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“It was evening, and the room was getting enveloped in darkness. A strange fear overcame me. Begum Jaan’s deep-set eyes focused on me and I felt like crying. She was pressing me as though I were a clay doll and the odour of her warm body made me want to throw up. But she was like a person possessed. I could neither scream nor cry.”
‘The Quilt’ or ‘Lihaaf’ by Ismat Chughtai is one of India’s pioneering works in feminist literature in Urdu. The book is a compilation of short stories written by Chughtai for the Urdu literary journal, Adab-i-Latif. ‘The Quilt’, after which the book is named, is one of her most popular short stories which followed much controversy as she was charged with obscenity, but she fought and won the case.
This Penguin classic contains ten short stories where the main subjects are women and embracing female sexuality. Chughtai unabashedly writes in ‘The Homemaker’ about a man named Mirza, who is unable to resist the temptation of having his maid, Lajo, all to himself. Lajo is a woman who is highly confident and aware of her beauty. She takes great advantage of the men whose hearts stop for her at one glance. Mirza, jealous of all the male attention she gets, bonds her into wedlock and changes her way of living much to her chagrin.
‘Roots’ is one of the most heart-warming stories written about the partition. Ismat Chughtai weaves a beautiful plot around the relation between a Hindu and a Muslim family who are also neighbours. The two families have been close to each other since three generations and no one predicted that the partition would sour their relations. This is a story about love and trust that transcends through religion and ideology.
Finally, ‘The Quilt’ is about Begum Jaan who is married to a man that tucked her away in a separate house with only material possessions. Begum Jaan has craved for her husband’s attention as a wife. But when she realised she wouldn’t get his kindness, she derived pleasure from elsewhere. Chughtai writes about a little girl’s encounter with Begum Jaan without any words of vulgarity but with a smart subtleness that made her win her case at the Lahore Court in 1944 when the story was contested for having homosexual references.
Reading the book in this day and age, one doesn’t find anything for it to be termed blasphemous or obscene. But we must consider the fact that Chughtai wrote these stories more than sixty years ago and she was amongst the first women to do so. In fact, she was a part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India along with Sadat Hassan Manto, Kaifi Azmi and many more.
This book and the rest of Chughtai’s works are a definite must read as it paints a realistic picture about women, men and their lives in the middle class set up of India before it partitioned.
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