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Evolution of queer literature: from Lihaaf to Shikhandi

by Parth Parikh

Although Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf is often cited as a beacon of queer indian literature in the early
20th century, a close scrutiny of its sub-texts and narrative shows how this attribute may not be
entirely suitable to its premise. Several instances and inter-personal relationships, created by
Chugtai, demonize queerness as exploitative, undesireable, and ugly. It’s image, as a work
endorsing queer relationships, seems to originate from the clever characterisation of the queer
persons by Chugtai, and this technique is also evident in Devdutt Patnaik’s recent work of short
stories titled Shikandi. The influence of Lihaaf on Shikhandi is visible from a critical analysis of
both works, and it shows how Shikhandi tries to replicate Lihaaf’s success, while removing its
anti-queer elements, and yet fails to do so.

“Lihaaf”, a short story written by Ismat Chugtai in 1942, was one of the most
controversial stories of its time primarily because it talked about the heavily tabooed topic of
same-sex love. Even today, it is hailed as the starting fire for a revolution of inclusive literature
and drama. “Shikhandi and other queer tales they don’t tell you”, on the other hand, is a
collection of short stories written by Devdutt Pattanaik, among which is Shikhandi, a tale
exploring queerness at the time of the Mahabharata, one of the greatest epics of Indian history.
Although Lihaaf is often hailed as a champion of queer literature, this piece attempts to analyze
the correlation of its success with its characterisation of queer persons, and explores how it
influenced Patnaik’s characterisations in Shikhandi in attempting to mainstream minority ideas.

Lihaaf talks about multiple issues in its narration, from lack of acceptance of queerness to
freedom of sexual expression and feminism. The story, narrated by a girl of young age, is about a young bride, Begum Jaan, of the virtuous Nawab of ‘ripe-age’. The Begum Jaan tries to retain

the love of her husband, who keeps straying to the company of ‘ young, fair, and slender waisted
boys’, through numerous attempts relying upon black magic, talismans, amulets, romantic books
etc, but nothing works. Then Begum Jaan meets Raabu, a dark, short and stocky housemaid
whose face was scarred by smallpox, and whose only work was massaging the Begum Jaan all
day. Chugtai never outrightly shows that there exists a sexual relationship between either the
Nawab and his ‘young, fair boys, whose education he funds’ or, even Raabu and Begum Jaan,
but for the mature reader, there are multiple instances which hint at it.


“Begum Jan’s story simultaneously reveals the deep rootedness of masculine oppression
and the equally long resistance by women through successive generations”. The masculine
oppression in Lihaaf was so deep rooted and accepted that neither Begum Jaan, nor the common reader finds anything out of place with the fact that while the Nawab was able to explore his sexuality after marrying the Begum Jaan and ‘tucking her away with the rest of his possessions’, the Begum Jaan ‘wasted away in anguished loneliness’ . The Begum was denied even expression of her sexuality, while the Nawab was pursuing his own sexual interests.


As a character, Begum Jaan learns from her early lessons of victimization and objectification, and starts afresh. She finds Raabu, in whom she finds her freedom of sexual expression, which gives her a new life as ‘her cheeks began to glow and she blossomed in beauty’. We see how Raabu becomes the emotional as well as sexual partner of the Begum Jaan, as when Raabu goes away, Begum Jaan ‘body ached at every joint, but she couldn’t bear anyone’s touch. She didn’t eat anything and kept moping in bed all day.’ This shows her reliance on Raabu, while highlighting to what extent her freedom was restricted by the regressive social systems in place, and this sexual frustration reached to such an extent that she used her niece, the juvenile narrator to dissipate it, which is what left the narrator with a ‘scar by a blacksmith’s brand’. Chughtai question[s] the institution of marriage in Muslim families by showing this dependence of the Begum on Raabu and lack of connect with the Nawab, that these marriages are devoid of emotional as well as physical expression and are maintained only for the society to
see and ‘not’ remark.


It is also visible that lesbianism for the Begum Jaan was not a choice, but an outcome.
Throughout the story, we see how her lack of sexual appeasement was draining the life in her.
These unfulfilled desires are what led to the Begum Jaan seeking comfort and partnership in
Raabu. Nowhere in the story does Chugtai mentions Raabu’s side of the relationship. It is shown
that Raabu gets jealous when she feels she might be replaced by the young narrator through
comments made like ‘Unripe mangoes are sour’. However, this might also be insecurity of losing
the dependency of the Begum Jaan on her, which was evident from the condition of the Begum
when she wanted to meet Rabbu’s son.


However, Chugtai never reveals whether the bodily and sexual contact Raabu shares with
her mistress is her job or desire.There are evidences in the story that not Raabu, but also her
family, like her son, benefitted from the dependency of the Begum on her, as Begum Jaan had
‘done a lot to help him [Raabu’s son] bought him a shop, got him a job in the village’. More than
promoting lesbianism, it seems that Chugtai primarily wanted to highlight the fragility of the
institution of marriage in Muslim cultures, by showing to what extent an individual can be driven
because of it and how repressed sexual desires can lead to the exploitation of another’s body to
fulfil oneself.


To now further understand why it became the champion of LGBT+ literature that it is
today, we look at the character selection of it. Chugtai made the two characters, the Begum Jaan
and the Nawab, who had arguably the highest social standing in her story, queer. Both these characters belong to the privileged elite of the society, who the common people look up to and
imitate, for social mobility and sense of privilege. Her selection of these characters to be queer is justified by her purpose of writing Lihaaf, which was to highlight the frailty and instability of
even the epitome of Muslim marriages. However, making these characters queer actually led to
‘de-alienation and de-stigmatization of the idea of queerness because making the characters
common masses look up to, queer, instigated the idea of acceptance and more importantly,
existence, of queerness among the common folk. The average readers, seeing the social elites
like the Nawab and the Begum Jaan as closeted queers, would at least give themselves some
leeway to explore their own sexuality, and therefore, would become more accepting and aware of the idea of it.


The same thought and character selection process was much later followed by Devdutt
Pattanaik as he tried to try to mainstream the still reserved idea of LGBT+ identity through his
book of short stories titled Shikhandi. His aim, keeping in mind the setting and background of the country while Shikhandi was published, explains that the character selection of Shikhandi was in line with that of Begum Jaan in Lihaaf. In Shikhandi, Amba, who was the princess of a small city, was kidnapped by Bhisma, a warrior, on the day of her marriage and taken to the city of Hastinapur, to marry his ‘far-less competent younger brother, Vichitravirya’. After Vichitravirya let her go, since he already had two wives, Amba went back to her hometown but sadly the man she had chosen to marry refused to take her back as she had been ‘tainted by the touch of another man’. Confused and lost, she went back to Vichitravirya, who also refused to accept her as a gift given away cannot be taken back. She then decided her life’s purpose would be to destroy Bhisma. However, after multiple failed attempts, she finally invoked Shiva, the Destroyer. Pleased with her intense austerities, Shiva told her she would be the cause of Bhishma’s death, but only in her next life.

To hasten Bhisma’s destruction, Amba lept into a fire and committed suicide, only to be reborn as KingDrupada’s daughter. However, since Drupada was promised a son by Shiva, he claimed his daughter to be his son and raised her as one. Later on, in the war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, to take Bhisma out of the battleground, for he was a ‘formidable force in the battle’ and could ‘choose the time of his death due to his vow of celibacy’, Krishna sent Shikhandi to the battle field.Women weren’t allowed in the battlefield, but Krishna believed they could contest, if the issue arose, that Shikhandi was a man, and his wife was there to prove it. Seeing a woman descend into the battlefield, Bhisma lowered his bow, saying ‘born a woman you are always a woman’.Meanwhile Arjuna , a Pandav and the greatest archer, used this to his advantage and defeated Bhisma with a volley of arrows.


In current Indian society, “[Indian culture] is a myth told for political purposes. Honour
crimes (feminists prefer the term custodial killings), especially the murder of women and their
lovers or husbands, are often defended by invoking “tradition” among the majority Hindu
population. Similarly, politicians and right-wing sociologists use historic religious practices,
traditions and beliefs for their stance against progressive ideas like feminism and gay pride.
Pattanaik uses this very cultural history of ours, which the common folk exalt, as a means to
introduce liberal and progressive ideas as ever-existing and present in our culture since centuries
past. He uses the story of Shikhandi to show how queerness was accepted in our historical epics, and more so, was used and experimented with in places like the battlefield. He does so to
encourage the masses to understand their own history and culture, and at least accept, if not
celebrate, the existence of queerness.

Lihaaf is still hailed as one of the first works of pro-LGBT+ writings in contemporary
India, even though it appears to have been intended otherwise by Chugtai. Nonetheless, despite
Chugtai’s continued harassment through State and non-state mechanisms, Patnaik mimicked her
characterisation strategy for his own work and got away unscathed. However, his aim was
explicitly to promote the ideas of LGBTQ+ by showing how their existence and acceptance has
been present throughout our history, in a time when people are looking back to decide the way
ahead.


Parth Parikh is a student of the B.B.A.-LL.B. 2018-23 batch of Jindal Global Law School. His
areas of interest surround constitutional law, politcs, and international diplomacy.

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