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Publicity poster of Rahat Kazmi’s film
Publicity poster of Rahat Kazmi’s film

A picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of Indian filmmaker (not to be confused with the Pakistani actor) Rahat Kazmi’s 2018 film Lihaaf: The Quilt, based on Ismat Chughtai’s controversial short story of the same name, the production’s publicity poster says perhaps more than a thousand words.

Kazmi’s Lihaaf has little bearing to Chughtai’s story. The intensely sexualised poster shows two sets of fair and lovely feet, adorned with paazeb [anklets], languidly intertwined. A very titillating, sensual, consensual and egalitarian image — you can’t tell which feet belong to the whiter-than-white mistress and which to the very dark maid. The poster brims with confidence and choice; a loud, proud statement about LGBTQ’s arrival on the Indian cinema screen. The plush, ruby red quilt on which the feet are presented may be Kazmi’s Lihaaf, but it is certainly not ‘Lady Changez’s’ quilt.

Chughtai, a card-carrying communist and proud early member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, would have been horrified at such a bourgeoisie representation of her writing. When she wrote Lihaaf, Chughtai was an unmarried, 20-something influenced by the likes of John Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence and his inflammatory Lady Chatterley’s Lover and, most importantly, Rashid Jehan, who “fuelled my rebelliousness. She explained to me that what is considered impolitic and rude in society is often the truth; she became my inspiration.”

The poster of a recent film adaptation of Ismat Chughtai’s famed short story indicates that it may yet again be sensationalised and trivialised

In December 1944, Chughtai — now a married woman with a newborn — was served with a legal summons for obscenity. At that time, she said about Lihaaf, “it is an ill-fated story which has become a source of torment for me.” She writes about the ensuing harassment: “Then the filthy letters began to arrive; they were filled with such inventive and convoluted obscenities that had they been uttered before a corpse it would have got up and run for cover.”

This continues to the present; a Facebook page on Chughtai maintained by Professor Tahira Naqvi of New York University has been inundated with filthy messages since the film’s production.

The obscenity case against Chughtai was initiated by the illustrious citizenry of Lahore. In court, the prosecutor and his witnesses were asked to produce real evidence, not innuendo and insinuation. Finally, it came down to one word: aashiq [lover]. As this word is used often in poetry even dealing with God and the Prophet (PBUH), there was much discussion about it. The witness insisted that a girl from a decent Muslim family should not be using this word. Chughtai’s lawyer enquired if an indecent girl could use this word. The witness agreed, at which point the court erupted in fits of laughter. The embarrassed witness bristled and said, “She should be admonished.” Chughtai’s lawyer answered, “Then go ahead and admonish her, but this cannot become a court case.” The case was dismissed.

The Progressive Writers’ Movement — anti-imperialistic, left-leaning, socialist — was formed in 1936 and a wide-eyed, 21-year-old Chughtai was proud to be part of it. It championed freedom-loving writers who opposed the status quo and its manifesto dictated that India’s new literature must deal with the basic problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, women’s progress and emancipation, political subjugation of the masses, exploitative nature of feudalism and the stark contrast between those with power and the powerless. This manifesto also offered to protect the interests of Progressive writers, to fight for the right of free expression of thought.

Lihaaf follows the Progressives’ manifesto to a T. It also uses psychology to explain human needs in a hypocritical, close-minded, degenerate and decadent society that refuses to adapt and reinvent itself to changing times. As such, the quilt represents a society that covers all that it deems unworthy and unmentionable.

The elderly nawab, supposedly chaste and pious, finances Haj for people, has no scandals around chasing the gems of the ‘diamond district’ and takes prodigious interest in the education of beautiful, slim young boys who inhabit the mardana [male quarters] with him. We don’t really see him, or hear them, but he looms large and all-powerful, representing feudalism in all its hypocritical, insidious forms.

Begum Jan, the nawab’s much younger wife, is married to him in exchange for financial benefits for her family. She is the nawab’s ‘beard’ and gives him respectability as a family man. Having failed to attract her husband’s attention through her youth and beauty, then through pirs, prayers and magic potions, she’s now finally accepted her lot in life. Forbidden from going anywhere, she languishes in her gilded cage, frustrated at seeing the beautiful young men enter her husband’s quarters.

One pair of the alluring feet in the film’s poster belongs to her.

Along comes Rabbo. In Chughtai’s story, she is very dark, with a broad nose, perpetually moist puffy lips and a fat belly. Her son worked in the nawab’s service but ran away for reasons unknown. She eats with Begum, sleeps with her and can anticipate Begum’s needs before the lady even voices them. Her small hands move swiftly, oiling Begum’s hair, massaging her body. She soon becomes Begum’s favourite, evoking the jealousy of the other servants.

We learn all this from the young girl narrating the story, not a child but not yet a woman either. She doesn’t play with dolls, yet is not interested in collecting admirers like her sisters. She is deeply obsessed with Begum and describes her as being tall with a slim waist, broad shoulders and a faint moustache — “rather like a young man.” At an age where she’s undergoing her own sexual awakening with its accompanying fears and confusions, she hears gossip about Rabbo and Begum and believes it; this is her first introduction to the world of sensuality.

However, the sexual relationship — that may or may not exist between Rabbo and Begum Jan, as insinuated by the girl — is not the thrust of the story. Whatever it may be, it is not a relationship between two equal, consenting adults. It is not a matter of choice, but of survival. Both women are prisoners of a stagnant, decadent system. To think the only thing they have with each other is sexual is not only an insult to a nuanced writer such as Chughtai, but to women in general, who are far more complex. It is not just sex; they want more from their partners.

Begum Jan is the subjugated, powerless woman and Rabbo is the politically and financially under-represented poor and disenfranchised. They are what the Progressives sought justice for. Rabbo’s are the other feet in the film poster, but she has been erased by Kazmi. Those other feet — that we can hardly differentiate from Begum’s — belong to a hardworking, poor, foul-smelling, dark woman with clever, hungry eyes. If only Kazmi had shown black, calloused feet with dirty, broken toenails. But then poverty really doesn’t belong in this new interpretation of Lihaaf.

Rabbo and Begum have created what social constructionists call a ‘pseudo-family’; a phenomenon not unusual among persons living in segregated prisons. We’re told Begum is 40-42 years old and childless. In Rabbo she’s found not only companionship, but also a child: Rabbo’s wayward son. Rabbo’s son fulfils Begum’s maternal needs. She provides money for him to set up a shop, but he runs the business to ground. The narrator describes a fight between Rabbo and Begum over the wayward son’s perpetual financial need: Begum is angry, Rabbo is crying.

Where their sexual relationship is concerned, readers are given only hints through descriptions of sounds, shadows and the young narrator’s imagination — which is fired by her own growing interest in sexuality and the whispered gossip surrounding the two unfortunate women. What the two may — or may not — have between them is described by psychologists as ‘prison sex’, or same-sex relationships because prisons are generally segregated — just as the society Chughtai is writing about is segregated. Some social constructionist theories explain that sexuality is not an inherent part of a person, but also a construct of that person’s society. Classifying prisoners’ sexuality during incarceration may also not be accurate because their true sexuality might be on hold while they are imprisoned.

It is interesting to know that Chughtai based the character of Begum on a woman she had heard about in Aligarh. A few years after the story came out, the lady approached her at a gathering. Chughtai writes in her autobiography, “I became frightened; I wasn’t sure what this woman would do.” The lady reached out with open arms and said, “You gave me the courage to get a divorce and now I am happily married and look, I have a son.” She proudly showed the toddler to Chughtai.

Sensationalising and glamourising Lihaaf with those two pairs of extremely sensual feet is not just trivialising the story, but also trivialising Chughtai, the firebrand feminist, the non-nonsense Progressive. Chughtai herself noted how Lihaaf had become a proverbial noose around her neck: “I have a feeling that I’ll only be remembered by this short story and all my other work would be forgotten. I wish I had never written it, nobody understood it anyway.”

Chughtai has been a prisoner of Lihaaf since its conception — first labelled obscene and now a proud statement of same-sex relationships. Is the film poster a true representative of her story? Is this what she had covered so carefully with her lihaaf? Seventy-six years after she wrote it, it has become the cause celebre of the new dawn of sexuality. Granted, writings, art and films get interpreted, translated and adapted differently every few years and each decade has its own circumlocutions and compliances. But if only Kazmi had been able to show the moral outrage of the real Lihaaf.

The writer is a physician, the grandniece of Ismat Chughtai and author of the short story collection Her Mother’s Daughter and Other Stories

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 7th, 2018