Ismat Chugtai was an eminent Indian Urdu writer known for her fierce feministic views. "The quilt" ("lihaaf" in urdu) is one of her famous short stories...
Lihaf: Translated from Urdu, a story by Ismat Chughtai
Whenever I get under my quilt in wintertime, I see these elephant-like shadows on the wall across, swaying from side to side; then, suddenly, my mind starts to race down the memory lane and I start remembering things. I’m sorry, I’m not going to bore you about my romance with a quilt, not that one can associate any kind of romance with it. In my opinion, a blanket is as comfortable and its shadow on a wall not as terrifying as that of a quilt. Anyway, it was back when I wasn’t that old and fought with my brothers and their friends all day long.
Sometimes I do wonder why was I so quarrelsome. At an age when my sisters were collecting beaus, I was busy with boys and girls, strangers or not. That was the reason why my mom, when leaving for Agra, left me with this woman she thought of as her own sister. My mother knew just too well that there wasn’t even one mouse in that house or anyone for me to fight with. That indeed was a very clever punishment! So my mother left me with this woman named Begum Jan, the same Begum Jan whose quilt is as permanent in my memory as a burnt-scar from a red-hot iron rod. The poverty-stricken parents of this Begum Jan had married her off to a man who was a lot older than her but was pious and virtuous and never went near prostitutes. He had been to Mecca for the pilgrimage andhad sent many others over there for a Hudj as well.
But he had a very peculiar hobby. People like to keep pigeons and doves as pets or raise roosters for cockfights; but the Nawab Sahib hated those ridiculous activities. Only thestudents lived in his house.
He had taken the financial responsibility for all those fair-skinned adolescent boys with slim waists who lived in his house. He had forgotten about Begum Jan just as he had forgotten about all those things he had once bought but couldn’t remember anymore. That poor skinny little Begum had emaciated out of loneliness. Don’t really know where her life begins. Is it when she had already made the mistake of being born; or is it when she became a Nawab’s wife and started to waste away? Is it when those adolescent boys started to pay the Nawab Sahib regular visits: flavored fried-rice, chicken curry, and dessert – envious Begum Jan would roll on a bed of burning charcoals seeing those adolescent boys with slender waists in ankle-tight pajamas and lightly-perfumed white cotton shirts get served all those delicious food; or is it when no prayers or homage at the shrines of old wise men worked and she started to lose her prime praying?
To hell with it. Ever see a leech stick to a stone? Nawab Sahib will not budge. That broke Begum Jan’s heart. She turned to books for solace but found nothing there. Romance novels and emotional poetry depressed her even more. She lost her sleep and became a starving rag, and started to wear one too. You figure you wear clothes to impress others, not for a life like that. Nawab Sahib did not not only have time to get away from those white cotton shirts, he won’t let Begum Jan go anywhere. Ever since she married and came to this house, his relatives would drop-in and stay for months. And she resented them so much. They would just camp-in and help themselves to whatever they pleased. Poor her. She remained a prisoner in that house. Despite that quilt, padded with new fluffy cotton, she would lie in bed cold. Whenever she turned in bed at nights, the quilt would make a different shadow on the wall across. But it couldn’t make a shadow that would make her want to live. For why live…for this life! But to live was her fate. She lived, and lived well. Ribbo saved her from falling. All of a sudden her emaciated body started to inflate. Her cheeks started to shine and her beauty started to radiate.
Massages with that strange oil brought her back to life. But let me tell you something, dear reader, you won’t find the recipe for that oil in even the best of magazines. Begum Jan must be forty-forty two when I first saw her. She was half-lying on the couch like a royalty and Ribbo, glued to Begum Jan’s waist, was massaging her back. A purple-color throw was lying by her feet. She looked regal as a queen. I loved her face. I wanted to sit by her and admire her face for hours. Her skin was very fair, but not a trace of blush. Her hair was very black and all oily. I never saw her hair part not-straight…not one hair-strand out of place. Eyebrows plucked arched, her eyes were cat-like and black. Her eyelids were heavy and the eyelashes thick. But her most inviting feature was her lips, usually colored red. She had light mustache over her upper lip and long curly hair by her temples. Sometimes her face seemed very odd—as if of an adolescent boy. Her skin was smooth as if unnaturally stretched. I’d secretly glance when she’d open her ankle to scratch. She was very tall and looked enormous because of all that meat she had put on. But she did have a very well proportioned and balanced body. Her hands were big and slick and she had a slender, sexy waist. It was Ribbo who scratched her back, meaning that she’ll scratch Begum Jan’s back for hours. Getting her back scratched was one of the necessities of Begum Jan’s daily life, or perhaps the most necessary. Ribbo had no other responsibilities. She was always massaging some part of Begum Jan’s body. Sometimes it frightened me. All you saw was that Ribbo is massaging Begum Jan. Don’t know what would have happened to some other mortal soul. If someone had touched my body like that…I would’ve died. And as if everyday massage wasn’t enough! The day Begum Jan took a bath…oh my God! Two hours before her bath she would have so many massages of oil and henna that even my fantasy would break down. The doors will be locked, charcoal-heater will be fired up, and the massage will begin. And only Ribbo remained in the room, the other she-servants would just mumble something and drop at the locked door whatever was needed.
The whole thing was that Begum Jan had an itching disease. That poor woman tried everything to get it cured. Gallons of oil must have been used for massages, but that itch won’t go away. Doctors didn’t know what to say about it because her skin was all clear; but yes, if that disease was inside—well, they couldn’t say anything about that. “Don’t worry about it. These doctors are crazy. May your enemies get afflicted with diseases. It’s only your blood that’s just happens to be very hot.” Ogling at Begum Jan, Ribbo would say that with a smile. And this Ribbo—she was as dark as Begum Jan fair. The whiter Begum Jan, the redder Ribbo, just like a burning red piece of hot iron. She had light chicken-pox marks on her face, fast hands, and a tight belly.
Her always-wet lips were thick and puffy, and her body gusted a nervous odor. Her hands were lightening fast: they’re here; they’re there; now on the waist; there they go sliding down on the hips; now on the thighs; there they race down to the ankles… Whenever I sat next to Begum Jan I’d follow those speedy little hands to see where they were and what they were doing. Summer or winter, Begum Jan would wear this loose Hyderabadi see-through shirt: sitting in front of the fan in dark pajamas and foam-white shirt. She always had a light shawl on her. She loved winter. She moved around very little. Getting her back scratched lying on the carpet munching on dried fruit: that was it. The other she-servants couldn’t stand Ribbo. “The bitch eats with Begum, hangs out with her, and even sleeps with her.” Ribbo and Begum Jan were a central topic of conversation.
Whenever the two were mentioned, there will be laughter. Poor them. They became a butt of jokes for these people. But Begum Jan did not bother to socialize with anyone. She didn’t care. It was only her itch that mattered to her. As I said, I was quite young back then and had a tremendous crush on Begum Jan. She adored me. My mother, when leaving for Agra, knew I’d be wandering all over the place by myself in her absence. That’s why she left me with Begum Jan. I’m happy, Begum Jan’s happy. The question was where should I sleep? In her room, naturally. A sleeping cot for me was laid next to her bed. I conversed and played cards with her till about eleven at night and then went to my cot to sleep. Ribbo was still there scratching Begum Jan when I went to bed. “That sleazy woman,” I thought to myself about Ribbo and fell asleep. I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night. I felt scared. The room was very dark. And in this darkness, Begum Jan’s quilt was moving from inside as if there was an elephant in it. “Begum Jan, I’m scared.” I squeaked. The elephant stopped moving and the quilt flattened. “What is it? What’s the matter?” said Begum Jan from somewhere. “I’m scared,” I yelped scared out of my wits. “Go back to sleep. Why are you scared? Just recite the Aytul Kursi to yourself.” “Okay.” I tried to go over Aytul Kursi real fast, but kept getting stuck at Laleem Mabeen, even though I knew the verse quite well. “Can I come in your bed, Begum Jan?” “No, doll, just go back to sleep,” her tone was admonishing. I heard two voices whispering. Oh no, who else’s there. I was even more scared. “Begum Jan, is there a burglar in here?” “Go back to sleep, hon…there’s no burglar here.” I heard Ribbo say. I threw the quilt over my face and fast fell asleep.
The next morning I didn’t remember anything strange about last night. I am very superstitious. Being scared and run to someone at night and mumble in my sleep was a routine for me back when I was young. Everyone said I was possessed. That’s why I didn’t think of much about last night. The quilt looked very innocent in the morning. But when I woke up in the middle of the next night, Begum Jan and Ribbo were very quietly having an argument in the bed. I couldn’t get a clue what it was all about and how it got settled. Ribbo was sobbing and sniveling. Then I heard sounds as if a cat slurping. Damn. I fell asleep feeling very nervous.
Today Ribbo was visiting her very quarrelsome son. Begum Jan had done so much for him: set up a store, found work at the village. But he won’t straighten out. He stayed at the Nawab Sahib’s for a few days and even had new outfit made for himself. But don’t know why he ran away, vowing never to return to that house, not even to meet Ribbo. So Ribbo had to go and see him at a relative’s. Begum Jan won’t let her go, but Ribbo had no other choice. Begum Jan was irritable all day. Each and every joint of her body ached. She didn’t like anyone touching her. Depressed and miserable, she didn’t eat anything all day and remained in bed. “Can I scratch you…honest,” I said excitedly while playing cards with her. She stared at me. She kept lying quietly as I scratched. Ribbo was supposed to be back next day, but she didn’t show. Begum Jan was even more irritable. She got a headache drinking tea all day. I started to scratch her back again, a back just like a slippery hardtop of a table. I kept scratching slowly. I felt so happy doing little things for her. “Scratch a little harder…open the pajama’s waist-band,” said Begum Jan. “A little bit below the shoulder…you’re so good…aha ha…here,” she started to express her satisfaction cheerfully, “…and here,” her own hand could reach that part, but she wanted mine. And gullible me. I felt so proud doing that. “Here…hehe…you tickle me…whoa!” She was laughing and I was talking and scratching thoughtlessly. “I’ll send you to the store. What do you like? The doll that closes and opens her eyes?” “No Begum Jan, I don’t play with dolls anymore. I’m not a kid.” “What, are you an old woman then,” she laughed. “Okay, get clothes if you don’t want a doll. I’ll get you a lot of clothes,” she turned over. “Thanks,” I said softly. “Here,” she put my hand on the part of her body where she wanted me to scratch.
Lost in thoughts of new clothes, I kept scratching her mindlessly and she kept talking continuously. “Listen. You are running out of dresses. I’ll get the cloth to the tailor for sewing. Your mother had left it for you.” “I don’t want any red clothes. They look ugly.” I was talking gibberish oblivious of the places my hand was visiting. Begun Jan was by now lying flat on her back. Oops. I pulled my hand back. “Hey, girl, don’t you see where you scratch,” she had a naughty smile on her. I felt embarrassed. “Come here and lie with me,” she put her arm out as a pillow and put my head on it as I lay next to her. “Look how skinny you are. Your ribs are showing,” she started to count my ribs. “Oooonnh.” I protested. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite you. Your sweater is so tight. And look, you are not wearing an undershirt either.” It was getting way too uncomfortable for me. “Tell me, how many ribs a person has,” she changed the subject. “Nine on one side, ten on the other,” I repeated what I had learnt in my hygiene class, right or not. “Okay, move your hand…one…two…three...” I wanted to fly outta there. She squeezed me hard. “Oooonnh,” I fluttered in her arms. She started to laugh hard. Even now I get nauseous when I picture her face at that moment. Her eyelids had become even heavier, her lips had this black streak on them and, despite cold weather, tiny sweat-droplets sparkled on her lips and nose. Her hands were iced cold, but very soft. Her fair body glistened like a flour-dough through her transparent shirt. Her heavy-gold jewelry dangled on a side of her neck. Evening had taken over and the room was getting dark. An unknown fear surrounded me.
Those deep eyes of Begum Jan—I was crying…from inside. Clutched in her arms, she was squeezing me hard as if I were some cuddly toy. My heart sank from her body heat. She was like a woman possessed. I could neither scream nor cry. She finally felt tired and loosened me. She was breathing heavy and her face looked grim. I thought she was going to die. I sprinted out of that room like a racehorse. Thank goodness Ribbo showed up that night. I crawled back inside my quilt and tried to sleep. But what sleep? I lied awake under my quilt for hours. Why isn’t my mother here yet. I’d spend most of my days with the she-servants, so scared of Begum Jan I was. I dreaded stepping in her room. But who could I tell that I was scared of her…the same Begum Jan who adored me? Today Ribbo and Begum Jan had an argument again.
Their fights scared the crap out of me. That’s because, after each fight, Begum Jan would immediately notice that I’m outside in the cold and will catch and die of pneumonia. “Girl, you will get me in trouble. If you get sick, I’m going to get blamed.” She had me sit next to her. She was washing her hands in this large aluminum bowl of water. Tea was set on the side table. “Make a cup of tea for me,” she said drying her face with a towel, “I’ll change.” She got busy changing her clothes, and me drinking tea. If Begum Jan wanted me for something while having her back scratched, I’d look the other way and won’t go near her. Now that she started to change her clothes, I felt sick to my stomach. I kept drinking my tea facing the other way. “Oh mother, I don’t fight with my brothers as much, why do you do this to me.” My mother never liked me playing with boys, as if they would swallow me whole…her little princess. And what boys! My own brothers and their god-forsaken pathetic friends. But no!
My mother was convinced that girls should be locked behind seven doors. But look at this Begum Jan. She is such a terror that not all the goons in the world could match up to her. I wanted to run away. But I was helpless and trapped. I sat there like a statue drinking my tea. She changed her clothes and then put all that make-up on. She looked hot in the warm smell of her perfumes. She was so sweet to me. “I wanna go home,” was my mantra to her every suggestion. “Come to me. I’ll take you shopping. Listen...” But I was like spilled water. She couldn’t get me back. All those toys on one side, and my constant “I wanna go home” on the other. “There your brother will hit you, little girl,” she slapped me gently. “Oh, yeah, that’s right, like he’ll hit me,” I thought sarcastically and kept sitting there looking the other way. “Unripe tamarind is very sour, Begum Jan,” envious Ribbo, who was watching, said acidly. Begum Jan had a fit. She threw the gold chain she was putting on me at the moment to the floor and ripped her delicate scarf to shreds. Her perfectly parted hair was now a total mess. “Oh oh oh…” she screamed from the top of her lungs. I ran out. After applying all sorts of sedative techniques on her, she finally clamed down. When I went into my room very late at night, I saw Ribbo, glued to her waist, massaging. “Take my shoes off,” Begum Jan said scratching Ribbo’s ribs. I crawled into my quilt like a mouse. I saw Begum Jan’s quilt sway like an elephant. “Oooonnh…Allah,” I yelped. The elephant made a move inside the quilt and the quilt flattened. I kept quiet. The elephant jumped again. I felt my skin crawl. I was determined to turn the lights on. My hands were shaking. I could hear sounds as if someone sloppily chomping food, as if some delicious chutney was being tasted. Now I understand!
Begum Jan must be very hungry because she hasn’t eaten all day…and that Ribbo…she is so gluttonous…she’s got hold of good food. I expanded my nostrils and tried to smell food. But other than strong perfume, sandalwood and henna, I could smell nothing else. I noticed some activities going on under the quilt. I tried very hard to keep lying quietly, but was very frightened of the shadows the quilt was making on the wall across. It looked as if there was a big toad under that quilt jumping and would jump out on me any moment. “Oh, ma,” I gathered all the courage to say something, but nothing came out of my mouth. Frightened, I took my shoes off, quietly got off the cot, and hit the light switch. A hand flashed inside the quilt and the quilt flattened. Because of that hand-flash, about a foot of the quilt was lifted up exposing the inside. “Hai Allah!!!” Whoosh…I dived right back into under my quilt.
Footnote: This story is grounded in reality--and due to this story Ismat Chughtai was sued for obscenity though the charges were subsequently not proven in the Lahore court. Ismat suffered some persecution and never again wrote on similar themes since her family/husband was very embarassed about this story. The lady Ismat had characterized, met the author years later and said that because of this story she was able to leave her husband.
Source: essay by Ismat Chugtai about her life.
Source: Aid India.org
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