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The Quilt, a 1942 queer Urdu story
LGB representation in Ismat Chughtai's Lihaaf
Content note: implied child molestation
Ismat Chughtai was born in Uttar Pradesh in 1915 and received her degree in education from Aligarh Muslim University in 1941. A member of the Progressive Writer’s Movement, Chughtai published her short story Lihaaf (The Quilt) in a 1942 issue of Adab-i-Latif, a literary journal based in Lahore.
The Quilt was considered problematic in its time because of its implied lesbian sex. In 1945, Chughtai was tried for “obscenity” in a Lahore court but won her case.
By more modern standards, the story may be considered problematic not for its suggestion of gay and lesbian sex, but for the portrayal of 2 out of 3 of the adults engaged in homosexual sex as exploitative of minors and/or young adults.
The following summary is based on the translation by M. Asaduddin, professor of English at Jamia Milia Islamia in New Delhi:
Begum Jaan was a young woman married to an older, outwardly respectable man, a Nawab. Not long after their wedding, she found that some of her conjugal rights had been usurped by her husband’s male lovers.
“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 Begum “watched through the drawing room door the increasing number of firm-calved, supple-waisted boys and … she gave up on amulets, talismans, black magic and other ways of retaining the love of her straying husband.”
It was implied that the Nawab may have behaved inappropriately towards the son of Rabbu, the household masseuse:
“The next day Rabbu went to see her son, an irascible young man. Begum Jaan had done a lot to help him out—bought him a shop, got him a job in the village. But nothing really pleased him. He stayed with Nawab Saheb for some time, who got him new clothes and other gifts; but he ran away for no good reason and never came back, even to see Rabbu…”
Rabbu began an affair with Begum Jaan. The two women shared a bed nightly. But when Rabbu left the house for a day, Begum Jaan molested the 9-year-old daughter of a family friend. Lihaaf was written from the perspective of this child:
“Amma always disliked my playing with boys. Now tell me, are they man-eaters that they would eat up her darling? And who are the boys? My own brothers and their puny, little friends! She was a believer in strict segregation for women. And Begum Jaan here was more terrifying than all the loafers of the world. Left to myself, I would have run out to the street— even further away! But I was helpless and had to stay there much against my wish.”
There are other depictions of lesbian sex in South Asian literature that do not have the taint of exploitation. Bengali retellings of the Ramayana contain the story of the 2 widows of King Dilip, an ancestor of Lord Rama. King Bhagiratha was born from the divinely commanded union of the two queens, who coupled as equals.
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