‘Quilt’ by Ismat Chughtai: Short Story Analysis
‘Quilt’ is one of the most popular short stories of the great dame of Urdu literature, Ismat Chughtai. Chughtai gave birth to a new form of revolutionary feminist politics in Urdu literature. She was one of the greatest Indian Urdu fiction writers of the twentieth century. She wrote controversial but brave stories that challenged Indian orthodoxy and inflexibility. ‘Quilt’ is the story of a forty-two-year-old lesbian, Begum Jan, who tried to seduce the narrator of this palpitating yet unnerving story. Begum Jan is housing the tomboy for a week. The girl is the narrator of this story. She states boldly in this story that it is because her mother wanted her to be away from being with her brothers and getting into fights with them that she had sent her to live with Begum Jan. The mother of the narrator was probably unaware of Begum Jan’s depraved sexuality, and uncontrollable sexual urges and so left the narrator alone in a mansion with her. From lesbian sexuality to the hypocrisy of arranged marriages in India, from boy prostitutes to orgasms in women, from the sexism of society with regards to manly women to the abuse of children in the confines of domesticity – Ismat Chughtai tells all in this highly corrosive-to-the-touch story.
The narrator has had terrible experiences of sexual abuse in the past in Begum Jan’s home. However, when we read the story ‘The Quilt’ we feel comforted that the narrator was not raped by Begum Jan. This is because of the narrator’s astuteness in identifying the correct touch from the wrong kind of touch. The narrator remembers her time in Begum Jan’s home when she sees shadows formed by her winter quilt. The quilt here is not a symbol of romanticism, but shame and hypocrisy, that people hide under to fulfill their innate desires when deprived of sexual gratification. The narrator was molested by Begum Jan; you can’t look at it in any other way. Begum Jan was the wife of a Nawab Sahib who was not interested in sex with her or any other women. He was only interested in sexual relations with young boy students who were fair and had slender waists. He kept calling these boys home to have sex with them, which used to drive his wife by an arranged marriage, Begum Jan, a bit over the edge. However, she allowed Nawab Sahib to continue his life as a gay pedophile while she developed an ‘itch’.
Begum Jan was sex-hungry, and after peeping through the cracks in her husband’s room to see what he did with the boy students, she became sexually hungry. Since she could not, within the bounds of a very patriarchal, biased, and hypocritical Muslim society, satisfy her lust through men, she became a lesbian. When we study social issues, we learn that men in the community of Islam are more prone to use boy prostitutes. It is also a common phenomenon we study in sociology that women become lesbians or have lesbian tendencies because their husbands sexually deprive them. This is a fact of life, and its prevalence in Indian society is brought out by Ismat Chughtai. Begum Jan goes on to become a woman ‘with an itch’. She becomes an obsessive-compulsive woman of sexuality; she wants to be scratched in various parts of her body only by a female attendant. This female attendant is Rabbo, who is pockmarked and dark-skinned while Begum Jan is fair and a persona with unnaturally smooth skin. It is Rabbo who massages Begum Jan, and every night, she has sex with her and gives her a sort of oral sex by licking Begum Jan’s clitoris and vagina. Ismat Chughtai does not mention it directly but in a hidden manner by comparing their ‘scissor sex’ and ‘oral sex’ or clitoral stimulation to an elephant going on a rampage. All this is done under a quilt that casts peculiar elephant shadows on Begum Jan’s room walls. This brazenly takes place while the narrator is sleeping on a small bed in the room, next to Begum Jan’s four-poster bed.
According to the narrator, she would never forget the ‘elephant under the quilt’ for the rest of her life. She would especially remember this early introduction to lesbian sexual activity. There is another most unnerving part to this story, the way 24/7 Begum Jan wants herself to be:
- Massaged with potions, oils, scented oils, and fragrant unguent.
- Itched and scratched all over her body even when others were present or played cards with the narrator.
- Given a thorough oil massage two hours before her bath.
- Be undressed during an itch and be sexually rubbed on all parts of her body.
- She wanted to be touched, primarily near her vagina and breasts.
As you can see, she was quite a case. Her craving to be touched all the time was insatiable, and the narrator innocently ponders how a woman would want to be scratched all the time. However, all these ministrations were done by the equally sexually starved Rabbo. She was such a mentally sick woman that she even introduced her son to Nawab Sahib to be his sex toy. The boy proved to be smarter than she thought and ran away from the mad place. To visit him, Rabbo goes to a relative’s home. In her innocence, the narrator realizes that Begum Jan did not have any woman to scratch and minister to her, and was down in the dumps. It is then that the narrator makes the biggest mistake of her life. She offers to scratch Begum Jan.
At first, Begum Jan does not relish the idea, but her sexual starvation and hunger get the better of her. She would undress herself, as the narrator scratched her, and guide the narrator’s hand to her breasts or vagina to be scratched, touch the narrator near her little thin chest, caress the narrator, and try to bribe the shocked and scandalized narrator with dolls, dresses, sweets, et al. The narrator started to fear Begum Jan and grew quite helpless. Robbo returns home to get back to her usual ministrations. However, Rabbo is aware that now Begum Jan is interested in the narrator. They have fights over the narrator and Rabbo disgustingly says to Begum Jan that ‘unripe mangoes are tart’. When one terrifying night Rabbo and Begum Jan are having clitoral oral stimulation and vagina licking that the narrator gets out of her bed, switches on the lights, and looks under Begum Jan’s quilt. The story ends with an exclamation from the narrator; a cry filled more with surprise than horror. It seems that after seeing the two women together in this manner, she was not shocked or scandalized. She felt that ultimately, the secret was not shocking at all. That is because a woman can also find sexual fulfillment in another woman. The problem was the circumstances surrounding the whole relationship that was faulty.
Indeed, this is what Ismat Chughtai wants partly to bring out in this story titled ‘The Quilt’, that we are a society that is still stuck on dictating to women what they have to do and about how they should feel about their bodies. Arranged marriages are still a substantial part of our culture, locking innocent and unknowing women caged in a loveless marriage that drives them to all forms of debasements. Begum Jan was more a victim and pitiable creature than she turns out to be. We have created many Begum Jans’. We are still producing more Begum Jans’ because we want ancient patriarchal conventions to be followed. Why is it so? This is what Chughtai wants to ask us. We condone the actions and even hide the actions of men like Nawab Sahib. Women are always being told what to do, even where their sexuality is concerned. Notice in this courageous story that the focus is on female orgasm, which can be lengthened for a longer period than a male’s orgasm. The hiding under the quilt is a message to Indian society that we have still not learned a lot about female sexual parts and how to give a woman the sexual satisfaction she desires and not only focus on what men want.
Finally, this is a story about the LGBTQIA community. It is a brave and bold one, with the underlying theme of the female progressive movement and how women have realized what they want from relationships and how they are going to achieve decent lives. No longer do we have to be cloistered lesbians ministered by lotions and potions that don’t ‘scratch that itch’. Because, as written in the story, a leech cannot latch onto a stone. It is impossible to get a leech to befriend a stone. So also, we cannot live in relationships that do not have:
- Our consent
- Preserve our rights
- The fulfillment of our sexual orientation and gender identification be we men or women.
It is time to realize that leeches can’t latch onto stones and make this society healthier. It is time not for shadows but for coming into the light. This is also a time for us to realize that Ismat Chughtai was trying to indicate that the heterosexual way of having sex is more in line with what men need than what women need. We need to look more closely at women, especially their vaginas, to understand that there could be other ways to fulfill certain women sexually, and that is nothing to be ashamed about. It is time for equality.
I appreciated Ismat Chugtai’s short story. She is undoubtedly one of the best Indian writers that have dominated the twentieth-century scene, and I hope to read more works by her so that I can review them for you on my blog. Please do get your copy of ‘The Quilt’ and read it. You will be glad that you did because it is written with a sledge hammer of a hand.
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