Exploring Sex and Sexuality in Ismat Chughtai's Short Stories



Ismat Chughtai is one of India's leading feminist foremothers. Her writing has spoken to power, inspired, altered, roiled, transformed, and evolved over time. This two-part essay series focuses on some of Chughtai's most brilliantly crafted works under two themes: sex and sexuality, and the zenana (part of the house meant for women's seclusion). Both sexuality and the zenana come across as sites of flourishing sisterhood and camaraderie, spaces to explore the self, and birthing grounds for subdued yet blazing rebellion. 


Chughtai's women are not similar in any sense of the word. They are angry, curious, bold, scared, simple, and intelligent. The common thread running through her stories is patriarchy and its institutions. Each of Chughtai's women deals with it in a different way, much like women in real life: some fight it, some succumb to it, some negotiate it in their unique ways. 


Sex and sexuality: a look at Lihaaf, The Net, and The Mole

Perhaps her most-read and controversial work, Lihaaf has more to offer than meets the eye. With the narration from a naive young girl's perspective, the story is open to the reader's interpretation right from the first sentence. When the narrator is sent to Begum Jaan's home for being too rebellious, she discovers Begum Jaan's curious relationship with her help and masseuse, Rabbu. The story is rife with exploration of homoeroticism and homosexuality, female wants and desires, sexual agency and its breaches. This is why Chughtai was taken to court for her "obscene" writing in Lihaaf.

But, there's more that perhaps some readers don't give due attention to: even within her less privileged position as a wife to the openly homosexual Nawab Sahib, Begum Jaan wields her will over the weaker Rabbu and the narrator, quite unapologetically. Begum Jaan, oblivious of the power and class privilege skewed in her favour, molests the narrator when Rabbu is not around.

More than being heralded as a groundbreaking depiction of homosexuality, Lihaaf demonstrates Chughtai's acute take on human nature. The more time one spends with it, the more the story offers. 


From the first-person narrative in Lihaaf, The Net, narrated in the third person, brings similar yet uniquely different themes to the readers’ mind. It is a coming-of-age story of childhood friends and sisters, Attan and Safiya. The girls grow up in a religious household where they explore their femininity together albeit secretly in a close, dark room. They grow up idolising beauty and marriage as they observe it in films, and through shared appreciation of female role models in their lives. All is well till they intercept a package given by their Bhaiya to be carried to Attan and Safiya's Aapa (elder sister). They had carried many such packages and envelopes from Bhaiyas to Aapas in the past, but this was the first that they had opened! The contents: a delicate, laced, net-like piece of lingerie. The girls stow it away hurriedly and grow embittered with each other over time as each wants her space to be alone with the net; they now need space to explore their individuality and sexuality. An ultimate betrayal ruins this process of self-discovery. 


A depiction of Attan and Safiya's makeshift vests before they discovered 'the net'.


Through The Net, Chughtai paints an exquisite portrait of forceful repression of desire, self-discovery through shared experiences, and liberation from familial (in most ways, patriarchal) restraints. The end of the quick-paced story reveals the weakness of a strong spirit, in the face of something bigger than herself.


Quite different from this sketch of a young woman who succumbs to patriarchy, we find the brazen Rani in The Mole, who is unfazed by what the world thinks of her, or how it treats her. She goes after what she wants, with no regrets. 

The Mole shows the promiscuous Rani, whose portrait is being painted by Choudhary for a chance at winning a five-thousand-rupee award. Rani, crude and unapologetic in expressing her sexuality, teases and entices the restraint-practising Choudhary. She draws his gaze to the mole on her breast, which eventually expands to fill all the space in his hitherto focused, philosophical thoughts. Rani's poor social status puts her brazen sexual encounters with multiple partners beneath even the disdain of society. But, the sexualised mole and knowledge of her open sexual encounters changes Choudhary's supposedly pious life: through anger, paternalistic feelings, and rage, his emotions devolve into jealousy and a tumultuous discovery of his own, now-incontrollable, sexual desire for Rani.

Choudhary is moved to confess his feelings to her after simmering in these emotions, but Rani leaves abruptly one day. Months later, she is found to be ditching a bloody package (presumably her fetus) by the roadside. Unapologetic as always, she drags Choudhary's name through the mud when she is confronted. This was the last nail in Choudhary's sanity's coffin. "A black mountain crushed over Choudhary's existence... to this day, sitting by the road, Choudhary traces lines with a piece of charcoal - long, conical, round lines - like a singed mark." The reader is left with a textbook "unhappy ending" and ripe, moving visuals of "long, conical, round lines", just like Choudhary.


So Chughtai explores lives of women through the lens of 'sex and sexuality'. She highlights the differences among these women while endowing each with a sense of unique individuality.

The child narrator's versions of the world are seen to be naive, unsullied, and simplistic, while the third-person narratives are powerful even without the innuendo. Even within restricting environments, Chughtai shows us the rich inner lives of women, coloured bright with emotion and thought. What does the reader take away from these lucidly visual, powerful, yet seemingly abrupt stories? Read on in the following essay to find out.


The second part of this series will focus on Ismat Chughtai's writings along the theme of 'the zenana'.

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This Night Owl Original has been authored by Pallavi. They are the co-founder and editor-in-chief at The Night Owl Writes.

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