‘Lihaaf’ (‘The Quilt’) by Ismat Chughtai, translated by M. Asaduddin

I read ‘Lihaaf’ at the start of this decade, or thereabouts, and was frightened. The story felt like a giant wink, and I couldn’t cope with it. Its power is not just in the controversy that followed—a hilariously recounted obscenity trial in Lahore Court by Chughtai herself—but also in how it oozed female sexual desire, and captured the clammy desperation of a lonely woman wanting to be touched, in the most private spaces of a feudal household. 

But I read the story again last year before I taught it to some third-year English Literature students, and I was surprised to be frightened again. This time, I saw the abuse, the horror of the slippery narration, and how Chughtai’s wordplay emphasises rather than elides the unknowability of life under the quilt. I had never quite appreciated how dark and funny the story was.

What I’m trying to say is: this story yields an enormous sly pleasure, both on a first read and re-reads. Enjoy it.

First published in Adab-e Latif, 1942. Collected in The Quilt: Stories, Penguin, 2011. Read it online here

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