Before I comment on the story, it is important to know that this was written by a woman in pre-independence India 1942, by a woman. The controversy surrounding Lihaaf emerged due to the representation of unadulterated female desire, sexuality, and queerness.
Ismat Chughtai was an Indian Urdu novelist, short story writer, and filmmaker. Beginning in the 1930s, she wrote extensively on themes including female sexuality and femininity, middle-class gentility, and class conflict, often from a Marxist perspective.
Ismat Chughtai was Urdus most courageous and controversial woman writer in the twentieth century. She carved a niche for herself among her contemporaries of Urdu fiction writers Rajinder Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chanderby introducing areas of experience not explored before. Her work not only transformed the complexion of Urdu fiction, it brought about an attitudinal change in the assessment of literary works. Although a spirited member of the Progressive Writers Movement in India, she spoke vehemently against its orthodoxy and inflexibility. Often perceived of as a feminist writer, Chughtai explored female sexuality while also exploring other dimensions of social and existential reality.
The protagonist, a young girl is sent off to live with her aunt ‘Begum jaan’ the lady of a rich household who is married to an older man who is known to be a ‘good man’ as he never visits prostitutes or even looks at other women but when inside the house the child realises that the husband Nawab Sahib directed all his attention at funding the education of “young, fair and slim-waisted boys” and meanwhile Begum jaan is constantly down with body aches, which are eased by a only a massuse named Rabbo and the child who sleeps in Begum jaan’s room seems to be scared of formation of shadows behind the lihaaf (veil) during one of these massage sessions. I started to get uncomfortable here with Begum jaan’s interaction with the protagonist which seemed to be pedophilic. (Parts in the quotes below)
Come here and lie down beside me…” She made me lie down with my head on her arm. “How skinny you are… your ribs are coming out.”
She began counting my ribs. I tried to protest. “Come on, I’m not going to eat you up. How tight this sweater is! And you don’t have a warm vest on.” I felt very uncomfortable. “How many ribs does one have?” She changed the topic.
I wanted to run away, but she held me tightly. I tried to wriggle out and Begum Jaan began to laugh loudly. To this day, whenever I am reminded of her face at that moment. I feel jittery.
Now the story is clearly about homosexuality with tones of feminism with a women taking charge of her sexuality and life. But the whole story travels under the ‘lihaaf’ as it is shown from a child’s eyes and hence no judgemental or obscenity is there. Things are as they are, not good, not bad, the author has not tried to make any judgement or justification out of the story, and have choosen to just make it humane.
At a time when writing by and about women was rare and tentative, Chughtai explored female sexuality with unparalleled frankness and examined the political and social mores of her time.