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.
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Not given to playing martyr, she won the day by sheer guts and a charming sense of humour— all of which contributed as much as her bold writing to making her a famous and immensely popular literary heroine very early on in life. That sets my mind racing into the labyrinth of times past. Memories come crowding in.
It seems to me that the blanket, though less comfortable, does not cast shadows as terrifying as the quilt, dancing on the wall. I was then a small girl and fought all day with my brothers and their friends. Often I wondered why the hell I was so aggressive. At my age my other sisters were busy drawing admirers while I fought with any boy or girl I ran into! This was why when my mother went to Agra she left me with an adopted sister of hers for about a week. She knew well that there was no one in that house, not even a mouse, with which I could get into a fight.
It was severe punishment for me! No one had ever seen a nautch girl or prostitute in his house. He had performed Haj and helped several others to do it. He, however, had a strange hobby.
Some people are crazy enough to cultivate interests like breeding pigeons and watching cockfights. Nawab Saheb had contempt for such disgusting sports.
He kept an open house for students — young, fair and slender-waisted boys whose expenses were borne by him. Having married Begum Jaan he tucked her away in the house with his other possessions and promptly forgot her.
The frail, beautiful Begum wasted away in anguished loneliness. Or was it when she watched through the drawing room door the increasing number of firm-calved, supple- waisted boys and delicacies begin to come for them from the kitchen!
Begum Jaan would have glimpses of them in their perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel as though she was being raked over burning embers! Or did it start when she gave up on amulets, talismans, black magic and other ways of retaining the love of her straying husband?
She arranged for night long reading of the scripture but in vain. Begum Jaan was heart- broken and turned to books. Romantic novels and sentimental verse depressed her even more.
She began to pass sleepless nights yearning for a love that had never been. She felt like throwing all her clothes into the oven. One dresses up to impress people. He was too busy chasing the gossamer shirts, nor did he allow her to go out. Relatives, however, would come for visits and would stay for months while she remained a prisoner in the house. These relatives, free-loaders all, made her blood boil. They helped themselves to rich food and got warm stuff made for themselves while she stiffened with cold despite the new cotton in her quilt.
As she tossed and turned, her quilt made newer shapes on the wall but none of them held promise of life for her. Then why must one live?
But then she started living and lived her life to the full. It was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall. Soon her thin body began to fill out. Her cheeks began to glow and she blossomed in beauty. It was a special oil massage that brought life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan. When I first saw Begum Jaan she was around forty. She looked a picture of grandeur, reclining on the couch.
Rabbu sat against her back, massaging her waist. A purple shawl covered her feet as she sat in regal splendour, a veritable Maharani. I was fascinated by her looks and felt like sitting by her for hours, just adoring her. Her complexion was marble white without a speck of ruddiness. Her hair was black and always bathed in oil. I had never seen the parting of her hair crooked, nor a single hair out of place.
Her eyes were black and the elegantly-plucked eyebrows seemed like two bows spreading over the demure eyes. Her eyelids were heavy and eyelashes dense. However, the most fascinating part of her face were her lips — usually dyed in lipstick and with a mere trace of down on her upper lip. Long hair covered her temples. Sometimes her face seemed to change shape under my gaze and looked as though it were the face of a young boy Her skin was also white and smooth and seemed as though someone had stitched it tightly over her body.
When she stretched her legs for the massage I stole a glance at their sheen, enraptured. She was very tall and the ample flesh on her body made her look stately and magnificent. Her hands were large and smooth, her waist exquisitely formed. Rabbu used to massage her back for hours together.
It was as though getting the massage was one of the basic necessities of life. Rabbu had no other household duties. Perched on the couch she was always massaging some part of her body or the other. At times I could hardly bear it — the sight of Rabbu massaging or rubbing at all hours. Speaking for myself, if anyone were to touch my body so often I would certainly rot to death. Even this daily massaging was not enough.
And she would massage with such vigour that even imagining it made me sick. The doors would be closed, the braziers would be lit and then the session began. Usually Rabbu was the only person allowed to remain inside on such occasions. Other maids handed over the necessary things at the door, muttering disapproval. In fact — Begum Jaan was afflicted with a persistent itch. Despite using all the oils and balms the itch remained stubbornly there. Doctors and hakims pronounced that nothing was wrong, the skin was unblemished.
It could be an infection under the skin. She was as dark as Begum Jaan was fair, as purple as the other one was white. She No. Her face was scarred by small- pox. She was short, stocky and had a small paunch. Her hands were small but agile, her large, swollen lips were always wet.
A strange, sickening stench exuded from her body. Whenever I sat by Begum Jaan my eyes would remain glued to those roving hands. All through the year Begum Jaan would wear Hyderbadi jaali karga kurtas, white and billowing, and brightly coloured pyjamas.
And even if it was warm and the fan was on, she would cover herself with a light shawl. She loved winter. I, too, liked to be at her house in that season. She rarely moved out. Lying on the carpet she would munch dry fruits as Rabbu rubbed her back.
The other maids were jealous of Rabbu. The witch! She ate, sat and even slept with Begum Jaan! Rabbu and Begum Jaan were the subject of their gossip during leisure hours. Someone would mention their name and the whole group would burst into loud guffaws. What juicy stories they made up about them! Begum Jaan was oblivious to all this, cut off as she was from the world outside. Her existence was centred on herself and her itch. I have already mentioned that I was very young at that time and was in love with Begum Jaan.
She, too, was fond of me. When Amma decided to go to Agra, she left me with Begum Jaan for a week. She knew that left alone in the house I would fight with my brothers or roam around. The arrangement pleased both Begum Jaan and me. Now the question was — where would I sleep? A small bed was placed alongside hers.
Rabbu was still rubbing her back as I fell asleep.
Decoding the ‘feminist’ in Ismat Chughtai’s most (in)famous short story, Lihaaf
Not given to playing martyr, she won the day by sheer guts and a charming sense of humour— all of which contributed as much as her bold writing to making her a famous and immensely popular literary heroine very early on in life. That sets my mind racing into the labyrinth of times past. Memories come crowding in. It seems to me that the blanket, though less comfortable, does not cast shadows as terrifying as the quilt, dancing on the wall. I was then a small girl and fought all day with my brothers and their friends. Often I wondered why the hell I was so aggressive.
Lihaaf By Ismat Chughtai : A Perspective
Vudojin Aug 09, Divya rated it it was amazing. Sometimes more so than at other times. Large amount of Urdu words have been used in this book which makes it difficult to grasp and slows down the reading pace. Rasheed Amjad 1 Dr. Sayantani Sarkar rated it really liked it Dec 01, The author has cap Written from the perspective of a child visiting a relative, Lihaaf slyly takes bold steps in directions that are bound to create controversy. Oct 08, Hosna rated it liked it Shelves: Vineet rated it really liked it Dec 29, Rabbo is a servant girl who is not so pretty but very deft with her hands. Lihaaf by Ismat Chugtai.
The story was charged with obscenity and she was summoned to Lahore to defend it. The story brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. Lihaaf, indisputably, remains one of her most in famous works and the controversy it sparked hung like a perceptible shadow over everything that Chughtai wrote since. He was defending his story, Bu that faced similar charges.