I've been reading some short stories by Ismat Chughtai, where I've noticed a repeating motif of romantic relationships in which one person has light skin and the other has dark.

  • The Veil: "At fourteen she became engaged to her mother's uncle. He was as dark as she was fair. [...] Her pale, silken hands made his blood boil, and he was overcome by an overpowering desire to grind in his blackness with her whiteness so that the difference between them would be obliterated forever."

  • The Quilt: "[Begum Jan's] complexion was fair, without a trace of ruddiness. [...] Rabbo! She was as black as Begum Jan was white, like burnt iron ore!" (Rabbo the maid and Begum Jan the mistress are lovers; see this)

Does this motif occur in Chughtai's other works, or do the two stories only happen to share that juxtaposition? (I'd normally guess that it was just a coincidence, but both stories emphasize that aspect quite heavily.) Does it have any significance?

Chughtai and her husband are both fair-skinned, but perhaps it still may be real-life-inspired.

  • What is your source for these quotations? The translations seem off. For example, the Urdu original of "The Veil" has: "phir unakii shaadii hamaarii ammaa ke maamuu se ho ga_ii"; "Then she got married to my mother's uncle." That makes quite a difference!
    – verbose
    Oct 7, 2023 at 19:37
  • @verbose - this collection
    – CDR
    Oct 7, 2023 at 22:47

1 Answer 1


The motif of a dark lover and a fair beloved is not unique to Chughtai, but is a culturally specific pattern very common in Indian love stories. This pattern can be traced back to medieval poets such as Jayadeva, Vidyapati, and Chandidas, who wrote poems about the dark Krishna and his fair-skinned beloved Radha. This is not to say that Chughtai is consciously using and manipulating this archetype. Rather, her stories illustrate its force: throughout the subcontinent, a couple where one (usually male) is dark and the other (typically female) fair is paradigmatic of literary representations of love.

That Krishna is dark is indicated by his name: kR^iShNa means "dark". For instance, the waning half of the moon's cycle in each lunar month of the Hindu calendar is called the kR^iShNa pakSha or dark portion. Another common name for Krishna is shyaam, also meaning "dark". Radha's fair skin, on the other hand, is indicated by one of the best-known Sanskrit prayers to her:

तप्त कांचन गौरांगी राधे वृन्दावनेश्वरी
वृषभानु-सुते देवी प्रणामामि हरिप्रिये

tapta kaa.nchana gauraa.ngii raadhe vR^indaavaneshvarii
vR^ishabhaanu-sute devii praNaamaami haripriye

You whose body is fair as molten gold, Radha, queen of Vrindavan,
Daughter of Vrishabhanu, goddess, I bow to you, beloved of Hari.

Source note: I think this invocation is originally from Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, but I haven't been able to verify this. It is the standard invocation to Radha in ISKCON.

(Hari, the captivator, captor, or conqueror, is yet another name for Krishna.) The comparison of Radha's skin to gold underscores the contrast between her complexion and Krishna's.

There are of course other paired deities of contrasting skin tones in the Indian pantheon, such as Shiva and Parvati. But those are not seen as archetypal lovers in the same way that Radha and Krishna are, whose endlessly retold stories provide the pattern for love secular as well as divine all over India. Even people who are not Hindu casually make use of this pattern in literary works. The Urdu poetry site Rekhta has a page that provides quotations from Faiz Khalilabadi, Khwaja Sajid, Firaq Gorakhpuri, and other Muslim poets who reference Radha and Krishna in their verses.

Specifically with regard to their complexion, the Sikh writer and filmmaker Gulzar recasts into Hindi a famous plea that Chandidas, writing in Bengali, has Radha utter:

मोरा गोरा अंग लै ले, मोहे श्याम रंग दै दे
छुप जाऊँगी रात ही में, मोहे पी का संग दै दे

moraa goraa a.ng lai le, mohe shyaam ra.ng dai de
chhup jaauu.Ngii raat hii me.n, mohe pii kaa sa.ng dai de

Take away my fair limbs, give me a dark complexion (the color of Shyam)
I shall [thus] be hidden in the night itself, give me the company of my lover.

Bandini, 1963, dir. Bimal Roy, music S D Burman, lyrics Gulzar, singer Lata Mangeshkar, song lip-synced onscreen by Nutan.

Elements of the love story of Radha and Krishna freely circulate on the subcontinent even in secular contexts, to the point that a very common word for a male lover is saa.Nwariyaa, dark-skinned one. The online dictionary Hinkhoj translates it simply as beloved, but etymologically, it is from saa.Nwalaa or dusky. The use of a word meaning "he of dark complexion" in a secular context to mean simply "lover" is illustrated by these lines of Shailendra:

घर आजा घिर आए बदरा साँवरिया
मोरा जीया धक-धक रे, चमके बिजरिया

ghar aajaa ghir aae badaraa saa.Nwariyaa
moraa jiyaa dhak-dhak re, cham_ke bijariyaa

Come home, the clouds have gathered, beloved
My heartbeat quickens, lightning flashes.

Chhote Nawab (1961), dir. S A Akbar, music R D Burman, lyrics Shailendra, singer Lata Mangeshkar, lip-synced onscreen by Sheila Vaz.

A 2007 box office bomb furnishes another example of this generic use of "saa.Nwariyaa" outside of an allusion to Krishna.

So couples where one partner is fair and the other dark cannot be seen as a motif peculiar to Chughtai's work. It reveals only that she's an Indian writer whose output includes stories of people in love. Contrasting skin tones among a couple in love is a very common, even archetypal, trope on the subcontinent. It's endlessly recycled not only in religious contexts, but also in popular media such as Bollywood (as illustrated above), and in literary works by writers of all backgrounds.

Chughtai's stories deploy specific details of this archetype. For example, the lovers often switch, or seek to switch, their complexions to match that of their beloved. Gulzar's lyric above is one example, Radha wanting to give up her fair skin. Chandidas furnishes its converse, with Radha's friend narrating how parting from Radha has caused Krishna to turn pale or jaundiced:

না বাঁধে চিকুর না পরে চীর ।
না খায় আহার না পিয়ে নীর ।।
দেখিতে দেখিতে বাড়ল ব্যাধি ।
যত তত করি না হয় সুধি ।।
সোনার বরণ হইল শ্যাম ।
সোঙরি সোঙরি তোহারি নাম ।।

naa baa.Ndhe chikur naa pare chiir
naa khaaY aahaar naa piiYe niir
dekhite dekhite baa.Dala byaadhi
yata tata kari nahiye sudhii
sonaar baraN ha_i_lo shyaam
soN^aari soN^aari tohaari naam

He knots not his hair, wears not his garment
He eats no food, drinks no water.
Even as I watched, his suffering grew
No matter what I did, nothing availed.
The complexion of gold has become Shyam
Over and over recalling your name.

Chandidas Padavali (The Poems of Chandidas), ed. Nilaranjan Mukhopadhyay. Calcutta: Ramkamal Singh, 1914. p. 69.

The dark groom in "Ghunghat" ("The Veil"), longing to despoil his fair bride by blending their colors, is part of this tradition of lovers exchanging their complexion though the intensity of their love. Here, Chughtai makes literal the sexual metaphor underlying this conceit. The quotation provided in the question is mistranslated; the groom is the narrator's great-uncle, not his own bride's:

फिर उनकी शादी हमारी अम्मा के मामू से हो गई

phir unakii shaadii hamaarii ammaa ke maamuu se ho ga_ii

Then she got married to my mother's uncle.

Ghunghat / The veil. Narrated by Syed Meesum Naqvi. "Lifting the Veil: Celebrating Ismat Chughtai", held at the British Council Library in Karachi, 19 August 2016. Accessed on YouTube 7 October 2023.

His situation is rendered sympathetic when one realizes that the great-uncle in question is only seventeen, himself handsome but deeply self-conscious about his dark skin, and terrified of the anticipated consummation even as he desires it. He cannot bring himself to lift his even younger bride's veil and undress her. He asks her to lift it herself, but she in turn is too shy to do so. The story masterfully depicts how the terror of the sexually inexperienced newlyweds on their wedding night vitiates what should be a joyful union. In this, Chughtai's story anticipates Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach by over half a century.

A similarly frank exploration of sexuality is at work in "Lihaaf" ("The Quilt"), which too gathers some of its force from from the archetypal romance of the subcontinent. The love of Radha and Krishna is clandestine. It is not a socially sanctioned love that stems from, or leads to, marriage. It is adulterous and scandalous. In another poem, Chandidas refers to Krishna as "যুবতী জনার ধরম নাশক / yubati janaar dharam naashak", "the destroyer of the righteousness of young women". The poem ends with one of those women confessing to the poet:

কহে চণ্ডীদাসে কুল শীল নাশে
কালিয়া প্রেমের মধু ।।

kahe chaNDidaase kula shiila naashe
kaaliyaa premer madhu

She says to Chandidas, the norms proper to clan are destroyed
by the honey-sweetness of my dark love.

p. 31

As these lines show, one of the norms this love violates is clan or caste boundaries. The Sanskrit word for complexion, वर्ण / varNa, also means "social stratum". Fair skin was associated with higher classes, dark with lower, and the mingling of the two blurs caste distinctions.

In religious contexts, the usual explanation for all these violations is that Radha's love for Krishna shows how a devotee's love for God (and vice-versa) is not bound by social convention, or how the drive to unite with God runs roughshod over any other responsibilites. Shorn of its religious context, however, the coupling of fair and dark retains a soupçon of transgressive force in India, particularly when the lovers have chosen each other and/or express sexual desire. Such a union across the boundaries of color indicates a dangerous erotic force that flouts all social norms. That Begum Jan is fair and Rabbo dark is emblematic of the triply scandalous nature of their love, breaking as it does the bounds of marriage, class, and heterosexuality.


  • Transliterations from Bengali, Sanskrit, and Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) are in iTrans.
  • Translations from all those languages are my own, and I'm not qualified to translate from any of them, so rely on them AYOR. Corrections welcomed.

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