The story brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight. Begum Jaan in the story can be seen as a sexually-deprived woman who gets no attention from her husband, Nawab Sahab. Their marriage stands more as an economic contract between their families. The frail, beautiful Begum wasted away in anguished loneliness.
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The story brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It became the proverbial stick to beat me with and whatever I wrote afterwards got crushed under its weight. Begum Jaan in the story can be seen as a sexually-deprived woman who gets no attention from her husband, Nawab Sahab. Their marriage stands more as an economic contract between their families. The frail, beautiful Begum wasted away in anguished loneliness. The use of language played a major part in making the story what it was.
Today, when we talk about female bodies or anything related to our sexuality, we often find solace in the English language. Ismat Chughtai wrote about bodies in Urdu. As poetic as it may sound, it created a massive uproar at the time as languages in India are also associated with religion.
Not much has changed since then. Begum Jaan uses her sexuality as a means to empower herself. She subverts the patriarchal norms that she has to adhere to by recognising her sexuality and her sexual desires. The unknowingness of the whole truth can also be seen in the narratorial voice. The distance in addressing it but not saying it out loud is visible.
The same aversion to addressing sexuality in general can be seen even now. It has taken us too many years to even acknowledge the existence of homosexuality. Lihaaf not only re-presented the unspoken but also brought to light the taboo subject of female sexuality and the presence of female desires in a heteronormative marriage. A woman can be more than something that just exists in a marital home, a woman can be more than just a beautiful body used as a mere decoration in the household.
A Life in Words: Memoirs. Penguin Books, The Quilt and Other Stories. Sheep Meadow Press, U. Grishma Trivedi has a masters in English literature and works at Ahmedabad University. Her research interests include Gender studies, intersectional studies and media studies. Beauty and Sexuality Review. Review: The Last Summer May 1, Movie Review: Delta of Venus February 3, The Social Boundaries of Masculinity January 2, Post navigation Next Article.
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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. 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. 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.
Decoding the ‘feminist’ in Ismat Chughtai’s most (in)famous short story, Lihaaf
Published in the Urdu literary journal Adab-i-Latif , it led to much controversy, uproar and an obscenity trial, where Ismat had to defend herself in the Lahore Court as well for this work. She was asked to apologize which she did not and also won the case, after her lawyer pointed out that the story makes no suggestion to a sexual act, and prosecution witnesses could not point out any obscene words, and the story is suggestive and told from perspective of a small girl. In the coming decades it was widely anthologised, and became one of her most known works, besides Angarey which remained banned for several decades. It became a landmark for its early depiction of sex, still a taboo in modern Indian literature , let alone Urdu literature.