Story One: Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf
About the Author
The celebrated masterpiece ‘Lihaaf’ by Ismat Chughtai is a work of art that examines and questions a multitude of themes, be it marriage, subjugation of women, suppression of female sexuality/desire or child abuse. Women were expected to display virtue, modesty, and obedience in the name of traditional femininity of the 18th and 19th centuries. Chughtai time and again stressed the notion that ‘The orthodox, male-dominated society in which India lives fails to fully understand true feminine emotions and sensitivities’. Chughtai expressed such vivid and articulate thoughts in her writing unlike anyone else who has written Urdu fiction before.
To understand a story, it’s foremost to know and understand the writer. As known to all, Ismat Chughtai occupies the position of the boldest and the most controversial female writer in the history of Indian short stories. As a radical feminist writer, her attempt to speak as clearly as possible about a woman’s body can be seen as a part of the active project of ‘modernity’. Her short stories were the first Urdu literature to address the psychological, social, and political ramifications of a woman’s sexual life.
Without diving into the mind of Ismat Chugtai, without tracing her influences and predispositions, one can’t analyse her literature.
She loved to read the Russian and French masters of fiction – Tolstoy, Gorky, Chekov, Maupassant, and Zola, to name a few. For Anton Chekov and some other writers she also said “They were a great influence for me because I encountered them when I was looking around for a guiding spirit”. By the time Chughtai began writing, her brother Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai had become an established novelist and humorist of Urdu, which would have been an influence for her. Rashid Jahan and Saadat Hasan Manto were her major influences. There were also some influences from Western writers like Sigmund Freud, G.B. Shaw, and D.H. Lawrence. It’s also very interesting to note that Freud had an influence on a lot of Indian writers during that time also including Chugtai, Muktibodh and Manto.
Begum Jaan is the protagonist of ‘Lihaaf’ whose story is narrated by her niece. We are initially unaware of the narrator’s age as the story starts with first-person narration. Through glimpses of the narrator’s past, the story moves back and forth in a non-linear timeline.
A prominent role played by the object Lihaaf is described in the first page. As the narrator looked at the shadows created by the quilt or Lihaaf, his curiosity was aroused. Additionally, this piqued the reader’s curiosity about the quilt’s mystery. The writer creates suspense in the second paragraph as she states that “Lihaaf” is frightening because the shadow it casts is still able to send shivers down her spine. The language used is simple and conversational. The first person narrative shows that the author is herself involved in the story and is maybe describing her childhood memories. The young narrator lives in a conservative Muslim family and she is tomboyish, which sets her apart from other girls. From the perspective of the child narrator, we are shown a flashback of her past and her present as an adult grown-up woman. She can bridge the gap between what she saw in her childhood and what is reality.
Elements of Plot
Until the introduction of Rabbu i.e. “It was Rabbu who rescued her from the fall,” we get to know about all characters and the setting in which the story is going to take place, i.e. Exposition. Then we notice Rising Action until the young narrator protests from where Crisis and Falling action follows. It’s also striking that the story ended on a helpless note “Good God! I gasped and plunged into my bed” without any resolution.
1. The “new woman” archetype is embodied by Begum Jaan. She represents the women who meekly submitted to male dominance in addition to suppressing their sexual desires
2. The Narrator is an archetype of the “hopeless oblivious victim”. She represents those people in our society who don’t know how to seek help against molestation.
Theme 1: Marriage
The Nawab “installing her (Begum Jaan) in the house along with furniture” exemplifies the commodification of women that occurs within the institution of marriage and treats them as objects of a business transaction. A part of Chughtai’s critique of marriage is its dehumanizing aspect that seeks to oppress women to achieve societal obligations and dreams. As a result of financial burden and social taboo of having an unmarried woman in the house, Begum Jaan was married off to the Nawab by her family despite their age difference. As Begum Jaan belonged to a poor family, they saw in her marriage to the influential and wealthy Nawab an attractive option for economic improvement. Throughout the chapter, the notion that marriage has an unbreakable social norm, an unquestionable obligation, is discussed by Chugtai. To a large extent, it has been and remains one of the most important and most indispensable tenets of society. No matter what his position or power, even the Nawab had to marry, even though his “mysterious hobby” made the opposite sex unattractive to him. His actions imprisoned the poor Begum in repressive customs that society and marriage compelled a woman to comply with. In contrast, Begum was condemned to a life of confinement and subjugation while the Nawab continued his homosexual exploits. The Nawab had no “time to spare from the boys to look at her” and he would not let her “go visit other people” he never displayed any interest in his wife’s life, her wishes, desires and problems and in fact, completely disregarded her existence. Begum Jaan was just his token of approval, a form of heterosexual cover that hid him from society’s scrutiny and ridicule of his innate homosexual behaviour.
The story is an indictment of the patriarchal society that subjects women to oppression and discrimination and provides opportunities that are less equal than those their male counterparts.
Theme 2: Use of Lihaaf as a metaphor
As a metaphor as well as a noun, Lihaaf is used intelligently. A vital aspect of this story is Lihaaf’s use, as Lihaaf has a peculiar quality of concealing and hiding matter. Throughout the story, we see the Lihaaf becoming operational on different levels.
● Begum Jaan covers up Nawaab’s penchant for young boys in some way in the society, thus serving as a living lihaaf in this instance.
● Lihaaf, likewise, becomes a cover for Begum Jaan and Rabbu, allowing them to hide their activities. The Lihaaf is an obstruction that prevents the narrator from seeing inside so that she has to imagine what is happening on her own.
As mature readers, we can guess what is going on and why these things are happening. Chugtai chose a child narrator as she realised that she can discuss controversial topics only from the lens of an oblivious young narrator. With Lihaaf’s narration, the reader can experience events through the narrator’s eyes, and hints and suggestions are in there for readers to imagine and later comprehend the details. The subject Chugtai chose for her story is taboo in our society and she knows she can’t openly discuss these things so she chose a less direct way in which certain things are implied.
Theme 3: Female Sexuality
There is a lot of symbolic meaning in this story and it hints at how society suppresses the physical desires of women. The story involves oppression and suppression, which leads eventually to depression and loneliness. The relationship between Begum Jaan and Rabbu fulfilled her suppressed desires. This story focuses on a female’s utter loneliness and her suppression.
Three sub-themes talked about in the story that are closely interconnected are female sexuality, suppression, and loneliness. By looking at all these aspects to find an answer or by trying to find any other solution to the problem, we eventually arrive at the crux of the story, which is lesbianism, which is another important theme of the story.
Theme 4: Child Abuse
Lihaaf sparked controversy due to its representation of unadulterated female desire, sexuality, and queerness. The story was both criticized and praised for setting a discourse around homosexuality and providing an alternative viewpoint that contradicted patriarchal expectations. In this debate we often forget how the story also closely deals with the theme of ‘Child Abuse’.
“Come here and lie down beside me…” She made me lie down with my head on her arm. “How skinny you are… your ribs are coming out.”
She began counting my ribs. I tried to protest. “Come on, I’m not going to eat you up. How tight this sweater is! And you don’t have a warm vest on.” I felt very uncomfortable. “How many ribs does one have?” She changed the topic. All of these instances from the story portray the clear breach of personal boundaries. The promise of gifts, the confusion and shame experienced by the child, all these meet the signs of child sexual abuse. She withdraws from her present, is self-doubting, and reprimands herself for wanting to tell her mother about her experiences. All of these signs suggest that the narrator experiences doubts after experiencing unbelievable abuse from a close loved one.
Story Two: Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh
Introduction and Backdrop
The Independence phase of India is undoubtedly the most widely discussed topic. It is very unlikely that any writer, poet, or thinker living around that time did not say or write something about it. The independence movement has shaped Indian literature, movies, dramas, and plays forever. There exists a plethora of stories, poems, plays around independence but the one which stands out from them is Saadat Hasan Manto‘s story Toba Tek Singh. The story is set in the backdrop of partition. India’s greatest tragedy and one of the most violent episodes in its history. It was a bloody event marred by communal animosity which had consequences for the entire populations of the two nations, which still affects our lives to this day.
Author and his Influences
He was deeply influenced by French and Russian short story writers and realists, especially Guy De Maupassant. Like Ismat Chugtai, Manto was also associated with the Indian Progressive Writers Association (IPWA). Through his stories, Manto showcases an unhesitant portrayal of various shades of human desires and sufferings in his works. He portrays the darkness of the human psyche maybe because of the influence of Sigmond Freud.
His final works are influenced by the unfavourable social climate and his own financial struggles, reflecting an underlying sense of human impotence towards darkness and containing a satire that verges on dark comedy, as seen in his final masterpiece, “Toba Tek Singh”, which I believe would have been very close to him because he also had an impatient temperament and had migrated to Pakistan himself. His numerous court cases and societal rebukes deepened his cynical view of society.
The narration is non-judgemental and suggestive with a detached tone akin to a newspaper report. It has elements of mocking-seriousness throughout. The narration is done from a third-person point of view by someone living in the asylum itself. It’s objective. It’s straightforward and thus leaves out details such as characters’ thoughts and feelings which forces the reader to infer details of the story’s background and reasons behind a character’s actions.
Elements of Plot
The narrator undertakes a journey according to a specified timeline following a linear plot. Rising Action in the story can be observed from the point when the Madmen get to know that they are going to migrate to India. When those Madmen reach the Wagha border i.e., no man’s land can be described as the Crisis/Climax from where Falling action can be witnessed, Followed by Resolution, which is when Bishan Singh resists and chooses to stay there itself.
Theme 1: Partition
Due to the Partition, suddenly, overnight, all those secure walls of a shared tradition, shared culture came crumbling down. People of different communities, who till then had led a harmonious and peaceful co-existence, now turned into enemies. Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” deals with the theme of Partition, concentrating on the tragedy of dislocation and exile. The madman Bishan Singh, who hails from a small village in Punjab, Toba Tek Singh, is unable to take in the fact that the division of the subcontinent requires him to cross the borderline and forget his homeland forever. What emerges from this story is the realization that geographical divisions are possible but how does one divide a shared history and/or a shared consciousness?
Theme 2: Madness as a Metaphor/Trope
The story depicts the absurdity of madmen as being humane and reasonable when set in contrast against the bizarre scenes of rape, massacre and murder that were witnessed during partition. Madness in the story is actually the metaphor for sanity.
Asylum in the story is used metaphorically and figuratively to mirror the world outside where sheer madness is taking place. Manto strongly believed that partition based on religious faith and the lines of religious identity was an insane and senseless affair. I believe the frequent use of Muslim lunatics and Sikh lunatics repeatedly, i.e. mentioning the religion of the lunatic every time which catches everyone’s attention was done purposedly to accentuate/emphasize the idea that we are unconsciously dividing the population based on religion. After reading the story, one can’t help but notice the absurdity of putting people under labels and tags of religion.
The episode where an inmate declares himself Mohammad Ali Jinnah is quite dark. Through the use of Madness as a metaphor, Manto is suggesting that not just inmates but all political leaders who are insinuating the public and who are provoking divisions among people are all equally mad. It’s genius of him to convey this under the trope of madness.
As the Metaphor is used across the story and dominates it, it is called ‘Controlling Metaphor’ a brilliant example of which is H.G. Wells’ ‘Invisible Man’ where ‘Invisibility’ is used as the metaphor for black people.
Theme 3: Identity
The question of identity looms large throughout the story in multiple ways. We learn on one hand, how it is difficult to tie a person to a single identity and also how identity becomes the reason for forced migration, forced exiles or even losing one’s own life. This has been exemplified in Manto’s personal life where he was forced to migrate despite the kind of convictions he held onto. The instance where an inmate climbs a tree and refuses to come down is also an example of it. Towards the end, when Bishan Singh chooses to stand like a colossus just because he couldn’t find out where Toba Tek Singh is also tells us about identity, especially his refusal to give into any sort of division or external attributes.
Sarthak is a BA Economics & English (Hons.) student from Hindu College. When he was presented with the option to pursue higher studies at DTU/NSIT and IIM-Indore after clearing JEE and IPMAT respectively, he asked himself if that’s something he would want to do for the rest of his life. The answer was obviously ‘No’ and here he is now pursuing majors in the subjects he loves from one of India’s topmost colleges. He is crazy about psychology and philosophy and admires contrarian voices like Freud, Nietzsche, Jung and Osho. He considers himself to be a blahcksheep because he abhors classroom teaching, likes to question, can’t stand small talk and does not believe in any rituals, religion and idols.