The Quilt

The Quilt Study Guide

Published in 1942, Ismat Chughtai's Urdu short story "The Quilt" ("Lihaaf") is about a young girl who is molested by her mother's adopted sister, Begum Jaan. Narrated from the perspective of the unnamed young girl, the story first focuses on Begum Jaan, a Muslim woman of high rank who develops a lesbian relationship with her masseuse after her homosexual husband ignores her sexual needs. The narrator stays with Begum Jaan while her mother is away, and the narrator recounts in suggestive terms how Begum Jaan and Rabbu would have sex beneath a quilt in the same room the young narrator sleeps in. When the masseuse leaves to visit her son, Begum Jaan seems to see the narrator as a replacement and molests her. The narrator is relieved when the masseuse returns to satisfy Begum Jaan's sexual needs. The story ends with the narrator switching on the lights while Begum Jaan's quilt is shaking. The narrator catches a glimpse under the quilt but does not reveal to the reader the sex act she sees.

When the story came out in the literary journal Adab-i-Latif, "The Quilt" caused a public uproar for the homoeroticism it depicts. Chughtai was charged with obscenity and traveled to Lahore to defend herself in court. Although many allies urged her to apologize, Chughtai refused and successfully fought the case. Because Chughtai wrote the story from the naïve perspective of a child, all references to sexuality were suggestive, and witnesses could not point to any obscene words. In her memoir, Chughtai details the trial and the story's legacy, writing: "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."

Exploring themes of patriarchy and lesbianism, "The Quilt" was long interpreted as a feminist text about a woman breaking away from her traditional role by embracing her sexuality despite her husband's oppression. However, more recent criticism points out how feminist interpretations largely avoid acknowledging the theme of sexual abuse experienced by the child narrator, and the class difference that leads to a power imbalance between Begum Jaan and her economically and socially marginalized masseuse. These same scholars advocate for reading the story in a way that resists oversimplifying its complex exploration of sexuality, gender, class, and power.