26 September 2007

Lifting the Veil

Author: Ismat Chughtai
Publishers: Penguin
Publishing Date: 2001
Price: Rs 250
Pages: 261

Genre: Short stories

'In my stories, I've put down everything with objectivity. Now, if some people find them obscene, let them go to hell. It's my belief that experiences can never be obscene, if they are based on authentic realities of life'

These are the first few lines that introduces readers to enfant terrible of the Urdu writing world, Ismat Chughtai and it's hard not to marvel at the original thought process here. However, this also means that Ismat's stories sometimes tend to get too direct, tasteless and pedestrian in both words and thoughts.

In what can be described as a superb introduction (I couldn't site the author’s name here) to this book, the reader is acquainted with the sort of person Ismat was, which in a large way influenced her writing style and choice of subjects. As the book describes, Ismat was a born rebel, who wouldn't accept great works of literature or theories without scrutiny. Highly individualistic, Ismat believed that a healthy skepticism was the first essential condition to arrive at the truth.


Which is exactly why, when she started writing (1945 onwards), she managed to break several existing moulds of writing, thereby shocking the daylights of out conservatives.
The short story that brought her into mainstream writing was Lihaaf (The Quilt), which spoke about lesbianism for the first time. There was a huge uproar and even the post-D H Lawrence British were displeased and Ismat found herself saddled with legal cases for promoting 'obscenity'
The story itself talks about Begam Jaan, who is left lonely and sad at home, by her husband who keeps himself engaged with 'young, slender-waisted' students --(there's a homosexual hint here too).
Finally, Begam Jaan's waning spirits are lifted when she finds a 'partner' in her maid, Rabbu.
Ismat's choice of narrator here is a child, who is witness to not just the ongoing scenes between the women but is also close to being 'molested' by Begam Jaan on one occasion.
Lihaaf is probably one of Ismat's most well-known stories, also one of her her most critiqued ones. Feminists were quick to lap it up, hailing it as one of the primary works in Urdu literature that recognizes female sexual desire and portrays it both convincingly and courageously.

While this is not hard to agree with, I'm not convinced that the story really does any service to the cause of 'alternative sexuality'.
Ismat, using a child as a narrator, views lesbianism both with a certain amount of horror and cruel humour. Also the imagery below supports this argument.

"The quilt crept into my brain and began to grow larger. I stretched my leg nervously to the other side of the bed, groped for the switch and turned the lights on. The elephant somersaulted inside the quilt, which deflated immediately. During the somersault, a corner of the quit rose by almost a foot'
'Good God!' I gasped and sunk deeper into my bed.


Considering the common theme that runs in most of Ismat's stories, it's clear that she sympathises with the sexual repression of women in a middle-class hypocritical society. Viewed under this light, Lihaaf is ultimately a sad story about the desperation that comes over a lonely, sexually deprived woman.

The best stories in this book are The Invalid (a superb narrative that casts a wonderfully incisive look into the psyche of a patient), Tiny's Granny (heart-wrenching), Gainda (on the sexual urge in a child), Homemaker/Gharwali (entertaining, dealing with 'sexual erasure' that is expected from 'clean' middle-class women)

Then, there are two other stories, mostly autobiographical; My Friend My Enemy, which speaks about her love-hate, high-strung relationship with writer-friend Manto and In The Name Of Those Married Women, which deals with her legal troubles involving The Quilt.
These are again great stories, recounted with her trademark bluntness and sharp wit.

Two other autobiographical stories are Hell-bound and Childhood. The former is a hard-hitting, pitiless portrayal of her writer-brother, Azim and while, it is probably one of the most engaging and impactful stories in the book, I also found it a bit tasteless in its ruthless dissection of a man long dead.

"Childhood" is mediocre writing, wherein Ismat chronicles her life as a child and the tough times she spent with her mother.
Now, Ismat's writings are never particularly reflective but this is an utterly charmless story, with poorly fleshed out characters an clich├ęs galore. There are quite a few other stories as well here, which can easily be skipped.

The fact that Ismat belonged to the realist tradition of writers meant that she never adopted any complicated narrative style. In fact, her writing is clearly derived from the oral tradition of storytelling.
With her racy, uninhabited and spontaneous style of writing, she assures that all her stories move at break-neck speed. But her stubborn refusal to adopt certain modernist narrative techniques also means that many of her stories appear extremely formulaic. Also, the bigger trouble is that one never really gets into the psyche of her characters.

Ultimately, Ismat's biggest achievement will remain that she brought out repressed female sexual desire from the curtains of middle-class morality. Her boldness proved to a boon to several other women writers, who were able to free themselves of the existing taboos in literature and give wings to their feelings.

-Sandhya Iyer

18 comments:

Sameer said...

Great review here Sandy! I've read Lihaf and didn't quite like it. I'm not sure except bringing into topic about 'alternate sexuality'(as you put it), why is this important short story or celebrated one? Btw love this phrase 'The elephant somersaulted inside the quilt' :-)

Need to read the remaining stories now though I've read synopsis and abridged version of Gharwali. Will try to read other stories recommended by you.

Sameer.

sandy said...

Hey Sameer

Good to know you've read Lihaaf, did you read the Urdu version or the translated one?
Yes, besides acknowledging 'alternative sexuality', Lihaaf actually only ends up reinforcing negative stereotypes about lesbianism and presents it quite horrifically. The phrase that you mention, ‘the elephant did a somersault’ is actually an embarrassing graphical image that sounds more like a cruel joke.
Also, disappointing is the fact that Ismat’s idea of lesbianism is wholly visceral, wherein Begam Jaan gets so desperate that she even tries ‘sexually abusing’ the child-narrator, when her maid goes missing.
Also, the suggestion here is that Begam Jaan opts to go the lesbian way because her husband does not satisfy here. So again, the cause is diluted to a large extent, showing how her ‘alternative desire’ is just a ‘filler’
However, as I’ve pointed out in my review, I think the story is ultimately a sad one about loneliness and sexual repression that finds an outlet in whatever way it can.

Sameer said...

Of course, the translated one! Yeah, I agree with the 'filler' part. Infact I had the same problem in movie like 'Fire' where the relationship is again sort of filler for Shabana while her husband doesn't care about her 'needs' and keeps on practicing religious fasts.

About backing a reason for Begam Jaan's lesbian traits, I agree that it doesn't actually break any stereotypes but uses her character in a understated sympathetic way but I can live with that as the novel was long back whereas movies like Fire in this time didn't avoid of the start of the relationship as a filler. But I think it will take a while to show the ‘alternative sexuality’ anything but filler in Indian society.

Btw, I perfectly agree with your comment "the story is ultimately a sad one about loneliness and sexual repression that finds an outlet in whatever way it can".

Sameer.

sandy said...

"About backing a reason for Begam Jaan's lesbian traits, I agree that it doesn't actually break any stereotypes but uses her character in a understated sympathetic way but I can live with that as the novel was long back whereas movies like Fire in this time didn't avoid of the start of the relationship as a filler."


Excellent points Sameer and thanks for bringing in the point on Fire.
I am persuaded to look at Lihaaf more sympathetically by each passing day. As you say, this was a story that was written a long time ago and obviously, Ismat's stories can't stray from a certain patriarchal framework, without making her work seem unrealistic for its times. So, that aspect has to be viewed more sympathetically I guess.
But within that limited scope, Ismat succeeds in bringing out aspects like female sexual desire, which forget being talked about, was imagined to be non-existent.
Ismat always held the view that sex is at the pivot of all human relationships and gave expression to the sexual yearnings of her female characters.
So, the more I think of this, the more I'm willing to see Lifaah in a positive light.
Also, I'm tempted to revert my view on the grotesque 'elephant somersault' image as well, considering it actually might be a device to bring out the sheer desperation and ugliness of the situation.
Though Ismat may not have offered a 'voice' to lesbianism, she convincingly brings out the plight of women stuck in loveless marriages.

Sameer said...

Re:"Though Ismat may not have offered a 'voice' to lesbianism, she convincingly brings out the plight of women stuck in loveless marriages."

Was busy during weekend. Sandy.

Getting back, I don’t think Lihaf is directly on ‘lesbianism’ as such but it’s hinting on sexual starvation as paving the road to lesbianism as you have put it.

About sympathetic to Begam Jaan- What about her hitting on the little kid and Rabbu interfering ‘Raw mangoes are sour’ comment?

About Fire, I think Lihaf has far greater impact than Fire as it is more poetic prose sensual writing, I don't care much about Fire movie at all.

I’m not sure why does the hinting of husband’s homosexual traits are never discussed when Lihaf is mentioned anywhere now. Is that not a clear hint?

Re:"Ismat succeeds in bringing out aspects like female sexual desire, which forget being talked about, was imagined to be non-existent.”

Agree and this reminds of me another movie- Astitva which covers this topic. What do you think about that movie and do you think Tabu’s character is justified or not and you thoughts regarding it.

Sameer.

renu said...

i understand yr position on lihaaf, but i would like to see a few things rather differently. first, i dont think in showing the child's sense of horror, chugtai has expressed an attitude towards lesbianism. she has simply been honest to the narrative coz a child conditioned in the mores of a particular society will look at it with horror and prejudice..that cannot b taken as chugtai's view of lesbianism. though i agree that she doesnt do justice to the issue of lesbianism, by depicting it as a fall-back option, i dont know if you can call her style crude and pedestrian. going by that argument, you can dismiss a lot of dalit literature because it doesnt follow the canonical style of the mainstream..havent read rest of he stories, but lihaaf i found very powerful, if not politically nuanced.

sandy said...

Renu: I'm not dismissing Chughtai at all and am certainly not holding her style of writing against her. But if you will read her short stories like Childhood, you will see how truly pedestrian and common place her thoughts are. And I also sense a general lack of humour and warmth in her stories and writings.

sandy said...

"About sympathetic to Begam Jaan- What about her hitting on the little kid and Rabbu interfering ‘Raw mangoes are sour’ comment?"

I think these are the very parts that take away the impact from its 'lesbian' angle, in an otherwise powerful story about female physical deprivation.

Also, the character of Begam Jaan is someone Ismat actually knew, which means the author could have possibly intended it as a cruel joke.

However, she infuses the story with enough irony (the homosexual hint being one of them) enabling us to understand the repressed, hypocritical lives people lived behind the veneer of social respectability. As you say, it's an important point.


Sameer, like you, I'm quite a fan of Astitiva and you are right that it follows the same line of thought that Lifaah does.
The film recognizes that a woman can have purely 'physical' desires, without necessarily being in love.
Tabu's relationship with Monish is a 'no strings attached fling' springing out of purely physical needs. This is turn, subverts the notion that only men stray to fulfill their physical urges.
And Astitiva, being about a middle-class woman, manages to make an even more powerful statement.
The common idea (and do I know many women who believe this!)is that there can be no sex without love for a woman. Astitiva breaks that myth.

Sashwati said...

Astitva was quite the darkhorse when it realeased but has grown into the conscience of cinema lovers as much for its breaking the mould as for its “bold” handling. However there were a few cracks where I believe the film fell through. Tabu, the docile middle-class wife does speak volumes when she simply indulges in a one-night stand. But her character takes on a defensive stance rather than a forthcoming one. The character looks for sympathy from her audience in the act that she committed out of “loneliness” and “boredom”.
Is it necessary for women to indulge in their sexuality out of the above specifications? That is what the film failed to convey. Why should a woman be made to feel more guilty and look for support from her audience? Why should there be given circumstances wherein her repression can be expressed.
Even as the film explores and debunks a lot of myths it creates situations wherein to evoke empathy in the audience/readers. It is not pity but a sense of cohesion with the character that the film should have aimed to achieve.

Sameer said...

“The common idea (and do I know many women who believe this!)is that there can be no sex without love for a woman. Astitiva breaks that myth.”

Good point!

I think Astitva, as rightly put up by Sandy, conveys that any women can have 'no strings attached fling'. When the husband finds out that his wife has slept outside his marriage, the issue isn’t just emotional one but more about his ego and shattering of realm of dominance where he is the winner and his cheating is perfectly fine and legitimate and proves that he is a normal man whereas it’s the opposite for the female or his wife.

The film also subtlety touches an important issue about the need for communication and understanding each other’s physical needs besides regular needs and wants in a marriage, (a point common to Lihaf where the husband is busy with others and has no time for his Begam Jaan). Besides this, Astitva primarily is one person’s discovery that she too has an identity, hence the title. The film talks about the emotional abuse the female has to go through the marriage or life.

Agree with Sashwati that there are some flaws in the narrative but, for me, mostly towards the climax. But I don’t think that the affair is credited to just ‘boredom’ as you put it but rather a ‘need’. I think somewhere towards the end the film becomes pro-feminism and doesn’t show the husband in good light. It would have been better if the husband was not shown as negative in the end.

Sameer

Sameer said...

Expanding on the last point I made, lemme give the example:

I look the film’s scenario in two possible situations: One, if the husband is out for foreign tour for 1-2 years and his wife has an affair purely for physical aspect for that time(not just one time as in the movie) and he comes to know this, say 25 years later, what would be his reaction?

The second scenario is the one shown in the movie where she sleeps just ‘once’ but the issue is multiplied as she has the ONLY kid in the family courtesy of this affair.

If it was the first scenario, I think the husband should be able to forgive or forget about it but if it’s the second scenario, it’s quite debatable. I mean without getting into the whole man-women debates about physical needs as shown in the movie, why can’t the husband simply break up for the simple fact that the wife has played with his emotions for last 25 years and made him believe that it was his kid. That reason is enough but the director brings on other issues like the husband sleeping outside his marriage and him justifying saying I didn’t bring any kids home from that one-night stands, so on. The director shows that husband is typical MCP and can’t bear the fact that his wife slept outside his marriage and his hurt of male ego but he could have emphasized more on the point I’m raising in scenario 1.

Your thoughts?

Sameer.

sandy said...

"...why can’t the husband simply break up for the simple fact that the wife has played with his emotions for last 25 years and made him believe that it was his kid. That reason is enough but the director brings on other issues like the husband sleeping outside his marriage and him justifying saying I didn’t bring any kids home from that one-night stands, so on. "


Sameer: I think the film throws a hint that Sachin Khedekar is probably impotent.
Now, Tabu fears on two accounts.
Firstly, she knows her loneliness will only get worse if she does not have a child, given that her husband has no real intensions of mending her ways.

She's also worried about the 'infertile' tag that would automatically be attached to her. I suspect she knows here that her husband probably cannot give her a child, yet it doesn’t stop her from loving him.

Certainly her affair with Mohnish is not prompted by her desire to have a child with him but when it does happen, she is reluctant to give it up for precisely the reason I state above.


So, seen from this context, I don't think her crime is too great, even if she hid it from her husband. She really had no choice.

But yes, Sachin Khedekar has been presented in an outright villainous manner towards the end, to bring in more sympathy for Tabu. In my opinion it was not required. Also, Manjrekar tries to make a feminist statement by having Namrata and Tabu 'walk out'...which was unnecessary. Also what a deplorable character Tabu's son is portrayed as! Would you ever think of doing that to your mother? Though of course, the suggestion here is like father, like son. And I'm quite sure that such guys exist.

But a more progressive statement would have been to show the son supporting his mother.
That would have shown how the new generation of males are at least not as chauvinistic and callous to a woman's needs. Are you? :-)

sandy said...

My point here is quite clear.
1. I don't see anything wrong if a woman has an affair with a man outside marriage, if she is constantly being neglected by her husband and her physical needs are being denied.

2. Tabu does try to confess her 'crime' when she discovers that she is pregnant but never gathers the courage to open up. She probably still loved her husband and feared she would lose him, if she confessed.

So, I see this as a very complicated scenario and my sympathies only lie with Tabu.

Sameer said...

""But a more progressive statement would have been to show the son supporting his mother. That would have shown how the new generation of males are at least not as chauvinistic and callous to a woman's needs. Are you? :-)""

Totally agree and Yes I think I’m! :-)

Obviously, from Tabu’s pov, she is right and hence the movie. The most badly written character(& badly acted) was of Tabu’s son. It’s almost hysterical when he calls his mom names and blames her for everything. Mahesh clearly divides the film between Males and Females towards the end while he could have clearly shown that the ‘next’ generation(males) are better and should have shown the kid supporting the mom but instead he gives all that again to a female with Namrata’s character who rejects the guy and walks out with Tabu.

With your 2 points, I’ve already commented before that I’d agree with the first point easily anytime. The matter here is complicated as the kid is from Mohnish and Sachin doesn’t have any more kids. And I know, many of them clearly support Tabu even in the 2nd scenario including me. My point was if Sachin didn’t like that Tabu strayed and hid the fact about his kid and still ask for divorce without getting into debate at the end and without talking about his ‘affairs’ and one night stands, will he be still wrong? I agree Tabu has her reasons and she is justified but would Sachin’s character have worked if he was a positive character who just wanted a divorce without hearing any explanation from his wife? Will he be still ‘positive’ character according to you?

Sameer.

sandy said...

Sameer: If Sachin Khedekar had not given Tabu a chance to stray, (in the sense, had he been considerate and understnading about her physical needs), I would think of her as being 'unfaithful' and as guilty as a man in such a situation (something like Naseer in Masoom). What does Shabana do? She makes Naseer feel guilty as hell...but ultiamtely, she loves him and hence doesn't want to sever the relationship.
I guess if the man is still attached to his wife, he would do the same (even with the baby). He'd withdraw for a while but he could forgive.
But in the case of Astitiva, I think the director was trying to bring out the cause of sexually repressed, middle-class women, so it would have been impossible to project Sachin as positive.
I know of women who probably don’t have as bad husbands as Sachin but they come close to his character.

And as far as I’m concerned, even if Sachin didn’t stray himself, he would be guilty of ignoring his wife needs and it’s hardly fair to expect sexual stoicism, just because one partner can practice it.

Sameer said...

Good point about Masoom Sandy! Yeah, I think a husband can still forgive the wife if he didn't fulfill her physical needs. And yeah, I would surely do that! :-)

"I know of women who probably don’t have as bad husbands as Sachin but they come close to his character. "

Yeah, yeah I know! :-|

Sameer.

AS said...

hi

i want go get this book! i read 'nanhi ki naani' and found it very heart wrenching...Ismat Chughtai was an author par excellence

AS said...

I mean

I want 'to' get this book ... and not i want go get this book!


sorry for the typo mistake :P