Lihaaf, and Of Fists and Rubs

Ismat Chugtai, translated from Urdu by M Asaduddin and Muhammad Umar Memon respectively

Read time: about 3 minutes

I had this particular book with me since quite sometime, completely unopened.

It is only when I decided to attend a talk on ‘Ismat Chugtai’ when I reaslied that I was in possession of two of her stories. I decided to read both stories before the event, which is tomorrow.

Chugtai has written a number of short stories in her life but she is most known for Lihaaf. When the story came out, it became an outrage. No female author had written about lesbianism so openly. She became the first woman to do so. Well, to her credit, outrageous or not, she was an exemplary writer. I am awed as I read two of her short works today, both belonging to different themes.

Let’s talk about ‘Lihaaf’ for a moment because this is what I would like to focus on.

The protagonist in the story is a naughty girl who often gets into fight with her brothers and his friends. So when her parents decided to go out of the city for a couple of days they left her with Begum Jaan assured that she will be well contained as she won’t have anyone to fight with.

Here she discovers Begum Jaan’s story. Begum Jaan belonged to a poor family. Her parents married her off to a virtuous young man who had developed interest in other things. So the wife remained tucked away in some corner of the house.

Lonely, Begum Jaan in turn, after a few years aloof, finds solace in Rabbu. Rabbu was the personal masseuse to her. She would massage her for hours in a day. Slowly vile rumours started thriving about both the ladies who could not be kept apart.

It is the story of the protagonist discovering a lesbian relationship and slowly getting pulled into it by herself. She would dislike it when her Begum Jaan would ask her to rub her ribs. She is too young to understand but she sure knows it is not right. She is fearsome of the elephant like shadows cast on the wall of the quilt where two bodies seemed to be moving making strange noises. She was a young girl afraid of ghosts and that is what she understood of it.

I absolutely loved the story. It is told from the perspective of a young girl which is even more intimate or ‘outrageous’ as some would say. There is a veil that threatens to drop any moment in the story but the author manages to show us the glimpse through a hazy cloth. There is an image but hazed.

I will take another paragraph to talk about the second story I read from the author. This one is completely different from the above story. Of Fists and Rubs is a story of two women who meet each other at a polling booth near the voting station. The protagonist recognises Ratti Bai who had to come cast vote for a man belonging to her own caste. Thus, all the memories come flooding in. While she was in hospital delivering her second girl child five years ago, she befriends two ‘Aayahs’. These two ladies have sketchy lives. They often talk about the men in their lives, the other professions they have and the hate that they posses for each other. Initially, you do not understand the context of the title in the story but slowly starts getting clearer. This is the story focusing on illegal abortion in India, explicitly described. This story is not for faint hearted. The gory details will make you vomit your organs out.

It came as a surprise to me when in the first story the author does not reveal everything. There is much left to the readers imagination. However, in the second story the author leaps all the boundaries of description to give you the exact picture.

Here two distinct thought processes are seen from the same author. It seldom happens. I have read only two stories from the author but I am really looking forward to getting to know about more stories from the author in the literary meet tomorrow.

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Veena Choudhary

An avid reader and history fanatic.

Mumbai, MH