Art & Culture

How Ismat Chughtai and Manto gave India its first feminist literature

Surbhi Sachdeva
Surbhi SachdevaJan 28, 2016 | 12:45

How Ismat Chughtai and Manto gave India its first feminist literature

Leftist authors always garnered controversy in the pre-Partition period with their radical opinions. Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were two such leftists in their own right. While Chughtai was more evidently feminist in her ideology, Manto's feminist inclinations remain disputatious.

Hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Punjab respectively, Chughtai and Manto had fairly humble beginnings. Besides the imprint they left on Urdu literature with their powerful writing, the two writers' lives coincided on multiple occasions. They were both actively involved in the leftist Progressive Writers' Association and both were arrested on the same date, December 5, 1944, on charges of "obscenity" stemming from Lihaaf (Chughtai) and Bu (Manto), although Manto was more graphic and explicit in his imagery and portrayal of the larger message of women's roles in a patriarchy as opposed to the more nuanced mannerisms of Chughtai in Lihaaf.


Lihaaf (The Quilt) is a short story narrated from the first-person perspective of a young girl. Accused of being a troublemaker around her brothers and acquaintances, the narrator is sent off to live with her mother's "adopted" sister, Begum Jan. The naïve girl's encounter with homosexuality in the household is two-fold: witnessing Begum Jan's husband indulge himself in the company of "young, fair and slim-waisted boys" and subsequently catching Begum Jan herself engaging in intercourse with her servant Rabbo under the eponymous and symbolic lihaaf.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At the time of Lihaaf's publication in 1942, homosexuality in itself was a highly tabooed subject and punishable offence despite its prevalence in Indian mythology. Chughtai herself claimed that she did not know about lesbianism while writing the story:

"When I wrote Lihaaf, this thing [lesbianism] was not discussed openly. We girls used to talk about it and we knew there was something like it, but we didn't know the whole truth…"The fact that Chughtai herself was not adequately aware of lesbianism as a concept or movement underscores the genuine ignorance of the narrator in Lihaaf.

The titular quilt or lihaaf acts as a symbol used to connote a spectrum of messages. The broadest symbolism objectified in the quilt is that of a Pandora's Box that leaves deep scars on the narrator upon its unveiling but somehow captures the hope of the narrator's eventual healing. From a strictly Pavlovian perspective, the narrator is conditioned by the aversive stimulus (witnessing the "unspeakable" act) in such a manner that the quilt continues to elicit the narrator's regression to the "dark crevasses of the past". The quilt also acts a symbol of the discreetness that surrounded the activity and how it was to be kept "under the wraps" and away from the prying eyes of judgment.


Other than exploring the taboo homo-erotica in her story, Chughtai also implicitly examines the violation of a conventional master-servant relation that serves to defy a system fuelled by feudal caste and class divisions. Even the constant reference to the couple as "Nawab Sahib" (prince) and Begum Jan (princess) emphasises the aristocratic position of the family in terms of social hierarchy. Despite the riches and the status, Begum Jan seems to be leading a miserable and listless existence. In a beautiful oxymoron, it is the arrival of the bonded servant that liberates Begum Jan, from her constant state of "melancholy and despair".

Manto's Thanda Gosht

Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat) is a short story narrated from an omniscient, third-person perspective and is thus very Manto-esque in trying to let the reader judge the tumultuous turn of events for him/herself. It commences with Eshwer Singh returning home from some kind of communal riots in Amritsar. He comes back home to his wife Kalwant Kaur, actively avoiding the topic of his sudden disappearance and seducing her as a distraction instead. When Singh is unable to get physically aroused, his wife begins to suspect him of  infidelity and proceeds to repeatedly stab him while hurling abuses at the dying Singh. In his last moments, Eshwer explains to Kalwant how he had ravaged a Muslim household during the riots and attempted to rape a girl only to find out that she was already dead ("cold...like ice"), passing away himself with these very words.


In this gory work, Manto provokes the reader to think of his subjective notion of a conscience that gets altered by circumstance. Singh is an allegory of the thousands who engaged in communal violence because of a jingoistic herd mentality but also out of a raging passion to protect his community. This bandwagon phenomenon drives him to kill the Muslim family and abduct the girl for his own pleasure without any pangs of guilt. The traumatic experience of realising that the girl was already appellatively "cold meat" also acts as an aversive stimulus that prevents him from being aroused by his wife.

The story additionally attempts to convey the underlying idea of the need to seek redemption and eventual forgiveness. Singh ambivalently admits to his wrongdoing and thus welcomes death by asserting that "what happened is for the best". Thereafter, he narrates the incident to his wife who transcends from sheer contempt towards her perfidious husband to an understanding of the trauma he underwent. In the conclusive scene, Singh asks Kalwant to give him her hand, which can be seen as a metaphorical attempt at redemption and comfort. Kaur reciprocates his "reaching out" and extends her forgiveness as she "places her hand on his", only to realise he is as cold as the girl he had described in his last breath.


Feminist literature seeks to dissect and explore power structures and patriarchies, social practices and institutions, all of which have collectively entrenched inequality between men and women. In the context of Partition-era India, feminist literature focuses on the prevalent notion of violence and assaults on women as a means to seize and defile their family's honour. The female body was thus a mere tool or object, violation of which was used to make a larger statement of community dominance. Thus, the literature of this era encompassed misogyny in its essence.

During the Partition, communal violence took an extremely poignant and heinous form as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs used pillaging and rape as an instrument to assert their power. Women came to play the role of the victims of these attacks that arose out of religious and political tensions. In Thanda Ghosht, Eshwer Singh is a patriot who gets so caught up in the heat of the moment that he too decides to "rob" a Muslim girl of her family honour and dignity by sexually assaulting her on a whim. Ironically enough, Eshwer's name means the Almighty, which is perhaps an allusion to the existence of the Indian notion of Pati Parmeshwar (my husband, my god). Singh's spite drives him to abominable lengths, which emerges as a stark irony to the divine (aforementioned) meaning of his name.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This juxtaposition serves to add a hint of bleak contradiction in the narrative, wherein the character behaves in complete contrast of what is expected from his religion, name and morality. The act in itself is a clear depiction of the man's need to assert his dominance through "ownership" of a young girl belonging to a rival faith. Moreover, it is Kalwant's Kaur reaction that truly shows the breakdown of a patriarchal social order where a woman, instead of submitting, grabs power from her husband by brutally stabbing him on account of his infidelity. Kaur stands up for her own individuality rather than caring for her family's needs, even though the action may also be regarded as a selfish one, one driven by her own resentment towards her husband's disloyalty.

Evidently, Kalwant's stabbing of her husband is deemed as a horrific act, mainly because a woman is seen as transgressing the misogynistic norms to take matters into her own hands and attacking her perfidious husband.

Normally, a woman is an object of violence but in this case she's an active perpetrator, thus inciting the evident flouting of the gender role. Thus, the obscenity arises not only in the theme of necrophilia but also in Kaur's violation of the submissive role assigned to her by society.

While the heinousness of her husband's act is somewhat mitigated by his remorseful confession, Kalwant's actions are left to the interpretation of the reader owing to the story's abrupt end. Kaur's digression from the path of submission is so powerful a message that it tended to offend the patriarchal mindset of its readership in the 1940s. Therefore, it was not the gore or the atrocity of the depicted crime, but the attack on the entrenched convention of male domination that seemed to attract dissent from the public, lawyers and judiciary alike.

Lihaaf portrays a Muslim princely household, the rules of which are dictated by conservatism and the need for discretion. A direct consequence is the acceptance of the purdad or veil as a way of life behind which women live, post puberty. In a cultural context, a purdah is a veil meant to hide or protect the sanctity and purity of a woman. However, the purdah and by extension Chughtai's lihaaf bleakly conceals an unspeakable and "shameful" act.

This bubble of confinement encompasses all members of the family, denoting an institution of oppression even within the household. However, the Nawab (a man) freely violates this the discreetness of the purdah by engaging in homosexual debauchery of his own. Consequently, the frustrated Begum Jaan begins to explore her own ways of defiance while remaining behind parda or inside the aforementioned bubble.

She further shatters notions of class inequality by engaging in physical relations with Rabbo, who stands at a much lower rung of the hierarchical socio-economic ladder. Thus, both parties indulge in disobedience of protocol within the confines of their own home lest they sabotage the family's reputation. Thus, in the case of Lihaaf, the obscenity lies in the transgressions from heterosexuality, fidelity and respect for social order rather than the sexual nature of the act.

Thanda Gosht and Lihaaf can safely be discerned as pioneering instances of feminist literature, wherein the violations of gender roles emerge as a prevalent theme.

Both stories are similar in trying to culminate in an impactful fashion that grips the reader. The protagonists, Eshwer and Chughtai's narrator respectively, are left in shock by virtue of the turbulent events and discoveries they have made. The eponymous aversive stimulus also plays a major role as a symbol in both stories. The quilt is something that the girl is perpetually afraid of thereafter and the girl's corpse (cold as ghosht or meat), the memory of which prevents Eshwer Singh from being aroused. At a deeper level, the quilt also represents the need to defy, while the thanda ghosht analogy comes full circle when Eshwer Singh himself dies.

Both stories also intersect in terms of the bleak concealment of social transgressions behind a metaphorical Purdah, represented by the quilt in Lihaaf and Eshwer Singh's initial attempt to hide his heinous crime in Thanda Gosht, respectively.

I like to believe that this metaphorical shroud of intolerance and oppression has only been uplifted ever since, that the deviances and atrocities in these stories hold no validity in a more modern context. However, liberty and dynamism struggle to hold their footing as tradition and stagnation continue to overpower. One end of the great Indian spectrum supports Queer Pride parades while the other witnesses Supreme Court rulings criminalising homosexuality. The same country that strives to ensure absolute safety for its women conveniently ignores an act as gruesome as marital rape.

We are thus caught in a juxtaposition of contrasting mindsets and opinions, grappling with a foreseeable dystopia of mindsets more regressive than ever.

Last updated: March 08, 2018 | 13:26
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