Similar Narratives, Contrsating Ramifications: Lihaaf and Bu, Chughtai and Manto

Through the course of this paper, we seek to examine the journeys of two landmark writers, Sadat Hassan Manto and Ismat Chughtai with reference to their respective stories of Bu and Lihaaf. The paper seeks to scrutinize Manto’s Bu through the lens of Ismat and Lihaaf, in order to highlight that while Lihaaf (1942) and Bu (1944) were both enveloped in controversy, the outcry surrounding Lihaaf had more to do with the fact that such bold subjects were being explored by a female writer than with its obscene essence. An evaluation of the trajectory of and reaction to Manto’s Bu through the prism of Ismat Chughtai’s perspective enables us to grasp the differential treatment that was meted out to the two and trace its roots in male chauvinism.  This paper borrows and relies upon Ismat’s own writings, observations, and life experiences, from books such as ‘A Life in Words’ the translation of ‘Kaghazi hai Pairahan’ [1] which provides a deep insight into several crucial years of the life of Ismat Chughtai.

In a rather traditionalist India where progressive authors garnered attention with what we then considered radical views, the authors of short stories “Lihaaf” Ismat Chughtai and “Bu” Sadat Hassan Manto were put under trial on charges of obscene writing for the short stories written by them. Ismat Chughtai received a severe backlash and notoriety at both personal and professional levels as compared to Manto despite his writings being more graphic and explicit in the portrayal of sexuality in comparison to Chughtai’ s writing. This is reflective of the male chauvinist limits set by society on not only the subject of female sexuality but also on which gender is allowed to write about such subjects. Through Lihaaf and Bu both the authors ventured into the realm of oppressed women in a patriarchal world; Lihaaf explores this in the form of repressed sexual desires and an alternate choice of sexuality, Bu explores the castles we build around the body of a woman and how it is through her body that patriarchy sustains itself. In times when women’s voices were suppressed both Ismat and Manto discuss sexual desires, break through various barricades of patriarchy, and portray sexual encounters which lead to this charge of obscenity.

Both the writers were tried for obscenity for their stories and despite winning their respective cases their writing had an impact on both of them, the impact was a severe and negative one for Ismat, and once again it had to do not with the contents of her story but rather her gender in the setting of a male dominated society

The stark reality in both their scenarios was apparent right from when they were summoned to Lahore for the case. As mentioned by Ismat in her book [2], Manto was looking very happy at the prospect of the charge being brought and the proceeding, as though he had won the Victoria Cross. Ismat, on the other hand, had to deal with issues that stemmed from her being a woman and various notions surrounding it.  She was having fights with her husband Shahid as he was scared of the dishonor the case would bring to the family. This thinking stems from the concept of family honor, according to which the woman of the family is an extension of the man, the family, and symbolic of its dignity and pride. When the news was published about the trial and her father-in-law wrote a letter to Shahid sympathizing with him and asking her to reason with Dulhan (daughter-in-law), this fiasco had also started to affect her personal life. [3] She tried to put up a brave front, and Manto encouraged her, but the unrest in the household coupled with Shahid threatening a divorce could not have boded well for her.

In the court, they were both tried for the sexual encounters in their own stories, while Manto was more explicit in his depiction as opposed to the subtle and nuanced depiction of Ismat, she faced more criticism in this regard as well. Bu was denounced for the portrayal of the sexual encounter between an educated, married man and a ghatan girl and  Lihaaf, for depicting a lesbian relationship. Intizar Husain, an Urdu writer, and critic, made a telling comparison between the two, “Where Ismat moves away lightly after making a passing reference to (such) a subject, Manto is like the naughty boy who flings open the door, claps his hands and says, ‘Aha! I have seen you!” [4] This analogy fits well for Lihaaf and Bu as well where Ismat uses euphemistic phrases such as “when I put a quilt over myself its shadows on the wall seem to sway like an elephant” [5] and “It was a special oil massage that brought life back to the half-dead Begum Jaan” [6] to portray the sexual encounter between Begum Jaan and Rabbo as opposed to Manto who is explicit and gives a very detailed account of the sexual encounter in Bu. Despite the apparent contrast, it was Ismat who was branded as what she says in her memoir, ‘purveyor of sex.’ People were also quick to brand her as a bold and obscene writer, something that finds a mention in her memoir. This was not the case with Manto however, whose story had a lot more explicit content than Lihaaf. It addressed sexploitation, Randhir’s fondness for Christian prostitutes, a detailed sexual encounter, sexual desires for a Ghatan girl and lack thereof for his wife, etc. He had also been charged for obscenity thrice before for other books, but when it came to being termed as an obscene writer, Ismat found herself at the receiving end.

The issue with Lihaaf is not just of expression of sexuality and particularly lesbianism but that of a Muslim woman coming from a respectable family writing about same-sex love. Obscenity is a subjective term, the understanding of which can vary depending on personal morals. The notion of obscenity has differed across times, and its understanding is contingent on context-specific standards. The societal expectations here come into the fore of what is considered obscene for something written by someone of a particular gender, religion, or caste, and this had a huge role to play in Lihaaf getting as much backlash as it did for its apparent obscenity.

While it is true that Lihaaf by Chughtai was one of the first Urdu texts to venture into the realm of homosexuality, an illustration of the gender bias can also be gauged by the different perceptions of the sexual orientation of the queen and the maid vis-a-vis the orientation of the Nawab. The proclivity of the Nawab has been described as that of ‘*did not enjoy the company of women and kept himself surrounded by handsome young men [7] alluding to his homosexual relationship with boys of considerably young age. His acts went unquestioned in the trial, and neither was it condemned when brought up, unlike in the case of the queen whose relationship was heavily scrutinized, bringing out the double standards in the society as the courtesy of indulging into what was considered obscene without being held accountable for it was extended only on a gendered basis. This further goes onto allude how the notion of obscenity was not based on any objective criteria but differed on various accounts. While considered generally obscene, we see different reactions to it when undertaken by people of two different genders.

By writing Lihaaf, Ismat superseded all the conservative notions that were held about an ideal woman in the society, and that accounted for the massive stir. In a conversation with a contemporary author M. Aslam, Ismat had said the following in reference to his book Gunaah Ki Ratein, ‘You’ve used such vulgar words in your Gunaah Ki Ratein! You’ve even described the details of the sex act, just to titillate,’ to which he replied, ‘My case is different. I’m a man [8], which serves as an appropriate metaphor for the holy grail being conveyed by this manuscript. He also later went on to point out that she is an educated girl from a decent Muslim family adverting to what is expected of a woman in the society and how she is transgressing it.

The lawyer, too, had to fall back on the same misogynistic approach to try and make a breakthrough with the case. The quilt acted as a symbol of unobtrusiveness that surrounded the activities, and hence the manifestation of obscenity became hard. The opposing lawyer in the courtroom resorted to calling out the supposition of women, saying that what she had written might not be obscene in itself but reprehensible due to her being an educated girl from a decent background. He insisted on how many things mentioned in the book were condemnable only because it was being written by a girl and about a girl. As an example, he cited that it was objectionable for good girls to collect lovers. The above-mentioned points and instances encapsulate that people did not have an issue with the story per se but with the story being written by a ‘woman from a decent background.’ The lack of any evidence of such obscenity when looked at along with the gender bias in the society helps us understand how the outcry if not more had as much to do with the fact that in a society so steeped in male chauvinism, a woman was challenging men by shattering all the limitations laid down in the existing society.

A counterclaim to Ismat receiving a harsher reprisal than Manto despite having the lesser controversial content due to her gender is that the reprisal was proportional to the obscenity in each story and was pertinent to whatever was considered vulgar in each book. Although both of them received backlash there was a significant distinction on what the criticisms were based on, while both their stories caused unrest among sections of the society it is essential to note that critique of Manto’s Bu came directly from the content of the book. The Indian Christian community did not welcome the book Bu because of his (Manto’s) mentions of the Christian girls, the colonial officials had an issue with the passage of sexual encounter, and that of the military because of his reference to the Women’s Auxiliary Corps of the British Indian Army and its recruitment [9]. In the case of Manto, the critique stemmed directly from his story but Ismat was subject to filthy letters which had to do with her personal life, the criticism she received was for transcending the role laid down in the society for women. These originated from the insecurities that arose from a woman challenging the patriarchal society and not from the book itself and hence it cannot be said to be consistent with the backlash received by Manto. The fact that Manto still went onto have a successful career after being tried for obscenity on three different occasions post-Bu, whereas Ismat was labeled as the author of Lihaaf is testament to the role of external factors such as gender in an attempt of her character assassination. After a point of time, she  started to regret writing the story and went on to say, “The story brought me so much notoriety that I got sick of life. It became the proverbial stick to beat me with, and whatever I wrote afterward got crushed under its weight[10]. This further implies the unfair treatment that Ismat Chughtai was subjected to as compared to Manto.

A counterclaim often touted and used against Chughtai is that the backlash pertains only to the obscenity in the book and not with its setting in a patriarchal backdrop. The lack of obscenity in the book as proved by the case proceedings, however, refutes this claim. Furthermore, she mentions in her account of the trial how later the judge called her into the anteroom attached to the court and said to her, “I’ve read most of your stories, they aren’t obscene, neither is Lihaaf. But Manto’s writings are littered with filth.[11] This acknowledgment by the judge himself that the story was not obscene, looked at along with the conventional expectations from women as illustrated in the arguments of the opposing lawyer and manifested by other examples allude to a motive with a direct connection to her gender.

These instances can only be accounted for by gender bias in society. Obscenity, after all,  is a subjective term, and her work was being looked at through an image of the idea of ideal submissive women in a conservative society. This led to the wrongdoings as mentioned earlier to Ismat Chughtai and why, despite being the less obscene one among the two if at all, she had to face the wrath more often. This deep-rooted male chauvinism in the society has been detrimental to numerous female authors who have voiced their views on such compelling issues, for example, Rashid Jahan ****(1905-1952) Ismat’s role model, Kamala Das, and Mridula Garg.[12] Ismat Chughtai is another example of a woman seeking to confront the norms of a patriarchal society trying to establish who is allowed to write about topics such as sexuality.


  1. ISMAT CHUGHTAI, & M. ASADUDDIN, LIFE IN WORDS: MEMOIRS (Penguin Books, M. Asaduddin trans.) (2012).
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. ISMAT CHUGHTAI & INTIZAR HUSSAIN, MASOOMA: A NOVEL, (Women Unlimited, Tahira Naqvi trans.) (2011).
  5. ISMAT CHUGHTAI, LIHAAF 41 (The Sheep Meadow Press, Tahira Naqvi trans.) (1992).
  6. Ibid
  7. ISMAT CHUGHTAI, THE QUILT & OTHER STORIES 5-12 (The Sheep Meadow Press) (1994).
  8. Supra note 1; ISMAT CHUGHTAI & Z̤AHĪR NUR. KAGHAZI HAI PAIRAHAN (THE PAPER ATTIRE) (Oxford University Press) (2016).
  9. SAADAT HASAN MANTO, BOO (RHI Publishing) (1944).
  10. ISMAT CHUGHTAI, LIFTING THE VEIL (Penguin India) (2009).
  11. ISMAT CHUGHTAI, Ismat Chughtai on Obscenity Charge, Manto, Lahore and Hot Dogs, DAILYO (May 22, 2015, 10:53 AM), Living Media India Limited,
  12. PRAJAKTA BHAVE, Censoring Voices – A Case of Female Writers & Gender Discrimination, OOWOMANIY (Date Unknown),
Yajas Achal

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