In fact, Begum Jaan was afflicted with a persistent itch. Despite the oils and balms, the stubborn itch remained.
– Ismat Chughtai, Lihaaf (The Quilt), trans. M. Asaduddin
I was nineteen when I was diagnosed with Allergic Rhinopharyngitis — a condition involving an allergic reaction that began as an itch at the back of my throat, causing irritation in my nostrils, making me sneeze continuously for several minutes, affecting my eyes till I rubbed them sore, and crawling under my skin till I scratched and scratched… my scalp, my back, my toes.
By this time I had been to several doctors. Each time I had come out feeling like a guinea pig who was promised knighthood in an important scientific experiment that would lead to a big discovery, only to be told that, in fact, they were nothing exceptional. With a shrug, I was told that my condition was probably a result of the city’s rising pollution levels and was possibly incurable.
Around the same time, I also realised that I was bisexual. Maybe the two events didn’t coincide perfectly, but that’s how this story plays out in my head, because till I was nineteen, I hadn’t quite found the right words to express my desires.
Then I read Ismat Chughtai’s infamous Lihaaf (The Quilt). Remember Begum Jaan who was afflicted with a persistent itch? Chughtai could have named her short story ‘The Itch’ — a term I later adopted for my allergy because Rhino-whatever was too complicated to say out loud. I had neither the ‘white and smooth’ skin of Begum Jaan nor her ‘sheen’, but I began to see my itch differently.
Let’s rewind to some of my first lessons in being ‘different’, because what’s a personal essay without some high school drama? In high school, there was a short story in our syllabus about three peacocks — two females and an alpha male. The male and one of the females lived in happy matrimony till the ‘other woman’ entered their lives, causing a storm that could only lead to tragedy (for her).
There it was, in a children’s tale, the patriarchal idea that two women can never be friends, for they must always compete for the love and attention of a man. The lesson was supplemented with light doses of Bollywood and heavy doses of parental gyaan, making the curriculum complete.
However, in an all-girls’ high school, the tale was given, what one teacher later termed as, a ‘perverse twist’. We had no boys to play the role of the alpha male peacock, after all! So, I became the wife and another classmate became the husband peacock, and with the character of the ‘other woman’, the cast was sorted. The story was played out in love notes, stolen moments of hand-holding, death stares, and childish warnings.
When some teachers found out about it, the episode acquired the colours of a minor high school scandal. Things got especially heated up when the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ cropped up, and graffiti reading ‘X hearts Y’ was found scrawled on the campus walls. Many teachers couldn’t believe their eyes and ears. Some more progressive ones simply warned us against using words like ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ in public, worried that some of us might use them in our conservative homes and get into trouble.
Amidst the drama, there is a part of the story of the peacocks that remains persistent in memory: the peacock couple would pleasure themselves by scratching each other’s backs with their beaks.
Years later, I am not sure whether this was actually a part of the story or if it’s something that my mind made up. At the time, I was blamed for being the ‘evil mastermind’ behind the entire episode, which had introduced perversity in the citadels of the temple of knowledge, and was asked to stand outside my classroom for an entire day.
What nobody noticed was that, as I stood in punishment, I was scratching my back against a nail on the wall behind me, all the while.
For a very long time, I believed that men who I had been in relationships with, during my confusing early 20s, left me with ailments that affected them. One gave me a stubborn back pain, another a terribly weak eyesight, and yet another the awful and unattractive habit of scratching the scalp. Let’s focus on the last one for the sake of this essay; let’s call him Pete.
By the time I started dating Pete, I was already aware of my allergy and had accepted (at least to myself) my bisexuality. Yet, I blame the man for my scalp-itch because my allergy hadn’t affected the scalp before I saw him continuously scratching his head. A scientific and psychological mystery that I haven’t quite been able to solve.
One day, Pete told me, ‘It doesn’t count if you haven’t seen a nipple!’ I had come out to him, against my better judgement, and he was giving me a lesson in What Makes a Bisexual. Pete believed that literature students like myself often identified as bisexual because it made us look ‘cool’. Coupled with this was our ‘bra-burning, flag-waving feminism’ that also reflected in our cropped haircuts. Ironically, Pete revelled in his own ‘queerness’ by keeping his hair long and applying kohl in his eyes.
The prospect of two women making out was both disgusting and exciting for Pete, but I could only identify as bisexual, according to him, if I had had sex with a woman. Pete also thought that The Itch wasn’t unattractive because I had ‘more than enough to make up for it’, but it was definitely a ‘rich people’s disease’ and was probably something that I had ‘made up in my head’.
Pete’s disbelief regarding The Itch was shared by some other people in my life too. There were also those who agreed that I was definitely suffering from allergies but thought that my condition didn’t really qualify as ‘a serious ailment’. What’s worse is that I believed these very people for many years and refused to take The Itch — and myself — seriously.
I was surrounded by opinions — both medical and personal — about my condition but I was in a very lonely place. Nobody understood, nobody tried to understand.
Over the years, The Itch has become a part of who I am; it has become normal to my existence. Some men and women find it unattractive, others quite confusing, and many don’t stay long enough to consider it of any consequence.
The Itch is triggered by sudden changes in temperature; it sometimes occurs when I am nervous or angry or fearful. Severe allergic attacks due to dust or pollution sometimes hamper my work and day-to-day life, but I have found ways to control and work around the itchy-monster. I have made my peace with it because there isn’t much that I can do living in a majorly polluted city, except take my medication and hope for the best.
However, I have stopped not taking The Itch — and myself — seriously, for if there is one thing that The Itch has given me is a way to understand and write about my sexuality. The Itch is mine, as it was Begum Jaan’s, and I must own and reclaim it, with or without Rabbu.
Nidhi Mahajan is a Features Correspondent at The Quint. She also runs an independent literature and culture blog.
Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal