The Tradition

In Ismat Chughtai's short story Lingering Fragrance (translated by Syeda Hameed, from the book A Chughtai Collection) one encounters a Nawab's household in which it is customary for the men of the family to enjoy the 'company' of the maids, something that is properly organized and over-seen by the head Begum to ensure a just division of flesh. Not only is it seen as a usual practice, it is something that is expected of men. And so one night when a maid is sent to the eighteen year old Chhamman Mian, and he sends her away without a touch, everyone is shocked. The immediate concerns of the Begum are regarding her son's potency, and a Hakim Saheb is called to reassure her that there is nothing to worry about, the boy merely is young and inexperienced. Given this background, I present to you an excerpt from the short story:

This news created the kind of stir that even a Third World War may not have. Rumours began to hiss and crawl in every corner of the mahal like a clutch of snakes from an open pit. Whoever learnt of it, (and how fast it moved from mouth to ear) pounded his breast.

"God, O God! Poor Chhamman Mian." When he got the news, Afzal Mian headed straight for Chhamman's room, flapping his pajamas and chewing his tobacco.

"How was I to know? So this is your inclination, is it? Had I known why would I have put your Bhabhi's noose around my neck? Never mind, darling, I am still yours." A few years ago he had fallen head over heels in love with Chhamman. But when Nawab Saheb loaded his pistol, he sobered up. Chhamman Miam hated him.

"Shut up. I have no such taste or inclination. It's just that I don't like such things. Not permitted before marriage."

"But, Sarkar, a maid is permissible before marriage."

"Wrong. Not admissible."

"That means that all our ancestors were fornicators? Only you are the true adherent of faith?"

"It is my belief..."

"Your belief, shit! Have you ever studied the rules of Din?"

"No. But this defies all reason."

"To hell with your reason. No solid facts. All airy nonsense."

"It is a crime in the eyes of law."

"Who cares for the law of the kafirs? We only accept the word of God. We treat our slaves like our own children. Nayaab rules the household, her son lacks nothing. Look at the maids - fed with the best grains, they are bursting with health. And if you were handed starved and shrivelled goods... my boy, take Sarvari. She's been fattened perfectly."


"What the hell is going on?"

"Nothing. Please stop gnawing at my brain."

"Fine by me. If you like being the butt of everyone's jokes, who can stop you. And by the way, Sarkar, in case you didn't know, your fiancée..."

"I have no fiancée."

"Well, fiancée-to-be then! Hurma Khanum is becoming too friendly with that bastard, Mansur."

"So... What am I to do?"

"Shall I tell you? I am going towards Sadar -- I will send the bangle-vendor. Make sure to wear glass bangles right upto your elbows. What else?" With his mouth full of betel juice, he let out a roar of laughter.

"Illiteracy... damned illiteracy!"

"Our venerable ancestors were illiterate, were they?"

"Must have been. How do I know?"

"Nonsense from a convoluted brain. The elders must have thought about this matter carefully before establishing the tradition. To this day we respect their guidance and adhere to it. This is the best way of preventing young men from falling into worse habits. They become responsible, remain healthy..."

"Ways of legitimizing fornication."

"Yours words are reeking of kufr. Insulting the faith."

"Don't talk about faith. This is its only tenet etched on your heart."

"You are insolent and stupid. To hell with you!"


Komal said…
Good example of how patriarchy and class can intersect.
Komal said…
Interesting how the matter is framed in terms of fornication, rather than rape and sex slavery (i.e. sexual ownership and exploitation of women). I wonder if that's to highlight a problem, or because of the author's shortsightedness.
Awais Aftab said…
Interesting how the matter is framed in terms of fornication, rather than rape and sex slavery.

Yes, I noticed that too. As far as I can tell, I think Ismat wrote it like this to depict the way the characters (and the people it is intended to portray) thought about the matter.