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Exploring The Zenana in Ismat Chughtai's Short Stories

This essay is the latter of a two-part series. The first part, 'Exploring sex and sexuality in Ismat Chughtai's short stories' can be found here.

The Zenana: reading The wedding Shroud, Gainda, and Touch-me-not

The Wedding Shroud (Chauthi ka Joda) is about a young girl, Kubra, not characterised as traditionally beautiful, who is facing a tough time trying to get married. She is faced with the struggles of her family, consisting of her widowed mother and younger sister, Hameeda (described as being more attractive), in finding a suitable husband for Kubra. The three women in the household constantly idolize the son-in-law-to-be, Rahat, to the point of worshipping him and sacrificing basic necessities.

This story, like many others by Chugtai, highlights the importance given to marriage in a woman’s life, placing it higher above than any other destiny a woman could hope for, thereby tying her entire self-worth to the status of being 'a married woman'.

The reader gets an interesting glimpse into the lives of women in the Zenana through the character of Hameeda and her role in the family in securing a groom for her elder sister. There are quite a few antics which Hameeda was expected to engage in as well as tolerate, so as to secure Rahat and Hameeda's engagement. As a future sister-in-law, she is expected to be playful and indulging as an assurance to the groom about the finality of marriage while the bride-to-be is still hidden from sight. To me, this indicated the replaceability of women in men’s lives and the objectification and reification of the role of a wife. In the story, perhaps emboldened by his god-like status, Rahat takes undue advantage of Hameeda’s innocence and helplessness by making unwanted sexual advances. Even these are dismissed as positive signs by the other women.

Although Hameeda, throughout the story, is a powerless victim of male dominance and patriarchal expectations, she is shown to be seething with anger. She demonstrates a silent rebellion in her inner monologues, hence being her true self in the only space that was really hers: her unspoken thoughts.

Gainda is a short story by Chugtai on the themes of child marriage, premarital and extramarital sex,  and young motherhood, with deep feminist underpinnings. The titular character, Gainda, is a lower-caste, widowed servant working in the narrator’s household. As young girls, both the narrator and Gainda were playmates and their games often revolved around marriage and dressing up as brides. Gainda and the narrator’s older, married brother share a flirtatious relationship that goes completely unnoticed by the innocent young narrator, who wants ardently to find herself a suitor and not be a virgin anymore.

The narrator harbors her fair share of jealously towards Gainda's voluptuous body and the fact that she had had sex before her husband died. To counter this, the narrator tries actively to seek out romance and love within the scope of her immediate environment.

After coming back from a long trip to a relative’s, the narrator finds Gainda to have given birth to a baby. At first, she doesn’t realise what had happened, but soon comes to know that her brother was the father of the child, who, in fact, had been sent off to Delhi to avoid dealing with the unpleasant situation. It is at this time that the reader is exposed to the fact that Gainda is a lower-caste girl and the power dynamics in the relationships she had with members of the family comes into focus, both by virtue of her caste and gender. While the brother has escaped the consequences of his actions, Gainda, who was still very much a child, is left to take care of the baby all by herself. The “little mother,” as Gainda is described, ends up being an unusual combination of childlike innocence and nurturant maturity as a result of her circumstances. The story touches upon the themes of coming-of-age and adolescence, love, desire and camaraderie, and caste dynamics in Indian society.

The theme of glorifying marriage in Chugtai’s stories is followed by the idealization of motherhood that all women are put through by society, as well as through having internalized roles of motherhood themselves.

Touch-Me-Not (or Chhui-Mui) is another short story by Chugtai from the zenana that touches upon the lives of young women in India seen not only through the female lens but also the interrelated class perspective. Touch-Me-Not is the story of a young, newly-wed bride whose prime duty is to produce a child for her husband. All the senior women in the family are eagerly awaiting the young wife to deliver on her responsibility and, with this expectation, pamper and coddle her to such an extent that she develops into a frail and fragile woman, like a touch-me-not plant. While enjoying the luxuries of a rich household and despite all the expensive state-of-the-art healthcare provided to the pregnant woman, Bhabijaan, as she is known to the narrator, goes through several miscarriages and a failing self-worth.

Through artful narration, it is made clear that failure to produce a child not only worsens the status of a woman in society but also threatens her place in the family, giving the husband freedom to choose to marry a second time. Once again, we come face-to-face with the temporariness of a woman’s place in the family. Bhabijaan is a case in point of how women experience a benevolent form of sexism and misogyny all through their lives, so often perpetuated by other women, that feeds into the narrative of patriarchy, well-depicted in Chhui Mui. In contrast to Bhabijaan’s character is the peasant woman whom they meet on a train. This character who comes from a world very different from that of the young mother-to-be is Chugtai’s tool to demonstrate the different shades of motherhood that women in India form a part of and live through. 

In exploring the lives of women, Chugati also succeeds in bringing forth the happenings from the zenana, a place where women would spend most of their time, hidden from the rest of the male-oriented world. From childhood games to female friendships and solidarity in sisterhood and femininity, the truths of her women are laid bare on the pages for readers to discover and engage with. All their different burdens, gifts, and contexts, merge into just one thing: rightful appreciation for a masterful writer who forces one to look into their soul and face their true self.


This Night Owl Original has been authored by Shreya Jathavedan. She is a third-year psychology student from Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Apart from psychology, she loves history, literature, linguistics, and learning new languages. Always found with a book in hand, she writes as a means to heal and to learn.


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