Cover of Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai

Photo from

The Price of a Strong Opening

Nidhi Arora

I recently read the legendary Ismat Chughtai’s short story, “Lihaaf” (“The Quilt”), not to be confused with blanket, as is made clear quite early on in the story. I watched a play adaptation of the story almost twenty years ago and it stayed with me ever since. Reading it now was a treat all over again.

Chughtai is known for her subversion. The story is, blasphemously, about queer love in pre-partition India. Apparently, it was thought that only men indulged in ‘dirty talk’ like this at that time. Or shall I say, then too. It shook the world of Urdu literature and was banned. She went to court and won.

There is much to admire in the story. The characters and setting are so real that I forgot I was reading fiction. But if I were to put my finger on one thing, it would be the voice. More specifically, the nonchalance of it. More precisely, the lack of fever. In an age where even before the writer is able to put pen to paper, we are inundated with advice on how to write a strong opening, one that will hook the reader, make a promise and foretell all that is to come by way of character, plot, setting, twists and everything in between, all in those first few lines, this story does none of that.

Told in the POV of a little girl, the story opens thus [1]:   

In the depth of winter whenever I snuggle into my quilt, its shadow on the wall seems to sway like an elephant. My mind begins a mad race into the dark crevasses of the past; memories come flooding in.

Begging your pardon, I am not about to relate a romantic incident surrounding my own quilt—I do not believe there is much romance associated with it. The blanket, though considerably less comfortable, is preferable because it does not cast such terrifying shadows, quivering on the wall!

This happened when I was a small girl. All day long I fought tooth and nail with my brothers and their friends. Sometimes I wondered why the hell I was so quarrelsome. At my age my older sisters had been busy collecting admirers; all I could think of was fisticuffs with every known and unknown girl or boy I ran into!

For this reason my mother decided to deposit me with an ‘adopted’ sister of hers when she left for Agra. She was well aware that there was no one in that sister’s house, not even a pet animal, with whom I could engage in my favorite occupation! I guess my punishment was well deserved. So Mother left me with Begum Jan, the same Begum Jan whose quilt is imprinted on my memory like a blacksmith’s brand.

This unhurried opening is tied in part to the observation powers of our eight-year-old narrator. We don’t get to see Begum Jan, the narrator’s aunt and protagonist, until page two. The first hint of her being a lesbian comes on page three of an eight-page story. But more than that, the pace feels like a declaration of the storytelling stance of Chughtai. Far from the frenzied tempo of stories we workshop today, the high-pitched openings jostling for our attention, trying to hook us into reading the whole thing, “Lihaaf” opens slowly. Sleepily. There is no trace of any attempt to convince the reader to read on. On the contrary, there is a certain resistance in telling the story. It paints a picture of a bored child nagging her grandmother to tell a story while the grandmother, having finished the morning chores, is taking a break, sitting lost in her thoughts, staring into the horizon while her fingers perform a delicate dance with knitting needles. But the afternoon stretches endlessly and the child will not take no for an answer. Instead, she climbs on to the grandmother’s lap, holds her face in both hands, turns it towards herself and demands that she be told a story. At which point, the grandmother surrenders, rises to make chai, gets a big shawl that can cover both and asks the little one to settle down, for she is about to begin. It will not be too much of a stretch to say that those childhood stories remain some of the very best we hear in our lifetimes and this dragging of feet, this clearing of the throat is a critical part of the storytelling. It whets the appetite, sets the stakes.

The rest of “Lihaaf” unfolds at a leisurely pace too. Nothing much ‘happens’ till the middle of the story. Because no one is in a rush, neither the storyteller and more importantly, nor the listener. For all the hard work that went into convincing grandma to open her bundle of stories, we don’t want it to be over too quickly. Undoubtedly, this pace is reflective of the cadence of its times, when very few things happened during the day and those that did took their time because time was something everyone had in plenty, in sharp contrast to our hustle culture, our dopamine-addled-algorithm-led attention spans consumed by screens and withering by the minute.

Slowly, we enter the aunt’s house. And since it is so quiet, every sentence speaks louder, and when we hear that uncle likes to surround himself with boy ‘students’, we take note. We meet the head-turning, ‘fair skinned’ Begum Jan, and her ‘dark’, shifty-eyed lady’s maid, Rabbu, detested by all except the lady of the house. The classist, colourist biases of the child are simply, unabashedly, there.

Chughtai was a stalwart of Urdu literature of her time. Her gentle yet powerful steering of the narrative shows it. Since marriage, Begum Jan’s health has suffered—she is reduced to a phantom of her young self. The despondency stemming from heartbreak, neglect and betrayal is out in the open for all to see, but the official word is that she suffers from a mysterious disease that causes her skin to itch. No doctor, hakim or sage can understand it, except for short, stout, pock-marked Rabbu, who nurses the ailing Begum Jan back to life and resplendent beauty with her many oils, perfumes and potions that her sprightly fingers work into Begum Jan’s skin and hair, by day. And by night. The child registers the mystery, the strangeness, the fact that Rabbu has no chores other than this and that the other maids despise her. We register the metaphor. What better way to describe love, than an itch?  

Halfway through the story, the narrator wakes up in the middle of the night to see her aunt’s quilt’s shadow making weird shapes on the wall, like an inebriated elephant. The little girl is scared. She calls out to her aunt. The elephant stops moving. She calls out again. Aunty tells her it’s nothing, go back to sleep. But she is scared. She calls out again. This time, it is Rabbu’s voice from inside the quilt, telling her to go back to sleep. Shocked, she does as told.

Was the narrator being groomed? Later, Begum Jan starts to count the narrator’s ribs. Is that eight-year-old speak for abuse? Is she not able to name it for what it was even in her account as an adult woman? We are not told. We, the readers, are the eight-year-old girl. We are the society. We are horrified, we close our eyes, we feel scared, we hide behind POVs and judge from under our quilts.

The slowness feels like a deliberate, integral part of the story. It is the vehicle that carries the punch and delivers it perfectly and noiselessly. Imagine, if this story were to be workshopped in a modern-day writing class. Wouldn’t some, if not all of the feedback, be to bring the tension on earlier? Let us meet Begum Jan on the first page, or better still, in the first paragraph. Get rid of the initial monologue about quilts and blankets, it is ponderous, expository. 10 to 1, some well-meaning groupmate will suggest opening with the quilt scene. The only thing scarier than this advice would be the naïve writer who, not knowing better, would incorporate the feedback. What would we have then? A tantalising, scandalising tale of forbidden queer love thriving under the thick quilt of early twentieth-century India. And what would we lose? The tender setting of the stage, the scariness of what the narrator saw in the middle of the night, the shadowy fear she  carries into adulthood.  

That, then, seems to be the trade-off. In bypassing the reader’s hunger for the story, in refusing to put in the work of sticking through an opening even though it may not hook us in the first five seconds, in passing the buck on to the writer instead, arm-twisting her to ‘impress us in the first one hundred words or else’… we pay a price. By shifting our work as readers of wanting to read, of being curious, on to the writer’s shoulder, demanding that she convince us to, we risk losing nuance, quirkiness and style.

What might happen if we relieve the writer of this duty to prove her literary worth every single time, and let her do what she does best, that is, tell the story the way it wants to be told, not the way we think we deserve to hear it?

Sure, it is the job of the writer to build trust with the reader, but isn’t trust a two-way street? If we wrap ourselves in a shawl, brew two cups of tea and let the writer take us where she will, where all might we both go?

Of course, not conforming to a rule is also a rule and all rules are meant to be broken. But it is worth experimenting with the kind of stories we might write if we unshackle ourselves, both as readers and writers, from this tyranny of a strong opening. 



[1] Translation: Syeda Hameed and Tahira Naqvir. Full story and review:

Nidhi has lived in India, Singapore and now London, but far prefers to inhabit the world of words. Her work has been featured in journals and anthologies including Best New Singaporean Short Stories, Out of Print, Muse India, Pluto, Women’s Web, QLRS, Cha, and Popshot. She has authored two books on Secure Attachment: A parent-child bonding series and edited the third. More at