Ismat chugtai was one of the most prominent Urdu writers of her times and still sways considerable influence in the literary world, so much so, that Tahira Naqvi considers her one of the four pillars of Urdu short story along with likes of Manto, Krishnchander and Rajinder Singh Bedi. But a part of her popularity (and almost all of her controversies) lie in the kind of choices he made in her literary journey. She expressed and explored those themes which were either tabooed (and some are tabooed even now) or were not considered the domain of women writers. Her exploration of homo-eroticism, unabashed sexuality, middle class women sphere etc. were way ahead of the times she was writing in. as a history student, these texts offers a very different vision of the society and offer a perspective which is not possible in traditional Indian literature which mostly fails to consider the underlying patriarchal and class structure inherent to the society rather than as external imposition. Thus we are urged to look at the social milieu of the text as well as the social milieu in which the text itself came to be composed
There are various underlying themes in the text but it is not possible to elaborate all these themes in the limited space. Thus I identified one common thread that is running throughout the text and which could help us to bind all these diverse themes together. And that methodological unit is Class. We will consider Lihaaf as our cornerstone of study to give an effective and compact analysis of the class issue. In Lihaaf, the first thing that comes to our mind is the bond shared by the begum and her maid Rabbu. I suspect a exploitative class relation in this bond. Begum, in search of companion with a sexual urge and cravings, chose Rabbu for the purpose, which invited a great deal of envy from other maids. Now through the lens of class, we can identify two stratum of class dynamics. First layer consist of the sexual favors that Begum can afford to ask from her inner circle of maids and confidantes (Rabbu and the narrator). One should ask this question- what was the motivation of Rabbu in this relation? Was it her free will (which is highly improbable) or a deep class inferiority that makes it much easier for the Begums to exercise extra economic coercion on them (similar to what Nawab exercised on the young boys). But there is another side to this class relation- the reason for the envy of maids lie in her closeness with the Begum which allows Rabbu to enjoy certain economic privileges and a temporary sense of upward social mobility. Here we are reminded of Gerda Lerner who points out in a different context, how royal women and concubines in ancient Mesopotamia enjoyed an exalted status as long as they are in favorable position in their relation with the king and lose their position as soon as either she falls out of favor or the king decides to take another one. Similar condition is seen with Rabbu, who gets a shop for her son and a better standing economically in respect to her other counterparts, but her rift with Begum and Begum trying to woo the narrator with material benefits (like dolls etc.) ignites envy in Rabbu which may also signify her insecurity of losing a privileged though exploitative relation with her master to a young girl. It is also worth seeing that the bait for persuasion and coercion is much less for the girl (dolls, toys etc) compared to Rabbu (shop etc.), which show us the internal dynamics within the subjected class. Though the narrator seems better economically and socially (her mother is the sister of the Begum though we don’t see any reference to their material affluence). So even the exalted position of Begum has a lot to do with her marriage with the Nawab, who though absent from the narrative, glances a patriarchal gaze on the characters of the text. So I suspect an attempt on the part of narrator’s mother to send her frequently to Begum’s house, perhaps in a bid to exalt their own status through their association with a royal family and derive certain material benefits if possible. But the narrator is shown here as a naïve (or innocence has an element of pretension to it, as she is trying to project herself as naïve and indifferent) and doesn’t realize the nature of her behavior with begum. She confess to like begum and is very curious to know what is happening beneath the quilt but there is a huge difference between a unconscious curiosity and conscious experience of such relation at an age when she can’t feel that stimulation. Thus the text reflects a deep seated class dominance and the sense of authoritative, feudal extra economic coercion on the part of Begum (and ironically, an imitation of a patriarchal feudal aristocratic behavior that the Nawab represent and the Begum tends to imitate) and the varied reactions of the have-nots in the relation. One is the realization of the nature of relation and its exploitative structure and trying to derive temporary privileges from that exploitation (Rabbu) or the innocence and inability to grasp the structure and its exploitative nature (narrator).
Though there are various limitations to this analysis with its myopic field of study and its inability to deal with all the elements within the text, it provides a framework to study the text in diverse ways. Lihaaf offers a polemical discourse as well as a window to understand the dynamical class and gender relations and the hierarchy of relations with its structural and teleological validity in the feudal elitist order. It, at the same time, contrasts the chimeras of the child with the actual experiences of the adult, the realization of which came as a rude shock for the child. A much wider analysis of other elements of this story is beyond the scope of the story but needless to say, the story can be read with its different layers of meanings which exist as an independent entity as a signifier of social dynamics and at same time act as a site of similitude where these different significations create a larger picture of the space and time it represents.