The Quilt (Lihaf) by Ismat Chughtai

translated by Surjit Singh Dulai and Carlo Coppola

Mahfil  8,2-3 (Summer-Fall 1972)

[[195]] When in winter I cover myself with my quilt, its shadow on the nearby wall appears to sway like an elephant. At once, my mind begins to wander in the veiled world of the past. Countless memories awake.

Please don't expect this to be a romantic story involving my quilt, nor the tale of a quilt associated with romance. To my thinking, a blanket may be less comfortable than a quilt, but its shadow is not as terrifying as when the black outline of a quilt hovers about the wall. This is the story of a time when I was a small girl, when I used to spend the whole day exchanging blows with my brothers and their friends. Sometimes I used to wonder why I was so bellicose. At an age when my other sisters were busy gathering admirers, I was busy in pitched battles, shoes flying, with all the boys and girls both in and outside our family.

This is why my mother, when she went to Agra for weeks at a time, would leave me with one of her dearest friends. Mother knew that nothing, not even a mouse, stirred in her friend's house; chances of my getting into a fight were non-existent. A well-deserved punishment for me. So Mother left me at Begam Jan's, the same Begam Jan whose quilt is still etched in my mind like a brand burned in by hot iron. Begam Jan's poor parents accepted Nawab Sahab as their son-in-law because of his virtue and in spite of his "maturity." No prostitutes or loose women had ever been seen coming or going in his house. He himself was a haji/1/ and had paid for his sisters' pilgrimage to Mecca as well.

But he had a rather strange hobby. Some men like to keep pigeons; others love quail fights; still others prefer cock fights. But the Nawab was contemptuous of such undignified sports. The only things he kept in his house were students, whose room, board and tuition he bore himself. Boys, young, fair-complexioned, slender-waisted.

After marrying Begam Jan, he left her alone with all the furnishings in the house. The fragile, slim Begam began to waste away helplessly in the anguish of her isolation. It's hard to say where her life began, either when she had made the mistake of being born, or when she came to his house as the Nawab's wife, the ornament of his bedchamber. Or perhaps it was when, peering through the chinks of the dining room screen, she saw the throng of tight-calved, supple-waisted boys in sheer, perfumed shirts eating up syrupy-rich puddings. Or was it when she lay exhausted from bows and wishing, from charms, incantations and nightly vigils, all of which proved to be in vain? How can a leech stick to a stone like Nawab Sahab? She began to give up hope and turned to books for relief. [[196]] But here, too, she found nothing. Reading love novels and sentimental poetry threw her into deeper depressioins. She could not sleep at night and became a composite of yearning and frustration.

But to hell with such pomp as clothes and jewels. They're worn to impress others. Here, the Nawab could not spare time away from the shirt-tails of his boys to visit her, nor would he allow her to go out anywhere. After her marriage, relatives would come to visit, stay for months at a time, then leave. But she remained locked up in her prison. These visits would anger her. They'd all turn up to enjoy good food and good times and load themselves down with winter clothes, while she stiffened with cold in her bed, in spite of the new cotton in her quilt. As she tossed and turned, the quilt threw a shadow of myriad shapes on the wall, none of which could help keep her alive. Then why live? But her life was a quest for living. Begam Jan was fated to live, so she did.That fall, Rubbu rescued her. Soon, the Begam's emaciated body began to fill out; her cheeks started to glow and her beauty began to bloom in her face, as if a mysterious oil massage had brought the luster of life back into her body.

When I saw Begam Jan for the first time, she must have been about forty or forty-two. How magnificent she looked, half-reclining on her couch. Rubbu was sitting nearby pressing the small of her back. A light blue shawl covered the Begam's feet. She looked like a queen about to receive courtiers. I liked looking at her and used to wish that I could just sit and look at her for hours. Her complexion was marble white, without a trace of red; her hair, black and always flawlessly combed and oiled, never a strand out of place. Her eyebrows were shaped into two drawn bows; her dark eyes had a taut aspect; the lids, heavy and full; her lashes, thick and tapering. The most captivating feature of her face was her lips. They were usually tinted red, a light down over the upper one. Long hair tousled at the temples. Sometimes her face would suddenly take on a strange look, like that of an immature boy.

The skin of Begam Jan's body was also white and smooth, looking as though someone had stitched it tightly upon her frame. When she used to stretch her legs to bathe the calves, I would silently watch their sheen. She was very tall and well-built; her hands were large and smooth; her waist, thin and muscular. Rubbu used to rub her back; in fact, she'd rub it for yours. A back-rub is one of the necessities of life; perhaps even the most necessary of them.

Rubbu did nothing else in the house. She was always on the Begam's couch pressing her feet, head or other parts of her body. There were times I could not stand the sight of it any longer. Whenever you'd look, Rubbu was pressing one limb or another, or massaging this part of the body or the other. Speaking for myself, I can only say that if anyone were to touch my body so much, it would wither up and rot away.

[[197]] As if this daily massaging weren't enough, Rubbu would start plying the Begam's body with oils and fragrant emulsions two hours before her every bath. After the bath, heaters were lit behind closed doors and another round of massaging. As a rule, only Rubbu was present. The other servants were left grumbling, supplying toilet articles and towels at the door.

The truth of the matter was that Begam Jan was afflicted with a rash. It itched so terribly that even after a thousand oils and balms were rubbed over it, the rash still remained. Doctors maintained that there was nothing wrong; her body was spotless. Perhaps an infection under the skin, they concluded. Rubbu would comment, "These doctors are crazy. There's nothing wrong with your body, God bless you! It's just the heat of your blood." She would smile, then frown, at Begam Jan through narrowed eyes.

Rubbu. Dark as Begam Jan was fair; as red as theother was white. A pock-marked fact, a stocky, solid build; a taug, small paunch; large, swollen lips which were always wet; a peculiar, nauseating smell constantly exuding from her body. How nimble her puffy little hands were. You'd see them on Begam Jan's waist, then suddenly they'd slip to her hips; a leap to her thighs, then a final race to the ankles. Whenever I sat near Begam Jan, I could not help but notice the course these hands would take.

Winter or summer, Begam Jan would wear loose blouses of white-as-foam muslin and brightly colored pajamas. The fan would always be going, yet she'd wear a light shawl over her shoulders. She liked winter and I enjoyed being at her house then. She moved very little; she'd just lie on the couch, having her back rubbed and munching on dry fruit. That's all. The other women servants were jealous of Rubbu. She ate with Begam Jan, sat and moved with her and -- so help me God -- slept with her. Rubbu and Begam Jan were, as I later discovered, the subject of many interesting conversations at nearly every gathering. A mere mention of the two raised peals of laughter in any group. God knows what amusing tales people told at Begam Jan's expense. But she never saw anyone; her existence was confined to herself and her rash.

I already mentioned that I was small at the time and quite enamored of Begam Jan. She loved me as well. By chance, Mother was to leave for Agra. Knowing full well that if left at home I would rough-house and fight with my brothers, she left me with Begam Jan for a week. I was delighted. So was Begam Jan. After all, she was Mother's dearest friend.

The question of where I was to sleep arose. Naturally, in Begam Jan's room. She had a small bed put in her room close to her own. The first night we talked and played chance until about ten or eleven; then I went over to my bed. As I lay there, I saw Rubbu sitting behind Begam Jan rubbing her back... as usual. "A scavenger of a woman!" I thought to myself as I dozed off. During the night, I started from my sleep. Pitch darkness in the room. Begam Jan's quilt rustled; I sensed a movement beneath it, as though it were covering an elephant. "Begam Jan?" I stuttered in fright. The elephant stopped moving.

[[198]] "What's wrong... go back to sleep...."

"I'm afraid," I squealed.

"Go to sleep! What's there to be afraid of. Say the Ayat-ul-kur..."/2/

I began to recite the prayer, but every time I came to the line ya'lamu mabain, I couldn't go any further, though I did know the prayer by heart.

"Can I come into your bed, Begam Jan?"

"No, no... go to sleep, you hear!" There was an edge in her voice.

Whispering. Two people. "Who else is there?" I wondered as fear swelled within me.

"Begam Jan, maybe it's a robber or something...."

"Go to sleep, I said. How could a thief get in here." I felt Rubbu quickly pulling the quilt over my face. Eventually, I fell asleep.

By morning I had completely forgotten the terrifying spectacle of the night before. I am chronically superstitious: to be frightened at night; to rush out of bed screaming; to talk in my sleep -- none of these was strange to me. Besides, didn't people say that I was under the influence of some evil spirit? So by morning, I had no recollection of anything. The quilt looked quite innocent.

But the next night when I awoke from my sleep, I could hear Begam Jan and Rubbu quietly arguing in bed. I could not hear what was finally resolved, for Rubbu was weeping and choking. Then the slurping sounds of a cat licking a plate. Though upset, I went to sleep.

One day Rubbu had gone to see her son, a very irascible young man for whom Begam Jan had done many favors. She had helped him start a store in the village, but he didn't like it. Nothing pleased him. He stayed at the Nawab's house for a few days where he received all sorts of fancy clothes. But God only knows why later he ran off with such an aversion that he never came back to visit his mother. Rubbu had to go to him at their relatives' house if she wanted to see him. Begam Jan tried to stop her, but she went anyway.

Begam Jan was upset throughout the day. Every single joint in her body, she said, was aching. She wouldn't let anyone touch her. No food and utter dejection all day.

"May I give you a rubdown, Begam Jan?" I asked affectionately as I dealt the cards. She looked at me intently. "May I, please?" I put down the cards. She lay quietly as I kept rubbing for some time.

[[199]] Rubbu was supposed to return the next day, but didn't. Begam Jan became increasingly petulant. Cup after cup of tea. A headache.

I began to rub again. Her back, smooth like the top of a desk. I kept massaging gently. How happy I was to do something for her!

"Rub a little harder. Get all the kinks out. Here, under the shoulder... yes, there... very good. Ah, that feels wonderful." She seemed pleased as she took deep, ecstatic breaths. "More to this side...." Although she could have reached the spot herself, I was to rub it for her. Ironically, I was quite proud of what I was doing at the moment. "Hey, you're tickling me... stop it...." She laughed. I chattered as I rubbed.

"I'll send you to the bazaar tomorrow. What would you like to have? A nice doll?"

"No, Begam Jan. Not a doll. I'm not a baby any more."

"you've become an old woman, then, haven't you?" She laughed. "If you don't want a doll, then I'll get you a real baby. You can dress it up yourself. I'll give you lots of clothes, okay?" She turned over.

"All right," I answered.

"Here," she said, taking my hand and putting it where she itched. She continued to put my hand where I was to rub. Lost in thought about a real baby, I kept rubbing absentmindedly, like a machine. Begam Jan talked continuously.

"Look, you don't have enough dresses for yourself. Tomorrow we'll go to the tailor's and have him make you some new ones. Your mother left some cloth with me."

"I don't want ones made from that red material. That's the color chamars/3/ wear." I was absorbed in my chatter, not knowing where my hand had travelled. Begam Jan lay supine. "Oh, my goodness," I said as I jerked my hand away.

"Good God, child. Watch where you're rubbing. You hurt my ribs." Begam Jan smiled mischievously. I was embarrassed.

"Come here... here beside me." She had me lie down with my head on her arm.

"Ah, how thin you are! How your ribs are showing." She began to count my ribs.

I protested.

[[200]] What's this? You think I'll eat you up or something? This sweater is too tight... you don't even have a warm undershirt on!"

I began to squirm.

"How many ribs do people have?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Nine on one side, ten on the other," I answered, falling back on a bit of fact gleaned from a hygiene class. At that moment, however, I was not thinking lucidly at all.

"Take your hand away and let me count. Yes, one... two... three...."

I wanted to run away, but she held me very tightly. As I tried to wrench myself free, she burst into a loud laughter. Even now, when I recall how she looked at that moment, I get upset. Her eyelids seemed heavier than usual; her upper lip was rimmed with a slight shadow; in spite of the cold, tiny beads of sweat glistened on her nose and about her lips; her hands were icy, but soft, as if their outer skin had been removed. She had taken off her shawl and through the thin georgette blouse, her body loomed like a ball of white dough. Heavy gold stud buttons hung from one side of her collar.

It was evening; the room was now flung into shadows. I froze with an undefinable fear. Seeing Begam Jan's deep-set eyes this way, I began to cry within. She was pressing me as though I were a clay toy. Her hot body was driving me to panic. She was as if possessed. I could neither scream, nor cry out.

After a while, she stopped and lay back, exhausted. Her face was pale and lifeless; she was breathing heavily. Thinking that she was about to die, I dashed out of the room.

Luckily, Rubbu returned that night. I slipped under my quilt and lay there, but I could not sleep. I lay there for hours.

Mother was not to return from Agra for some time. I was now terrified of Begam Jan, so I would sit all day with the servants. I mortally feared stepping into her bedroom; yet whom could I tell of this fear for [=of] Begam Jan, a woman who loved me as her own child?

The next day some discord arose between Rubbu and Begam Jan. Call it misfortune perhaps, or whatever else. I was unnerved by the whole ordeal.

Begam Jan noticed that I had been going out into the cold without warm clothing and was afraid that I might catch pneumonia. "Child, you'll be the death of me yet! If something were ever to happen to you, how could I answer for it?" She made me sit down beside her as she washed her face and hands in a bowl. Tea was set on a table nearby.

[[201]] "Make some tea, will you, dear? Give me a cup too," she said, drying her face with a towel. "I'll change while you're getting it ready."

She was busy changing; I was busy sipping tea. While Rubbu was massaging her back, she called me to bring in some ointment and towels. I went in, my face turned away, and hurried out as soon as I handed the items over. When she was finally ready, I began to be frightened. I kept sipping my tea, my face turned away from her.

"Oh, Mother," I thought to myself deep within, "I don't fight with my brothers so much that I deserve this!" Mother had disapproved of my playing with boys. Some people would ask her, however, "Are your boys such tigers and cheetahs that they're going to eat up your darling?" To think that she was worried about the boys! Mother firmly believed in keeping women isolated, away behind seven locked layers of protection. And here, Begam Jan's madness was unmatched by all the ruffians in the entire world! If possible, I would not have stayed in the house a moment longer; I would have run into the street. But I was helpless. I could do little else but stay and suppress my feelings.

She had finally changed; her body was laden with ornaments and a heavy perfume. Both seemed to reflect her passion. A shower of affection on me followed.

I would counter all her suggestions with "I want to go home!" I started to cry.

"Now, now... don't get upset. Come over here and sit next to me. We'll go to the bazaar. Just listen to me for a minute."

But I pulled away, putting off all her offers of toys and candy with one constant repetition, "I want to go home."

"But there, your brothers hit you, you little so-and-so," she said, slapping me gently with affection.

"Let them!" I thought to myself. I was adamant.

"Unripe mangoes are always sour, Begam Jan," Rubbu offered, sitting quietly off to the side. At this, Begam Jan seemed to have a fit. The gold necklace she had tried to put on me a moment ago lay in a piece [=heap] on the floor; the fine muslin scarf was shredded; the part in her hair that I had never seen flawed was lost under what seemed like a wild, tangled bush. She screamed as her body jerked in convulsions. I ran out.

Begam Jan was finally brought to her senses after a long time. When I tiptoed into the bedroom I saw Rubbu clinging to her waist. "Take off your shoes," she ordered as she pressed the Begam's body. I hit under my quilt, like a terrified mouse in its hole.

[[202]] Strange noises once again. Begam Jan's quilt was once more swaying in the dark like an elephant. I moaned weakly. The elephant stopped, but after a while, started to sway once more. A shiver went through every cell of my body. This time I resolved to muster up enough courage to turn on the light at the head of Begam Jan's bed. The elephant was making sounds as if it were trying to squat. The sound of someone smacking his lips as if savoring a delicious sauce. Now I understood. The Begam had not eaten all day, but Rubbu was a constant eater. She must really be enjoying quite a meal. I dilated my nostrils and sniffed the air. I could smell nothing except the scent of sandal and the warm fragrance of Henna.

The quilt started to rise again. I wanted very much to lie quietly, but the quilt began to take such weird shapes that I was shaken. It seemed now as if a huge frog were croaking and stretching itself across the bed; in another minute, it would leap upon me.

I let out a scream for my mother, but no one paid attention. The quilt began to creep into my brain and expanded there. Timidly I dropped my feet to the floor and groped toward the light switch. The elephant turned a somersault. The quilt deflated. During the somersault, the corner of the quilt rose by a foot. "Good God," I gasped as I plunged back into my bed.


/1/haji: one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca; a thing of great religious prestige in Islam.

/2/ayat-ul-kursi: a short prayer in Islam taken from the Quran, usually recited at the time of a person's death, as well as to ward off evil spirits and ghosts.

/3/chamar: member of the leather-working class; very low in the Indian social hierarchy.

[A few typos corrected, and minor annotations in square brackets, by FWP.]


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