Desperate Times Call for Predatory Measures

Alexander Suvorov aptly stated, “There is nobody more terrible than the desperate.”

We’ve all undoubtedly experienced and perhaps even overcome desperation at some point in our lives. However, this intense emotion at times becomes so overwhelming that it unveils our animalistic tendencies and compels us to act in shocking ways. When one becomes engulfed by desperation, it manipulates the individual to seek alternative choices – and these ‘alternative answers’ tend to be hazardous, impulsive, and perilous. Desperate people typically think they have nothing to lose because they lack hope and are ready to do virtually anything in order to survive, which ultimately leads to them making reckless judgements such as engaging in illegal activities, making poor financial decisions, and at times even abusing and exploiting others. Thus, desperation, like every other emotion, transforms and manifests in several ways – it often starts with deprivation, which leads to dissatisfaction in an individual, this pushes them to seek different possibilities, with no regard for whether or not those alternatives are ‘ethical’. Considering this, it is simply logical to suggest that desperate times call for predatory measures.

Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaaf” accurately illustrates desperation’s destiny, that is, how desperation manifests itself, progressing from helplessness to exploitation. From the very beginning of the text, it is understood that the Nawab’s (Begum Jaan’s husband) image in society is that of a noble and pious individual who carries out his religious responsibilities with devotion and assists others to fulfil the same. Only after this introduction is his ‘strange hobby’ of conducting open houses for slender-waisted, young males disclosed. It shows that his social context barred him from exploring his sexuality and that he was obligated to “maintain his image” in society. As a result of this restriction and deprivation of self-exploration, he began looking for different ways to satisfy his desire. This is most likely why he held open houses for young boys, even though this sort of conduct has undertones of grooming and exploitation. The fact that Rabbu’s son had an aversion towards the Nawab despite the economic provisions the Nawab provided to him proves that the Nawab’s acts were abusive. And as time went on, the time he spent at the open house and the number of boys only grew, indicating his mounting desperation.

Begum Jaan’s relationship with Rabbu further exemplifies how desperation can fuel predatory behaviour. While the Nawab was out seeking gossamer shirt boys, Begum Jaan was confined to her house’s oppressive walls, where she spent her days coping with the abyss of loneliness. She tried all she could, from amulets to black magic to reading scriptures all night long, to keep the Nawab’s love for her, but he wouldn’t budge. She even turned to romantic novels, but they only caused her anguish to deepen. However, she comes out of this darkness when an unpredictable bond is formed between her and Rabbu, the maid. Begum Jaan almost immediately finds pleasure in Rabbu’s massages, and their relationship evolves into a sexually intimate one. Albeit this relationship helped ease Begum Jaan’s itch, it was both predatory and exploitative on multiple levels. Firstly, Begum Jaan demanded undivided attention from Rabbu and needed multiple massages every day to sustain herself. Secondly, there was a huge power imbalance between the two individuals—while Begum Jaan was affluent and well-off, Rabbu was impoverished and poverty-stricken. This difference in their socio-economic standing blurs the lines between desire and exploitation.

Furthermore, this tale demonstrates, through Begum Jaan’s actions towards the narrator in the absence of Rabbu, how the oppressed becomes the oppressor at the pinnacle of despair. There was already a power imbalance between Begum Jaan, the carer, and the narrator, a little girl. Despite this power dynamic, Begum Jaan did not initially wield undue authority over the narrator, and the two had an affectionate relationship. This relationship, however, takes an unexpected turn when Rabbu travels to visit her son and doesn’t return for two days – Begum Jaan becomes frustrated since she is unable to satisfy her cravings. This pushes her to seek pleasure from the narrator through sexual assault. Though the narrator doesn’t completely understand the event, she feels violated, miserable, and frightened, suggesting that she no longer possesses agency over her own body. Begum Jaan’s character thus transforms from a helpless, unloved wife to a sexual predator as she mirrors the very behaviour that suffocated and shackled her, by exploiting the narrator. This incident thus elucidates how a complex interplay between desire, deprivation, desperation and societal norms can result in a victim perpetuating the cycle of abuse and victimhood. And, though there isn’t enough information provided to substantiate this conclusion, there is a high possibility that the narrator was initially pleased by the fact that Begum Jaan enjoyed her company and massages because of her desperation. This could’ve resulted from her desperation transforming because of being constantly reminded by her mother that other girls her age were busy drawing admirers while she would pick fights with everyone.

Thus, Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaaf” provides incredible insight about the human mind and what it can do in order to survive. Through the characters of the Nawab and Begum Jaan, she showcases how the weight of societal norms, curtailing expression and deprivation make an individual helpless and vulnerable. However, unlike many others, she goes beyond conveying only this helplessness and presents how this feeling mutates over time and she does not shy away from portraying the ugliness of desperation. “Lihaaf” exposes us to the complex realities of life as they are and enables readers not only look at the characters and their actions from an individualistic viewpoint, but it also helps us view the effect of their environment and experiences that drive them to desperate measures. In light of these evidences, it can be concluded that in times of despair, individuals take grave decisions, and they usually end up wounding other individual(s) in the process because exploitation is the quickest route out of desperation.

De Courson, Benoît and Nettle, Daniel. “Why do inequality and deprivation produce high

crime and low trust? A formal model” Sci Rep 11, 1937 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80897-8

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