesbianism would be an incomplete understanding of the author's purpose.  It is a woman-centric story narrated from the woman's point of view and despite the child narrator it sensitively and very skillfully portrays the sheer loneliness and desperation of the frustrated wife on the one hand and locates the reason for that frustration in her sexual deprivation.  By doing so, Chughtai boldly foregrounds the issue of female sexuality in the story, forcing people to recognize and acknowledge that such a thing also exists.  That a woman could have sexual desires was a far cry for a society that believed only in male desires and woman’s submission to them.  But as Asaduddin puts it ‘Chughtai was the first significant writer in Urdu … to acknowledge female sexuality and to portray it in a courageous and convincing way.’ Her endeavour is ‘directed towards illustrating that it is one of the most important and potent facts of life and the prime pivot of many human actions.’  In this story she brings out effectively the fact that women too have physical urges and needs and if denied a legitimate fulfillment then a likelihood of alternative sexuality can become an actuality as it does in the story.

The theme of ‘Lihaf’ is then an inter-linked one where female sexuality, its suppression, the resulting loneliness and then lesbianism all exist in a logical sequence.  Though the major thrust of the story falls on the above mentioned aspects of a woman's existence in an oppressive and claustrophobic society, yet, as is the case with almost all of Chughtai’s stories ‘Lihaf’ also gives us a taste of a whole culture in its brief though vivid glimpses of the Nawabi way of life. It is a life full of luxuries and comforts with a surfeit of material things. Only Chughtai could think of supplying such details as Begum Jan's ‘fine spun Hyderabadi lace kurta’s or her elaborate toilette when she would have herself rubbed with ‘all kinds of oils, perfumed unguents and lotions.’ But what goes on in this luxurious household behind the chilmans and closed doors is another story altogether - one of deprivation, of loneliness and frustration and abnormal patterns of normal heterosexual behaviour. All this is surprisingly achieved through a nine-year-old narrator and through a deft use of the lihaf as a metaphor as well as an object. Something, which conceals and cloaks things so that one does not know what strong undercurrents, may lie beneath the apparently calm exterior. Let us take the story step by step to see how Chughtai is able to achieve this remarkable feat.

  •     Narrative Style

The first few lines of the story introduce us to the first person, the ‘I’ of the story, who is going to take us through the narrative and at the moment we are not aware that it is a nine-year-old girl. In fact, we sense that the story is going to be a flashback in the narrator’s life since there is a mention of the past memories which are revived the moment this narrator makes use of her quilt in the winter month. The introductory lines also link up the story with the title since the narrator not just mentions the lihaf but hints at the instrumental role it will play in the narrative both as an object as well as a metaphor and symbol. Its shadows assume identities that set the narrator's imagination racing. It is evident that the innocent object has played same significant role in the past for it to leave a lasting impact on the narrator’s mind. Our curiosity is suitably aroused and we move quickly onward for the mystery to unravel.

The second paragraph builds up the suspense as the narrator tells us in a chatty tone that it is no romantic tale that she proposes to tell, rather a frightening one where ‘the rocking shadow’ of a lihaf on the wall can still send shivers down her spine. Notice that the language used in simple, everyday, speech and the tone is conversational into which the metaphor of the lihaf has been woven in with a seemingly effortless ease. The next step is to bring us up to date with the time and there is the first hint of the autobiographical element of the story when the ‘I’ begins to assume the identity of the author. The first person narrator then is probably the author herself who is also going to be a participant in the story as it is clearly stated that she is going to draw upon memories of her childhood which go into making up this story. The mention of her childhood quarrels with her brothers and their male friends is a reference lifted directly from Chughtai’s own life. As mentioned earlier Chughtai’s own admission about the story was that it is based on a real life experience when whispers about such a woman and her affair with her maidservant were a recurrent topic of the gossip in the zenankhana. Despite the strong autobiographical relevance of the story, however, the narrator could be any woman relating a childhood experience.

The young narrator seems to be a far cry from the docile and submissive girls one would normally come across in a conservative Muslim household. Her unconventional tomboyish behaviour sets her apart from other girls who at her age were busy securing admirers while our narrator was occupied most of the time with fighting every boy or girl that came her way. It is this which prompts her mother to leave her with her ‘adopted sister’ (‘munhboli behan’ in the original) Begum Jan, for the time when she would be away on a visit to Agra. In Begun Jan's household there was not a single child with whom this narrator could gratify her quarrelsome tendencies and so her being packed off to the Nawab's house seems like a ‘punishment.’ It is this same Begun Jan's lihaf that has etched itself in the memory of our narrator and ‘is to this day preserved in it like a scar from a red hot iron.’

Till this point in the narrative the child's perspective has still not surfaced. We are being given a recollection of events from the perspective of the same person but who is now a grown up woman and who can therefore make connection between observed facts and prepare the ground for the narrative to unfold. Thus we are informed how Begum Jan came from an impoverished family and are also told that her destitute parents had given her in marriage to the Nawab Sahib because ‘although somewhat “advanced” in age, the Nawab was a very pious man.’  He had never been known to indulge in decrepit habits like visiting prostitutes and had even performed the Haj and helped others to perform it to.

  •     Position of Women

 Notice how the narrator is merely observing and reporting what had happened but Chughtai here is effecting a simultaneous exposure of a certain society and culture. It is a society where marriage seems to be the ultimate goal for a woman’s existence and somewhere money too plays a part or else why would the parents of a young and beautiful girl marry her off to a man much older then herself? At this point one might recall Chughtai’s other justly famous story ‘Chauthi ka Jora’ in which Kubra, the daughter of a poor widow is unable to find a groom for herself despite her mother's frantic efforts which push this family to the brink of absolute penury. Unable to bear the humiliation Kubra dies but one wonders had such a Nawab as Begum Jan's husband come along at that time, would not have Kubra’s mother gladly given her daughter in marriage to him ? Rich old men marrying poor put beautiful young girls was a common occurrence in a society where marriage was essential for a girl's survival but poverty often became a hindrance to it.  Thus we begin to get a peep not only into the life of Begum Jan but also into a culture which prompted such mismatched unions.

The next step is an unmasking of the pretentiousness, the hypocrisy, and the pseudo-religiosity of the Nawab and by extension of the society to which he belongs. This pious and religions man has a ‘mysterious hobby.’ Unlike others of his status he does not indulge in pigeon or cock fights. His interest and his only pleasure was ‘to have young fair-faced boys around him with slim waist whose expenses were generously, borne by the Nawab Sahib himself.’ On the face of it there seems to be nothing wrong in helping students. But Chughtai’s choice of words and her tongue-in-cheek manner hints at the seamy reality underneath this apparently virtuous behaviour. The boys are no robust, naughty quarrelsome children but ‘fair faced’ and ‘slim waisted’ and, as we are told later, dressed in ‘translucent kurtas, their well formed legs in tight fitting churidars…’ The description has an unhealthy ring to it and our suspicions are confirmed as the narrative progress.

For the Nawab, Begum Jan is nothing more than a piece of furniture in his house. Having married her and installed her as his wife he forgets all about her, leaving her to pine away in loneliness while he has his rendezvous with the young boys he prefers to surround himself with. Once again Chughtai is hinting at the position of women in Muslim household. They seem to have no voice of their own in which they would register protest at the oppression that they are made to experience every moment of their existence. Begum Jan has some legitimate rights as a wife but it is not for her to demand them. They can come her way only if the husband wishes it so otherwise she has merely to submit to her fate.

Thus all her dreams of spending a happy married life come to naught. She is relegated to living her life on her canopied bed, pining and yearning for her husband’s love. She burns with envy as she watches the boys through the chinks of the drawing room door. Like any conventional woman she takes recourse to prayers and vows in order to reclaim her husband and then to practicing her womanly charms on him but all her efforts fait. Using an apt smile Chughtai describes it as applying leeches to a stone. The Nawab does not budge an inch. The Begum then turns to books but available literature only fans her romantic dreams and heightens her realization that they would never come true, pushing her further into despondency. Thus she finds no solace anywhere and begins to lose sleep and health. Understandably she does not even feel like dressing up wearing fine clothes for who was there to see and appreciate?

The next paragraph continues an exposure of the Muslim culture, especially a Nawabi household. There is a steady stream of relatives and visitors who come fawning on the Nawab and most of these people are Begum Jan's poor relatives, who come to eat the Nawab’s rich food, to enjoy themselves at his expense and have their winter needs provided for. This was a very common occurrence in such households and Chughtai’s own father's house was just such a place where relatives and visitors felt free to come and enjoyed his hospitality. Chughtai’s exploration into a culture continues through a simple documentation of observed reality.

Though the poor relatives warmed themselves at the Nawab's expense, Begum Jan's life remained empty and cold and she shivered in her loneliness even though her lihaf had been ‘freshly stuffed with cotton which had been teased out into a fluff.’ The use of the lihaf as metaphor begins as early as this. It is unable to provide Begum Jan with the warmth that she needed and none of its shadows on the wall held any promise for her. In other words, Begum Jan remained cold and lonely and her frustration grew day by day. She almost ceased to live till one day Rabbu came on the scene and pulled her from the brink of despair back to life again.

The narrator recalls how Begum Jan blossomed under the hands of Rabbu. Her dried up body began to fill and her beauty burst into bloom. To unsuspecting eyes the secret lay in the oil massage that Rabbu gave her mistress and Chughtai ends this section of her story with a characteristically tongue-in-cheek comment that ‘the best medical journals…. will not give the prescription for this oil.’

  •     Visual Details

Having thus laid the ground for the action to take place Chughtai now takes us to that time in the past when the events of the story actually happened.  The narrator is a young girl of nine or ten and she begins immediately by recalling how Begum Jan had looked when she first saw her. Through minute details a complete picture of Begum Jan is sketched before our eyes in such vivid strokes that she comes alive for us. Reclining on the masnad, with Rabbu   ‘kneading her back and body’ she looked like a grand queen. There is innocence in this description which hints at the attraction that such a figure can have for a nine-year-old child. Notice that in this description of Begum Jaan there is an emphasis on the physical details. We are told about Begum Jan’s dark, luxuriously oiled hair and her immaculate parting, her black eyes and her carefully plucked eyebrows which looked like drawn bows; her distended eyes with heavy eyelids and thick lashes and her lips which were often reddened. The downy upperlip with the faint suggestion of a mustache makes her look sometimes like a young boy. In the midst of a beautiful description a single line immediately individualizes Begum Jan for us and at the same time alerts us to the fact that something might be amiss here.

The narrator continues in the same vein telling us about her smooth skin, her glistening legs, tall figure and well-proportioned body. For a nine-year-old girl to have observed and noticed all these is nothing unusual but it also hints at the young narrator’s ‘inchoate’ sexuality which prompts her to observe these physical details. In contrast to Begum Jan, Rabbu is just the opposite. In fact she has been presented as a perfect foil to the Begum and is as dark as the Begum is fair, ‘as flushed in the face as Begum Jan was snowy white.’ She is almost ugly, with a pock marked face, ‘a robust solid body, small nimble hands, a small, taut belly and fat, always moist lips.’ She was forever massaging Begum Jan and the narrator watches fascinated how quickly her hands moved. One moment they were at her waist and in a trice they were at her thighs and then racing down to her ankles.

  •     Suggestive Nature of the Details

Rabbu’s job was only to be Begum Jan’s constant companion; to be forever scratching her back, massaging her legs or her head, or various other parts of her body. The bewilderment of the child narrator is brought out effectively as she wonders at all this kneading and rubbing. At the same time since it is a child who is reporting these goings on, it is done without any awkwardness that might have accompanied such descriptions. The child narrator does not understand what is happening and naively states that her body would have simply disintegrated under so much pounding. Begum Jan’s elaborate toilette too gives us a glimpse of the Nawabi lifestyle but the closed doors, lighted braziers and Rabbu being Begum Jan’s only companion inside, raises our suspicious. A little later we are told that Begum Jan required this endless massaging because of a permanent itch on her skin which the doctors and hakims had been unable to cure. Rabbu’s comment that it is merely the Begum’s hot blood that causes the itch is accompanied with a sly smile and puts things in perspective for the adult reader though it leaves the child narrator naively accepting the reason for the massages.

The narrator now a grown woman recollects how Rabbu and Begum Jan were a topic of amused conversation at social functions and gatherings. There were bursts of laughter the moment their names were mentioned. Innumerable stories had been coined about the poor lady. Notice how things are left vague even when the mature narrator could have spelt them out for us. As a mature woman she knows the nature of relationship between Rabbu and Begum Jan but chooses to let it remain at the level of suggestion. Consequently we are taken thus far and no further even though the recollections of a child narrator are being filtered through an adult consciousness. The second section of the story ends at the point when the child narrator recalls how she was left with Begum Jan for a week while her mother went to Agra.

Till now it was as if the narrator was preparing the ground on which the events would unfold. The stage is set, the situation has been explained and the characters have been described. There have been enough suggestions and our curiosity has been aroused. Along with the child narrator we too enter the world of Begum Jaan. The child narrator’s bed is placed in Begum Jan’s room next to the latter’s bedstead. Things move in a normal fashion with the two playing a game of ‘Chance’ till ten or eleven after which the narrator goes off to sleep. The events of the night, however, send her into a tizzy when the rocking and heaving of Begum Jan’s lihaf jolts her out of her sleep. The innocence of the child on the one hand and the unspeakable goings on inside the lihaf on the other are thrown into high relief in the exchange that follows. She hears two people whispering and thinks that there may be a thief but on hearing Rabbu's voice sternly telling her to go to sleep the child ducks into her own lihaf for comfort. The next morning, Begum Jan’s lihaf looked absolutely innocent.

  •     The Child Narrator

Notice how the story continuously maintains a balance between reticence and suggestiveness. The use of the child narrator proves an effective device to deal with a forbidden subject. Though the events that are happening indicate a lesbian relationship in the offing yet the same is never explicitly stated or described, as the child understands almost nothing of the events. She can only convey what she sees and feels. She has merely observed Begum Jan's lihaf heaving and rocking and her child's imagination is limited enough to think that a thief is lurking somewhere. The next night however takes us a step further and we now get a taste of Chughtai’s phonetic use of words to convey sense through sound. At first the narrator can hear only Rabbu’s convulsive sobs and then noises ‘like those of a cat licking a plate.’ This time, though frightened, she doesn't call and goes back to sleep.

Rabbu's visit to her son who is a good-for-nothing and had rejected the hospitality of the Nawab once never to come back again, gives a nasty turn to events. Why do you think Rabbu's son is mentioned here and drawn into the narrative? Firstly it is because he becomes the reason for Rabbu's absence from the house which leads the unsuspecting narrator into the arms of the beguiling Begum Jan. At the same time, however, Rabbu’s son comes as a reminder of the Nawab’s predilection for young boys. This is so because it is mentioned that he too had taken up the Nawab Sahib's service for some time, and received many gifts of clothes from him but then no one knew why, he fled and never turned up at the house even to see his mother. Knowing the Nawab we can only conjecture as to what might have happened to drive the young boy away but once again things are left at the level of suggestion and nothing is explicitly stated or described.

Rabbu goes away; Begum Jan is distraught and dejected. Her body aches at every joint till our child narrator in all naivete offers to scratch her back. What follows is something which goes from innocent playfulness to unspeakable dread as Begum Jan presses the child narrator tightly to herself even when she tries desperately to escape. Instinctively she knows that something is awry.  She begins to weep inwardly while Begum Jan hugs and squeezes her like a plaything.  She was like one possessed and the child narrator feels like a trapped animal who could neither scream nor cry. Once again we are taken thus far and no further. This holding back at the right time is what makes Chughtai avoid exhibitionism and pornography while at the same time she places all the hints at our disposal to enable us to make our own inferences.

It is ironical that the narrator’s mother had placed her daughter in Begum Jan’s care safe from the loafing boys who roamed the place. And here was her daughter more scared of Begum Jan than of all the loafers in the world. Instead of admiration, Begum Jan now generated a feeling of disgust and dread in the narrator. When the child narrator becomes adamant about being sent home, despite the Begum’s cajoling, Rabbu acidly comments and says ‘“Unripe mangoes are sour, Begum Jan.”’  For the adult reader such an observation places things in a clear perspective as far as the Begum’s designs on the young girl are concerned.  At this the Begum throws a fit which transforms her from a gaudy, nauseatingly beautiful woman to a ghoulish nightmare.  It is only Rabbu who can calm her nerves and she sits massaging the Begum’s body when our narrator tiptoes into the bedroom.

One more time the lihaf sways like an elephant that night. There is once again a reliance on the phonetic use of words to convey what is happening inside the lihaf. Even at the moment of sinister revelation, Chughtai is able to deal with the subject with a freedom which comes to her through the use of the child narrator who reports things without any inhibitions or prior knowledge of what might be happening. For her the sounds are simply due to some feast that the Begum and Rabbu are enjoying in hiding and according to her this was entirely possible since Begum Jan had not eaten anything the whole day. But it is the consistent bloating up of the lihaf that once again sends the narrator’s imagination working overtime. In an entirely credible way Chughtai delineates how a child’s imagination can conjure up most nightmarish images in the darkness of the night. But today the narrator has decided to unravel the mystery of the elephant inside the lihaf. She sums up her courage to step down from her bed and switch on the light. As the light came on the lihaf did a somersault and collapsed. But in doing so, a corner of the lihaf was lifted by a foot revealing something for which the narrator was not prepared and she can only any 'Allah' and dive for her bed.

  •     The Ending

The ending of the story as it exists in the later versions of it is markedly different from how Chughtai had originally written it. In the first version of the story there was an extra line after the narrator dives into her sheets. It said ‘What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never till anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.’ Manto objected strongly to this sentence observing that the last line is ‘not artistic at all.’  When he spoke to Ismat about the story he said: ‘I liked your “Lihaf” very much. It is truly the distinctive feature of your style to use words in a judiciously economical fashion. But I was surprised that you wrote a pointless sentence at the end of your story.’ In all subsequent editions, the story was published without the last sentence. The line was superfluous and inartistic because the suggestiveness in the story had already successfully conveyed the real import of the events that had happened. Moreover, by implying that the nine-year-old child actually saw something disturbing inside the lihaf would be hastening the process of a sexual awakening, which would strike a very false note. Moreover, as Tahira Naqvi has observed. ‘At the time she wrote the story her knowledge regarding the subject of lesbianism was meager; what she could not “tell” was actually what she did not know.’

  •     The Lihaaf as Metaphor and Symbol

At the end of the story the Lihaf has been put to an ingenious and dexterous use to work both as an object as well as a metaphor. Its interpretation as a metaphor hinges on the lihaf’s capability to conceal and hide things. To put a cover on reality and thus it becomes operational on many levels in the story. On the one hand we see how

 Begum Jan becomes a ‘lihaf’ for the Nawab’s own proclivity about young boys. He uses his wife as a cover for his own nefarious activities. On the other instance we find that as an object the lihaf becomes a cover for Begum Jan’s and Rabbu’s nightly activities. It prevents the narrator from seeing what actually is happening inside but at the same time it makes her imagination run wild. Thus the lihaf is cloaking as well as provoking. In yet another sense the quilt or ‘lihaf’ becomes a cover for a woman’s suppressed sexuality. That is why though we are never told what might be happening inside the quilt yet we have been given enough hints to imagine what might be happening and the reason why it was happening. On a very important level, the child narrator becomes the ‘lihaf’ of the narrative technique to deal freely with forbidden subjects. Nothing is stated categorically, nothing inferred. Merely factual descriptions of observed reality are given along with hints and suggestions, which often leave things to the imagination of the reader. The child narrator is able to provide a lihaf, a cover for the narration of a story on a subject that was taboo. She becomes the lihaf of the technique In fact Chughtai’s artistry has been aptly termed 'lihafi' by Majnuh Gorakhpuri.

In yet another way, as Asaduddin has observed, the lihaf is used to indicate ‘the contrast between the speciously calm external aspect of things and the treacherous undercurrents.’ Begum Jan’s lihaf looks quite innocent to the narrator in the morning, but as the night advances it is the same lihaf that fills the narrator with dread as it hides an unspeakable reality from her.

  •     The Theme of Female Sexuality

The story does not romanticize or prettify lesbianism or homosexuality. Begum Jan is able to avoid direct censure because she does not violate the heterosexual code of chastity by taking another man into her bed. Lesbianism here is a choice made as an alternative to repressive heterosexuality.

As mentioned earlier too, the story succeeds in effectively fore grounding the issue of female sexuality. It hints at the physical needs of a woman and moves from recognition of these needs to a delineation of how they are either suppressed or exploited. Thus the story is also about suppression and oppression which leads to frustration loneliness and despair. What leads Begum Jan to find solace in Rabbu’s arms is her unfulfilled desires and her utter loneliness. Thus loneliness too is a significant theme of the story and intimately connected with the theme of female sexuality and its suppression. The answer is sought and found in alternative sexuality, in a physical bonding between two women thus making Lesbianism the other important theme of the story which ultimately comes to dominate and overshadow the other issues. In fact it will be interesting for you to know that the first book on lesbianism that was published in England was called The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall published in 1928. The title links up the issue of lesbianism with loneliness that women might face in their lives.

  •     Characters and Style

The characters in ‘Lihaf’ as in all of the Chughtai’s stories are culturally rooted. Begum Jan, Rabbu, the Nawab are all products of a particular social milieu. If taken out of their context they lose their force but placed within it they make a whole culture, a whole way of life come alive for us. As observed is the course of our analysis, character delineation is done through minute observation and details, which makes these characters come alive for us. They almost walk out of the pages to stand before us as real flesh and blood figures. This part of Chughtai’s artistry prompted Waris Alvi to observe that in her characters she creates ‘felt word pictures.’ Yet Ismat almost never ventures into the inner recesses of her characters’ minds. She prefers to dwell on external, observed reality and leaves the reader to interpret the psychology.

All this is achieved in a style that is simple, uninhibited, and straightforward with a sense of freedom and spontaneity. She takes the readers through her stories in an easy uncomplicated way without taking recourse to complicated stylistic devices like ‘flash back, flash forward, ellipsis, stream of consciousness and so on.’ She is a storyteller first and fore most and never experiments with form. Her narratives are almost like a conversation with her readers and are therefore all informal with the tone remaining chatty never reflective. One reason that Ismat herself located for this colloquial tone of her stories was in the fact that she never could write in solitude. She lived in a house brimful of people and while she sat in a corner writing one of her stories or plays in the same room there would be children quarrelling, servants wanting to know what to cook, her elder sisters discussing clothes and make-up or her mother and aunts indulging in some neighborly gossip. Thus her style too assumed this racy pace with which she was surrounded. The conversational tone established an immediate rapport with the reader. It became another reason for her to opt for colloquial, everyday speech in telling her stories rather than sophisticated, stiff and ornate Urdu that would make her characters seem unreal.

Ismat drew upon idioms, images and metaphors from the everyday world and made a deft use of them to impart a richness to her stories, making them fit into the narrative with complete ease and an effortlessness that can only belie the truth - just as we see happening in the case of the use of the lihaf as metaphor in our story. Krishan Chander, a noted stalwart of Urdu literature and Chughtai’s contemporary, remarked in his preface to a volume of her stories: ‘What one is reminded of by these stories is horse race, i.e. speed, movement, briskness and acceleration, to the extent that the reader is let for behind cursing the writer in his mind. Not only does her story seem to be running, but the sentences, images, metaphors, the sounds and sensibilities of the characters and their feelings - all seem to be moving along in a cluster with the force of a storm.’

In her novel Terhi Lakeer Chughtai explored the question of women’s friendship further and the same was attempted in ‘Zaroorat’ another story on a similar theme.

To think that 'Lihaf' is the final comment on Chughtai’s writing would be to dismiss her writing without understanding the full import of her work.  She is ‘Lihaf’ and much more. She is also ‘Chauthi ka Jora,’ ‘Jadein,’ ‘Kallu,’ ‘Hindustan Chor Do’, ‘Beghar’ ‘Kaarzaaz’ and many others. These are stories that deal with issues affecting men and women equally. She talks not just of women but of the socially oppressed, the weak, the poor and her work stands testimony of the fact that her explorations are wide ranging delving deep into issues which disturb and agitate us, at times forcing us out of our smugness.