“Lihaaf”: Ismat Chughtai’s “Obscenity”

How the pre-partition Indian writer got away with depicting female queerness and opened our minds.

IMG 1951- Ismat Chughtai
Ismat Chughtai and “Lihaaf” (Shruti Ashok for The Juggernaut)

Ayesha Le Breton


June 10, 2024


10 min

Around 4 p.m. in December 1942, police knocked on the front door of writer Ismat Chughtai’s Bombay home. “As I read the heading — Ismat Chughtai vs. The Crown — I broke into laughter,” recalled Chughtai in her memoir, Kaghazi Hai Pairahan (1994). “Good God, what crime have I committed that the Exalted King has brought this lawsuit against me?” But it was no joke. Colonial authorities had accused her story “Lihaaf” (The Quilt) of obscenity, and summoned her to the Lahore High Court. 

Chughtai wrote extensively on female sexuality, femininity, and class conflict. But “Lihaaf” was the first time she added queerness to the mix. The subversion didn’t sit well with colonial censurers and Chughtai, without setting out to do so, became one of India’s most controversial writers.

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