Sexuality in the time of Sobriety

“It’s about time we shed these prudish pre-conditioned layers and talk and deal with sexual explicitness in our books and films with a certain degree of refinement and maturity,” Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author of the novel Sita’s Curse was quoted in a recent article in Hindustan Times which proclaimed that sex had finally come out of closet in India, and writers were celebrating this newly-found freedom to write on the tabooed subject of female sexuality. This article gave voice to women writers who could now openly explore the theme of female sexuality and steer away from the stereotypical projection of women as meek and submissive in bed, because the society has finally accepted women as subjects of desire and not just objects of desire. This is the year 2014.

It was seventy three years ago, in 1941 that Ismat Chughtai’s controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ (The Quilt) which depicted a lesbian relationship between a childless woman and her servant was published. Quite scandalous for a time when women lived a veiled life. Bold, daring, progressive, scandalous, even obscene are some of the adjectives popularly used to describe Chughtai’s work. Though ‘Lihaaf’ landed her in the midst of a raging social controversy and an obscenity trial Chughtai continued her ‘bold’ writing in a rebellious tone and a feminist voice.

A heady satire on the institution of marriage, as well as on the social mores of 1940s ‘Gharwali’ (The Homemaker) is another story by Chughtai which is has managed to turn heads. In India, marriage remains an essential step of any individual’s life, especially a woman. Very few women remain single and those who do, are looked at with suspicious raised eyebrows. Seemanthini Niranjana in her book Gender and Space says “Marriage is a critical turning point for a girl, allowing her to translate into reality latent reproductive capacities and there by realize her claim to womanhood in the eyes of the community.” ‘Gharwali’ questions the notion of marriage being the prerequisite to womanhood.

‘Gharwali’ is a story about Lajjo, an orphan who comes of age to realize that her biggest asset is her body. She solicits her body for money, sometimes for cash, sometimes on credit and other times on charity. Lajjo likes sex and makes no qualms about it. She works as a maid servant, serving food in the dining room and serving her master in the bedroom. She is a woman of ill repute but is at the same time incredibly desirable to the men. The story narrates how Lajjo comes to work in a strait-laced bachelor, Mirza’s house and charms him with her coquetry. He yearns for her but fears of treading inappropriate grounds. Mirza’s dilemma is solved when one night Lajjo herself grabs him and seduces him thoroughly. His fondness for her breeds insecurity and he soon proposes marriage. Lajjo begs and pleads him to change his mind but Mirza stays firm. Once they get married the inevitable happens, Mirza loses his interest in her and Lajjo, who breeds a healthy appetite for sex finds a replacement. When Mirza finds out, all hell breaks loose. He beats her black and blue and turns her out. Divorced, Lajjo is out on the streets again. In the end they both realize that they need each other and the arrangement they had was best when left untouched by marriage. Lajjo’s is well aware that marriage is a tool to control female sexual desire in a patriarchal world. She is relived when this burden is off her head.

Though her character in the story is submissive she has tongue which is razor sharp. She is bold, frank, outspoken and in touch with her sexuality. She understands her physical needs as basic human needs without getting caught up in the complicated notions of modesty and morality. “She had a very large hearted concept of the man-woman relationship. For her, love was the most beautiful experience in life. After attaining a certain age, she was initiated into it and since then her interest had only grown.”

Before Ismat Chughtai tackled the subject, female sexuality had been previously dealt with in Indian literature.  Sarat Chandra Chottapadhay’s novel ‘Shesh Prashna’ (The Last Question) first published in 1931 reinforces the author’s enduring relevance on a female’s sexuality, questioning all patriarchal values. However, female sexuality had never been dealt with by a woman. Author Tahira Naqvi, well-known for her translations of a sizable body of Ismat Chughtai’s work into English, in a lecture she gave on Ismat Chughtai at the ‘Sadaa: Voices of Women’ arts festival in Seattle (2004) explained, that at the time ‘Lihaaf’ was published, the editor of the magazine that published it assumed that the writer was a man writing under the pseudonym of Ismat Chughtai. Nobody could believe, first of all, that a woman would venture to send a story out and second, that the story would be the story that it was. When it was discovered that the writer was a woman, the story created the most amazing furore.

Chughtai’s ‘Gharwali’ has been brought to life on many stages by Naseeruddin Shah in his acclaimed play ‘Ismat Apa ke Naam’. He plays both parts, of Mirza and Lajjo. With a pout here and a flutter of eyelids there, Naseerudin brings Lajjo’s character to life. The story humorous, enjoyable and daring has also been narrated by the versatile story teller Chettan Shetty at Gyaan Adab Centre, Pune it was then read out in Urdu by well-known Urdu poet and singer Mumtaz Peerbhoy.

Even now, seventy three years after the story was first published, the Urdu reading of ‘Gharwali’ managed to draw a few “tsk tsks”, raised a few eyebrows and offended some moralistic sensibilities.

To this, the woman, the legend, Ismat Chughtai would have said, as she has said before, “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”

Whether India is going through a sexual revolution and women writers now have the freedom to explore women’s sexuality, without shying away from writing about closed bedroom romps and intimate love-making scenes is still a contested subject. But what cannot be contested is that Chughtai’s bold stride of discussing female sexuality in her work, enabled people to see that it is possible for women to explore and to write “bold” stories and paved the way for a succeeding generation of women writers.

– By Aryaa Naik Dalmiya

Nityaasha Foundation