Translating Taboos: Analyzing Textual Silence in Postcolonial Literature

Understanding the textual silence of homosexual relations in Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

Representation is a contentious subject in the study of postcolonial literature. Whether or not a text’s respective culture is accurately represented or subject to appropriation still remains a topic of great discussion. My essay will anchor on issues of the representation of cultural “differences” in Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.“Difference” will be understood as sociocultural taboos that are alien to a society; how these taboos are represented and translated in a text will be then analysed to deduce if representing “difference” can escape an appropriative and ethnocentric understanding. Analysing the translation of taboos will be conducted against the concept of non-utterance (Macherey 85) and its result in recalibrating meaning through a Sassurean semiotic framework.

In Pierre Macherey’s A Theory of Literary Production (1966), he brings to attention the concept of the unspoken: “silence shapes all speech” (85). What is unsaid becomes of vital importance as it shapes the meaning of a text. With this, I aim to explore how cultural “differences” and social taboos are translated in the texts of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner through the unspoken. Through a Saussurean semiotic approach, by denying taboo subjects a word (signifier), the texts transcend their socio-cultural context and become transformative in producing meaning. As a result, this transcendence reveals a Universal morality that demands to be upheld via the call to redemption and thus, encourages humanism.

Lihaaf and The Kite Runner merit comparison as both texts deal with the issues of conveying social taboos through textual non-utterance. Social taboos, or “difference” as mentioned earlier, take the form of homosexual encounters of rape and sexual assault in both texts. Both narrators, Amir in The Kite Runner and the young female narrator and Lihaaf, retell their experiences through the anecdotal function of the first-person narrator. Amir is a complicit bystander to Hassan’s rape in The Kite Runner, and the young female narrator is a witness-turned-victim of homosexual assault in Lihaaf. It is important to first state that the analysis of my essay will be premised on the narratives as “texts”; anecdotal events are of the diegetic narrative realm and not the meta-narrative of the author’s life. Morever, the Indian culture in Lihaaf and the Afghan culture in The Kite Runner both view homosexual relations as taboos. Therefore, both tussle with the struggle to understand and situate the cultural “difference” of homosexual encounters within the Indian and Afghan society respectively.

Since homosexual encounters are understood as “difference” and alien to the Indian and Afghan society, the attempt to represent this “difference” in the texts of Lihaaf and The Kite Runner may invite dangers of misrepresentation. While it is ideal to accurately reflect the reality of a culture in postcolonial texts, Indian critical theorist Homi Bhabha brings to attention its consequential dangers of misrepresentation. In his essay, Representation and the Colonial Text (1984), a character-based reading privileges one code of the text because it “compacts the essentialist nature of the narrative discourse by repressing alternative interpretations” (39).

The anecdotal narrative accounts of Lihaaf and The Kite Runner, can induce a mimetic reading of Indian and Afghan culture respectively. This, in turn, can suggest a culture’s culpability in condoning the existence of these “differences” or taboos.

Amir’s complicity in condoning Hassan’s rape takes place through the former’s position as a complicit bystander engaging in voyeuristic looking. Amir peeps through “a gaping hole” (Hosseini 75) as he witnesses Assef’s gang surround a helpless Hassan. Amir hides in fear behind a mud shack in the alley where Hassan’s rape took place. Amir’s confession that he “couldn’t stop looking” at “Hassan’s brown corduroy pants thrown on a heap of eroded bricks” (75) suggests his own complicity in Hassan’s rape by doing nothing else but look for he was afraid of “what Assef would to do [him]” (77). Amir’s precision in recollecting Assef’s every move, from “unzipping his jeans”, “drop[ping] his underwear”, and “position[ing] himself behind Hassan” (75) reveals his engrossed concentration and eager curiosity for what is to happen next. Hassan’s rape becomes a form of spectacle understood because “there is an undoubted attention value in the amplification of an image” (Wagner 297) that results from the dramatized descriptions of Amir’s account. Incidentally, all notions of morality seem to be sidelined at this point because of Amir’s voyeuristic gaze. Motivated by his own curiosity, Amir’s stealthy observation subjects Hassan as the object of the former’s gaze. This therefore results in Amir’s reluctance to intervene that greatly subjects him complicit to granting permission for Hassan’s rape. Motivated by this curiosity, accompanied by the fear and reluctance to stand up for a Hazara

Similarly, the young female narrator’s detailed praise of Begum Jaan’s beauty denies her of complete innocence with regard to homosexual attraction in Lihaaf. Whether or not the young female narrator is aware of the transgressive nature of her attraction to Begum Jaan, she undeniably exhibits a great fascination for Begum’s Jaan’s beauty. The young female narrator pays an extremely close attention to Begum’s Jaan’s physicality: from noticing how “[Begum Jaan’s] thin body began to fill out”, to the fact that the “most fascinating part of [Begum Jaan’s] face were her lips”, and how Begum Jaan’s “waist [was] exquisitely formed” (Chughtai 37). As evident, the young female narrator similar engages in voyeurism (as with Amir in The Kite Runner) when she “stole a glance at [Begum Jaan’s] sheen,” as Begum Jaan “stretched her legs for the massage” (37). Begum Jaan is made an object of observational study by the young female narrator without the latter even realising it. The act of “looking” satisfies the young female narrator’s growing attraction for Begum Jaan and she even admits being “in love” with Begum Jaan despite “being very young at that time” (38). Drawing from film theorist Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) , this fascination of the human form results in a form of scopophilia – a form of pleasurable “looking” that subjects the object to a “controlling and curious gaze” (835). Mulvey’s theory of scopophilia was inspired by Freudian and Lacanian perspectives where she suggests that the female body is the inherent image subject to the male gaze as “the bearer of the look” (837). Therefore, in Lihaaf, it can be argued that through the young female narrator’s intent voyeuristic gaze, her fascination with Begum Jaan’s female body and the pleasure derived from it does not pardon her culpability to her brewing homosexual attraction.

As a result, this mimetic reading of the Afghan and Indian culture through the first-person narrative function in both texts – the character of Amir and the young female narrator – could paint a misrepresentative impression of their respective culture. One can misread that such cultures condone these social taboos through the character-based reading of both texts. This then calls to question of whether it is still possible to represent cultural “difference” without subjecting it to misrepresentation. One option is to completely isolate the text from its relative discourse (Bhabha 37). However, doing so paves the way for its appropriation as the text then becomes an object of a moral discourse that claims universality for its imperatives (37). Instead of isolating the text as a whole, I suggest that we can isolate this representation of “difference”: we locate the taboo subject that is to be represented in the text and convey it via “show and not tell”. By doing so, “difference” can still be translated without subjecting it to misrepresentation through non-utterance. The following sections of my essay will explain how to achieve this form of implicit representation.  

“Silence shapes all speech” (Macherey 85) – by denying social taboos a word (signifier), this recalibrates its meaning by removing preconceived, ethnocentric notions of what the word connotes, thus translating “difference” to the Universal audience without subjecting it to appropriation or misrepresentation. Through a Sassurean semiotic understanding, meaning (sign) constitutes 1) the “signifier” (a word or image), and 2) the “signified” (a mental conception of the word or image). In The Kite Runner and Lihaaf, the words “homosexual” or “lesbian” were never once uttered in the entire text. It is explicitly alluded to by non-utterance. Additionally, “rape” and other sexually attributive words are, likewise, never mentioned in the texts. Because the texts deny these social taboos a signifier, all “speech stored in the book [are] incomplete” (Macherey 82), and because “it has not said everything, there remains the possibility of saying something else, after another fashion.” (82) The absence of a signifier recalibrates the entire meaning (sign) of homosexual relations as a subject. Like a mathematical equation, if C (sign) is a summation of A (signifier) and B (signified), the absence of either A or B will no longer result in C. Sexual transgressions are therefore “showed” and not “told” by the absence of its signifiers; the textual non-utterance disallows an ethnocentric or appropriative understanding of these taboos because signifiers, on their own, already carry preconceived connotations that can dictate its meaning across cultures. In a sense, the non-utterance of “difference” represents a struggle to accommodate and understand what it is over policing morality.

The textual non-utterance of the word “lesbian” in Lihaaf therefore translates “difference” Universally while alsopreserving the text’s fidelity to Indian culture. What is alien or “different” in Lihaaf is not the Indian culture, but lesbianism. Instead of isolating the text’s culture, Chughtai’s insistence to not utter the word “lesbian” makes the text universal. Homosexual encounters are retold through the perspective of the young female narrator – doing so pardons the reader from ethnocentrism as this shift in perspective does not aim to police or straitjacket lesbianism as taboo but rather, it represents the struggle in attempting to understand its difference and non-normalcy. Libido between women is described as an “itch [that] remained stubbornly” (Chughtai 37), and intercourse is showed as the vigorous shaking of the quilt “as though an elephant was struggling inside.” (38) This fairly “innocent” re-interpretation of homosexual acts reflects the young female narrator’s incapability to associate and fathom these acts as transgressive. “Itch” and “elephant[s] struggling” are the only way she can comprehend what she saw. While the young female narrator’s voyeuristic look may subject her culpable to her brewing homosexual tendencies, her simplistic attribution to homosexual acts to an “itch” and as “an elephant struggling inside” renders her innocent because she understands these acts through a lens that has not yet been tainted. In this case, “itch” and “elephant” are signifiers that conjure a denotative meaning to her and she is unable to derive its implied connotation. The quilt also serves as a leitmotif that “camouflages” the homosexual act and the subtext of homosexuality in the text (Malhotra). Since “lihaaf” is also Urdu for “quilt” – the titular allusion to the implicit reference to homosexuality speaks volumes simply because the text refuses to give the subject a signifier (word).

As a result, Chughtai’s use of the young female narrator reflects the real struggle of the Indian society to understand something that is foreign to them. The young female narrator understands lesbianism through “itches” and “elephants struggling in quilts”, these are the only way she can fathom it. “Difference” is no longer alien as a result of textual non-utterance but is universally understandable. The visual image conjured of “elephants struggling in sheets” translates the act of intercourse to an image that is widely understandable; similarly, an itch is a sensation that is universally familiar as well. Chughtai’s censored writing represents Indian cultural reality through the young narrator’s wrestling inability to understand the transgressive acts of Begum Jaan. The reality of the Indian culture does not take as much precedence as the textual attempt to speak about something that should not have been spoken about. By not subordinating the subtext of lesbianism through non-utterance, Lihaaf therefore preserves the fidelity of the Indian culture.

A similar approach to translating “difference” as universal while maintaining cultural fidelity is seen in the presentation of Hassan as the sacrificial lamb during the rape scene in The Kite Runner. Moments before Hassan’s rape, Amir recalls the glimpse of Hassan’s face and notes that “it was a look [he] has seen before. It was the look of the lamb.” (Hosseini 76) Immediately the narrative unlatches itself from the present and retreats to a flashback of the dinner preparations for the celebration of the tenth day of Dhul-Hijjah, “a day to celebrate how the prophet Ibrahim almost sacrificed his own son for God” (76). The word “lamb” as a signifier is used, and this conjures connotations of the sacrificial lamb – this is then confirmed as Amir’s flashback proceeds. Hassan’s rape is presented as a willing sacrifice needed as it is juxtaposed against the religious Islamic preparation of the lamb. In Amir’s flashback, he recalls the lamb’s “imminent demise is for a higher purpose” (77). This is paralleled to the present rape seen against Hassan’s face as having “the look the lamb” (76). This injection of the flashback retells homosexual rape as a necessary sacrifice that Hassan was willing to endure. In this sense, the translation of “difference” accommodates the Afghan cultural reality.

Hassan’s rape is translated universally as a necessary sacrifice through the guttural sounds and the reconstruction of meaning via synonymous signifiers in The Kite Runner. The taboo act is concretized by “Assef’s quick, rhythmic grunts” (77) – Amir only describes hearing Assef’s grunts, suggesting a silent, and (reluctantly) compliant, Hassan. When Amir finally shows up in front of Hassan after the incident, Amir notices “the dark stain in the seat of his pants” and the “tiny drops that fell from between [Hassan’s] legs and stained the snow black.” (78) It is interesting to note that the word “blood” is never uttered here. Perhaps because the connotations of “blood” includes impurity, it implies the loss of sexual innocence and chastity. The non-utterance of the word could then be the act of censorship in upholding and protecting the virtuous intent arising from Hassan’s sacrifice. As the word “blood” as a signifier connotes impurity and violence, Hosseini attempts to reconstruct its meaning by replacing the signifiers of the same subject with words that are indirect and synonymous, therefore maintaining “the possibility of saying something else, after another fashion.” (Macherey 82) As a result, homosexual rape is translated universally as a price, or an inevitable sacrifice in The Kite Runner via the reconstruction of meaning.

Therefore, the non-utterance of “difference” or social taboos in The Kite Runner and Lihaaf allows both texts to transcend beyond their cultural origins and become universal and transformative in meaning. In Lihaaf, the young female narrator’s observational perspective does not aim to police lesbianism as taboo as she merely recounts her experience as she remembers it. If the word ‘lesbian’ was uttered, the signifier carries a myriad of cultural and moral connotations that would have tainted the narrator’s experiences and removed the text’s potential to produce meaning (because once the word is uttered, we are ideologically driven to associate it as transgression). The absence of the word ‘lesbian’ allows the readers, like the narrator, to undergo the process of understanding homosexuality – what constitutes it, what drives it, and how ‘different’ it is from the environment of the text, thus allowing the text to produce varied meanings of its own. As a result, this is perhaps Chughtai’s attempt in carving a new perception of Indian female sexuality as transformative, simply by featuring a taboo concept by not saying it.

The recalibration of meaning then introduces a new perspective to the discourse of social taboos: homosexual relations and violence are portrayed as punishments and consequences rather than transgressions in both texts. Homosexual rape and child sexual abuse in The Kite Runner are retold as punishments and consequences of a society so heavily plagued by racial conflict and issues of social class. As discussed earlier, Hassan’s rape was likened to a lamb sacrificed for the “higher purpose” (Hosseini 77) of the religious preparations for Dhul-Hijjah. The sacrifice is described as a necessary price stemming from Hassan’s place as a Hazara – an ethnic race considered to be inferior to Pashtuns like Amir. Hazaras are victims to these atrocities – Hassan’s rape and eventual execution; his son, Sohrab eventual slavery and child abuse. Sohrab also experiences a similar fate as his father when he was taken into slavery by Assef. Sohrab cries to Amir when the latter finds him that “—they did things…the bad man and the other two…they did things…did things to me.” (320) A similar refusal (or rather inability) to speak of homosexual rape and sexual abuse reiterates the function of these taboos serving as punishment for being a Hazara. In consolation, Amir reassures Sohrab that he is not “dirty” and not “full of sin” (320). The associated meaning of homosexual rape and child sexual abuse as “dirty” and “full of sin” is precisely why the text avoids the utterance of the subject; uttering the signifier of the subject shifts the focus of the subject as an act of transgression rather than its function as form of punishment. The Kite Runner brings to universal attention the consequences of racial conflict in Afghanistan, it “humanizes Afghan culture, providing depth and meaning to the sign “Afghanistan” for the non-Afghan reader, otherwise a mere signifier of post-9/11 conflict.” (Jefferess 389) Similarly, Begum Jaan’s homosexual relation with Rabu in Lihaaf is a consequence arising from culture’s strict rules of female docility and isolation in marriage.

The transcendence that arises via the translation of “difference” then reveals a universal morality that demands to be upheld via the call to redemption and this, therefore, encourages humanism. Particularly, in The Kite Runner, Amir’s guilt of condoning Hassan’s rape and mistreatment follows him through adulthood. The mistreatment of the Hazaras – Hassan’s rape, his execution, and Sohrab’s enslavement (and sexual abuse) – are all universally identified as immoral according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hassan’s rape is immoral because it is: 1) form of torture and 2) it was done on the premise of his race; all of which violates the article 2 and 5 of the human rights act (Assembly). Hassan’s execution can be seen as a form of ethnic cleansing in view of conflict between the Pashtuns and Hazaras in Afghanistan. Sohrab’s enslavement and sexual abuse as a child is also immoral because this denies him the right to freedom, education and proper treatment. The Kite Runner raises the issues of the mistreatment of subalterns – oppressed subjects who are of “inferior rank”, incapable of speaking for themselves, and who are in turn, drowned out in discourse (Spivak 83).

Redemption therefore becomes a call-to-action in The Kite Runner to redress the immoral acts done against the Hazaras; the text then demands a certain universal morality and humanism to be upheld. The Kite Runner hinges upon the maxim that constantly pervades the narrative as a call to redemption: there’s a way to be good again. The text leaves no delay in informing us of Amir’s haunting guilt in the first chapter where Amir recalls that he has been “peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years” (Hosseini 1). This foreshadows not only Hassan’s rape, but the text also situates itself as didactic. It preaches a belief of repentance and redemption. Transgressions and mistakes must be acknowledged and purged through an act of redemption. Amir’s transgression lies in his complicity in Hassan’s rape and mistreatment, Baba’s transgression lies in his extra-marital affair. The guilt percolates in both father and son – Baba’s redeeming attempt is seen through his exceptional treatment of Hassan; Amir’s form of redemption is similar to Baba. Amir rescues Sohrab from child slavery and becomes the adoptive father to his half-brother’s son. Amir and Baba’s redemptive acts all point to a form of humanism (love for all mankind) that overlooks social class. Although Baba and Amir’s act of humanism is not done unconditionally (since the intent was to appease their guilt and right their wrongs), the guilt nevertheless earlier allows them to transcend their own sociocultural constraints to treat all humans with compassion.

With that said, one of humanism’s main concerns stem from the criticism of it being a largely Western privilege. I do agree insofar as “privilege” is concerned. Only the Pashtuns (Amir, Baba, and Rahim Khan) of The Kite Runner were able to extend their compassion. While it can be contended that Hassan was able to look past social class and extend compassion to Amir and his family, it brings to attention the question of whether or not he was truly underprivileged. He may be a subaltern by definition (considering he was a Hazara), but for most parts of the text, Hassan’s upbringing and the eventual revelation of his true identity as Baba’s son, destabilizes the argument for his inferiority. To be specific, Hassan is of mixed race: half Hazara, and half Pashtun. If there was to be any argument made for subalterns extending compassion, it would be Ali – however, he only exists as a secondary father to Hassan, and is drowned out for most of the novel. Hassan was given equal, if not more affection by Baba.

Similarly, in Lihaaf, the only act of humanism displayed was exhibited by Begum Jaan’s wealthy husband who “kept an open house for students – young, fair, and slender-waisted boys whose expenses were borne by him.” (Chughtai 36) For the young boys to be “firmed calved”, “supple-waisted”, and “perfumed” (36), they had to be well cared for. This was only possible because of Begum Jaan’s wealthy husband. There seems to be a commonality in both texts that suggests humanism as a belief that can only be exhibited from a privileged origin.

To conclude, social taboos and “differences” alien to a culture can be represented accurately without it being appropriated and misrepresented. Textual silence – or the non-utterance – of these “differences” and social taboos translates and universalises meaning as it removes preconceived connotations with the subject. Semiotically, the absence of the signifier (word) makes then an “unspoken” subject (Macherey 85); this recalibrates its meaning in order to prioritise the act of comprehending what “difference” is over policing it through an ethnocentric lens. In doing so, the texts transcend their socio-cultural context and become transformative in producing meaning. Thus, by showing that “difference” can be Universally interpreted, the process in doing so reveals a Universal morality that demands to be upheld through redemptive acts that encourage one to transcend social class and embrace humanism. This essay has therefore shed light on the representation of social taboos in The Kite Runner and Lihaaf. Taboos are not always of transgressive nature, at times they can be a result of uncontrollable circumstances that use them as forms of punishment and torture. Perhaps we too can extend our compassion with regard to how we perceive these taboos – sometimes it is not about what was done, but why and what motivated it.

Works Cited:

Assembly, United N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 2003.

Bhabha, Homi. “Representation and the Colonial Text.” The Theory of Reading, The Harvester Press, 1984, pp. 33-44.

Chughtai, Ismat. “Lihaaf (The Quilt).” In Search of Answers: Indian Women’s Voices from Manushi, edited by Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita, 3rd ed., Manohar, 1996, pp. 36-40.

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books, 2013.

Jefferess, David. “To Be Good (Again): The Kite Runner as Allegory of Global Ethics.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 45, no. 4, 2009, pp. 389-400.

Macherey, Pierre. “Chapter 14: Implicit and Explicit.” A Theory of Literary Production, translated by Geoffrey Wall, Routledge, 1978, pp. 82-84.

Macherey, Pierre. “Chapter 15: The Spoken and the Unspoken.” A Theory of Literary Production, translated by Geoffrey Wall, Routledge, 1978, pp. 85-89.

Malhotra, Hansa. “Ismat Chughtai, ‘Lihaaf? and Lifting the Veil Off Same-Sex Desire.” The Quint, 24 Oct. 2019, http://www.thequint.com/lifestyle/books/ismat-chugtai-lihaaf-and-lifting-the-veil-off-same-sex-desire-birth-anniversary-urdu-writer.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, Oxford UP, 1999, pp. 833-844.

Spivak, Gayatri C. “Chapter 4: Can the Subaltern Speak?” Reflections on the History of an Idea, edited by Rosalind C. Morris, Columbia UP, 2010, pp. 66-111.

Wagner, Robert W. “Film: The Spectator and the Spectacle.” Audio Visual Communication Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 1955, pp. 294-300, Springer. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

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