The Crooked Line (Terhi Lakir)

Item Code: NAF855
Author: Ismat Chughtai, Tahira Naqvi
Publisher: Kali for Women
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 8185107556
Pages: 390
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 440 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


An emotionally deprived childhood. with siblings, ayahs, parents and servants convinces Shaman. That she is destined to remain unloved. She suffers a traumatic separation from her wet-nurse 'Unna, then her older sister, 'Bari Apa. She grows up mutinous with no regard for convention.

Shaman forms deep friendships in school and college, out is unable to come to terms with her sexuality. By the time she marries an Irish. Army Captain her passionate nature has been corroded by years of denial and disappointment.

In 'The Crooked' Line, Ismat Chugtai, reveals the core of female psyche. She exposes all. She draws upon all aspects of female experience and tells her tale with incomparable skill. In her effort to seek and define connections between culture and female experience, Chughtai dissects custom and ritual with a keenly discerning eye and sharp turn of phrase.


About the Author


Ismat Chughtai was born in Badayun in 1915. She was the first Muslim woman in India to gain both a BA and a degree in teaching.

In 1941 she wrote and published 'The Quilt' ('Lihaf), a story about a neglected housewife's erotic relationship with her maid. Charged with writing pornography, she underwent a trial in Lahore which lasted two years until the case was finally dropped. 'The Quilt' has been published in one of her several collections of short stories. Ismat Chughtai also wrote novellas, novels, plays and essays. With her husband, Shahid Latif, a film director, whom she married against her family's wishes in 1942, she produced and co- directed six films, and produced a further six independently after her husband's death.

The Crooked Line is her magnum opus, written in the early 1940s; it remains one of the most important novels to date by a sub-continental woman writer.

She received a number of literary awards, the last being the Iqbal Samman Award for Literature in 1989.

Ismat Chughtai died in Bombay in 1991.

Tahira Naqvi gained a BA in English Literature from Lahore College for Women in Pakistan, and an MA in psychology from Punjab University. She has taught for a number of years, and since 1983 has been Adjunct Instructor of English at Western Connecticut State University.

She has translated a substantial body of work from the Urdu, including Ismat Chughtai's 'The Quilt' and many of her other stories. As well as writing her own fiction, Tahira Naqvi has also contributed academic papers on socio-cultural themes, and on the challenges of translation.

I would like to thank Ritu Menon for making this project possible and Seema Chawla for allowing me to be with Ismat Apa again. Thanks also to Christine King, whose support, understanding and immense patience during the editing process meant much to me. I am grateful also to Professor Umar Memon for his timely and useful suggestions regarding the introduction to The Crooked Line. And special thanks to my husband Zafar who, when all Urdu dictionaries failed me, came to my help.




In The Crooked Line (Terhi Lakir), Ismat Chughtai, one of Urdu's boldest and most outspoken writes, cuts to the core of the female psyche, exposing it layer by layer In her searing, candid style as no other writer of the Indian subcontinent, male or female, has done before or since. She leaves out very little. Relationships of women with each other within the sphere of the extended family, the dynamics of a nascent female identity. as it reveals. itself in relationships between young girls grappling with sexual urges In an environment dominated by a female presence, relationships between women and men, the connection between women and their social and political milieu there is hardly any aspect of female experience that Chughtai does not draw upon in The Crooked Line. The narrative, drawing heavily on Ismat Chughtai's own experiences as does most of her other fiction, revolves around the experiences of Shaman, beginning with her birth as the tenth and youngest child in a middle-class Muslim family where traditional mores and cultural constraints maintain an oppressive hold on the lives and behaviour of all its members. But the narrative functions only as a vehicle whereby Ismat Chughtai exposes the social cultural conflicts and the psychosexual determinants that govern the development of female consciousness.

It is important to note that the subject of women's lives had often been taken up by Indian writers before Ismat Chughtai appeared on the scene. An example is Mirza Ruswa's Umrao Jan Ada, a classical Urdu work of the late 1800s in which the narrator/ protagonist is a beautiful courtesan who is also a gifted poet with a mind of her Own. One of Urdu's earliest novels, Nashtar (The Surgical Knife), written by Hasan Shah in 1790, centres on the life of Khanum Jan a dancing girl who also appears to be well versed in the traditions of classical literature. Another massive three-part novel, Goodar ka Lal (A Jewel Among Rags), written In the 1920s by a woman who merely called herself Walida Afzal Ali (Mother of Afzal Ali), focuses on the value of education for women by drawing parallels between the lives of Mukhtar Dulhan who has little education and is doomed to failure until she breaks out of her conservative mould, and Mehr Jabin, who is well educated, sophisticated and progressive. In addition, there was the work by such women writers as Hijab Imtiaz Ali, who created romantic, melodramatic storylines and larger-than-life characters, but who did attempt to approach the subject of women's lives in a new and innovative manner. However, it was Ismat Chughtai who, fearlessly and without reserve, initiated the practice of looking at women's lives from a psychological standpoint. This brings me to the interesting parallels that one can see between 'The First Phase' in The Crooked Line and the section titled 'The Formative Years: Childhood' in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's pioneering work on female sexuality which appeared in 1949, four years after Chughtai's novel. As a matter of fact, there are certain portions in Chughtai's novel that seem to be fictionalised prefigurations of Beauvoir's description and analysis of childhood playacting and fantasy; it seems as if Chughtai and Beauvoir were drawing on a common source. In both works, feminine experience is explored from childhood through puberty and adolescence to womanhood, these being the stages in the development of a sense of self that finally results in an acceptance of sexual impulses and subsequently leads to the awareness of a sexual identity. In the first chapters the baby Shaman forms a strong attachment to her wet-nurse Unna; she fondles and caresses Unna and, later, after Unna is wrenched away from her she develops a dependence on her older sister Manjhu and feels intense jealousy when she has to share her with another child, in much the same way that Beauvoir sees that the girl 'kisses, handles, and caresses ... in an aggressive way ... feels the same jealousy ... in similar behaviour patterns: rage, sulkiness ... and they resort to the same coquettish tricks to gain ... love .. .' (Beauvoir, 268). While playing with her doll, Shaman pretends to be the mother and, like Beauvoir's girl, takes to 'dressing her up as she dreams of being coddled and dressed up herself ... [and] by means of compliments, and scoldings, through images and words, she learns the meaning of the terms pretty and homely ... ' (Beauvoir, 279). With unselfconscious ease and never losing her grip on the narrative technique, Chughtai actually reveals, bit by bit, the process that determines a woman's role in society, thereby bringing credence to Beauvoir's claim that a woman 'is not born, but rather becomes, a woman' (Beauvoir, 267).

In the early chapters of The Crooked Line we see how women, unempowered in a man's world and unable to govern their own destinies, develop a flawed and second-class mode of empowerment within the confines of their limitations and begin to oppress other women; we see clearly how some women, quite unselfconsciously, often naively, participate in the perpetuation of the tradition of oppression, how they can cruelly cut down another female just as society cruelly cuts them down. One example is Shaman's oldest sister Bari Apa, who, widowed a few years after her marriage and having returned to her parents' house with two young children, has relinquished the joys of living in keeping with the demands of convention, 'had annihilated her femininity for the sake of her father's honour', even though she is still young. Frustrated sexually and emotionally, lacking proper status in society, weakened in her traditional role as wife and mother, she now seeks a scapegoat and finds it in the person of her youngest sister Shaman who, unlike her, seems to have no regard for any kind of convention.

Taking us through some of the most brilliantly written pieces about childhood fixations and fantasies, Chughtai focuses on Shaman's emotional deprivation in a house filled with siblings, nannies, servants and a mother and father. These feelings, induced by her mother's aloofness and later heightened by her traumatic separation first from her wet-nurse Unna and then her older sister Manjhu, and the rejection she experiences at the hands of her oldest sister Bari Apa, convinces her that she is fated to remain unloved. Shaman's rebellion against all that is considered proper and 'nice' further complicates the situation. As a matter of fact, her birth is 'ill-timed'; with her early arrival she surprises and disappoints her mother whose 'longstanding desire to send for the English midwife came to naught'. And the 'howl' with which she makes her appearance puts fear into the hearts of her older sisters and others who happen to be around, and marks the first sign of mutinous behaviour. Bari Apa finds it easy to make Shaman the target of her own discontentment and sense of defeat in the face of unrelenting social standards. She badgers and torments her young sister, attempting at every step to draw comparisons between Shaman's ineptness and her own daughter Noori's superiority, continuing with Shaman's belittlement in mean and nasty ways until Shaman comes to hate her and, totally unsympathetic to Bari Apa's 'stifling of her own desires', she begins to think of her as a 'snake' and 'would not have minded at all if Bari Apa decided to sell herself. Bari Apa in turn has been treated badly by her mother-in-law, who, when her son was living, used every opportunity to make her daughter-in-law as unhappy as she could, her efforts largely aimed at keeping her out of her son's bedroom. And so the cycle of oppression feeds on itself among all the females in this household.

In her effort to seek and define connections between culture and female experience, especially in the middle-class Muslim societies she often writes about, Chughtai incises and dissects custom and ritual with a keenly discerning eye, and for this reason her fiction can also be read as ethnography. Every ritual and every custom is decoded, in a wonderfully clever and seemingly artless manner, to reveal its psycho-social content: connotation is laid bare along with denotation. Wedding rituals are one example of the manner in which repressed female sexuality expresses itself vicariously. As young girls playing wedding games with their dolls, Shaman and Noori happen to be spectators at a wedding in the neighbourhood in which they come face to face with rituals and customs in an environment dominated by women. The only male present in this instance is the bridegroom. The shy bride is covered in dupattas and the groom, reticent and bashful, 'happily' licks kheer from her palm while 'the women tittered merrily at every lively ceremony imbued with innuendo' and 'Shaman too found herself in the grip of a strange longing' while 'Noori insisted that they go to the storage room and play the wedding game right away'. Later, young, unmarried girls are shooed away while 'like flies, women were glued to the windows and the chinks in the doors' during another ceremony in which 'a few, fun-loving females were taking active part'. Interestingly enough, all this time 'husbands and children waited impatiently at home'. Here, in this world, women undoubtedly reign supreme.

In another powerful scene which dramatically illustrates the rites of passage, Shaman and Noori, quite unselfconsciously and altogether by accident wander into the realm of gender awareness. The rag doll on which the girls have been practising wedding ritual is threadbare and worn. At their request Bari Apa cuts out a nose from a cotton swatch to put on its face, makes fingers from a nose from length of cord and attaches them to the doll’s arm stumps, and further embellishes the doll by adding a long braid intertwined with a colorful ribbon. But something is missing. In the course of a game later two girls secretly stuff the doll’s vest with tiny cotton balls and they ‘felt such shame, they couldn’t even look at her’. The breasts turn the doll into a ‘woman real and alive’. Unfortunately their secret is exposed, Bari Apa tears out the breasts and the vest and, in a gesture that graphically sums up the repression endured by young girls, stitches up the doll's shirt at the waist. But a lesson had been learnt. 'From that day on, they lost interest in the doll. To them it now looked like a bundle of rags with a triangular piece of cloth on its face instead of a nose, and cords dangling from the palms instead of fingers.' It is not at all surprising that these lines come at the end of 'The First Phase' in the novel.

Moving along in a narrative pattern somewhat akin to a Jane Eyre format, a novel which Shaman confesses 'affects her the most', the action shifts from Shaman's home to the school hostel where, like Jane, Shaman experiences deep friendships for the first time. But here the resemblance between Bronte's romance and Chughtai's novel grows dim. Chughtai's account of Shaman's life in school is a thorough, extremely frank and often blunt exploration of the different levels of friendship that exist between the girls; Rasul Fatima's endless and pitiful fawning and her secretive, nightly physical advances repel and sicken Shaman, but only a short time later Shaman herself experiences similar feelings for the beautiful Najma only to be rebuffed because Najma and Saadat, who happens to be Shaman's roommate, are already bound in a jealously guarded relationship. Although bewildering and unfathomable, the strong sexual desires that govern these relationships cannot be disregarded either by the characters in the novel or by the reader. However, one must remember that Ismat Chughtai Was not out to shock or titillate. As with her story 'Lihaf" ( The Quilt') she undertakes an intricate exposition of certain aspects of female sexual experience as an essential part of her narrative. She is not interested in polemics or in presenting weighty solutions; rather, she is interested in telling a story and telling it effectively, and it is essential to her story and the development of her character that she provide the reader with an account of Shaman's relationships as she matures and journeys towards womanhood, which she does without resorting to innuendo or awkward insinuation.

We next meet Shaman in college. Here, she comes face to face with feelings, both sexual and emotional in nature, that determine her new relationships in ways she had never imagined before. Motivated unconsciously by her intense need for a strong father figure, she develops powerful feelings for her friend Prema's father, a charismatic man who showers affection on Shaman, and mistaking these feelings for love Shaman suffers a terrible jolt. A year later she meets Iftikhar, the careless young freedom fighter who is worldlywise and cynical, and driven again by similar feelings heightened this time by a new sexual awareness, she is swept up by a maelstrom of deep and stirring emotions she cannot fully understand or accept. Clearly a sexual attraction exists between them but, conditioned to deny the force of such feelings, Shaman sublimates the emotions Iftikhar arouses in her, relegating her relationship with him to the realm of the platonic, the nonsexual. Next, overwhelmed by the physical attraction she experiences for her classmate Satil, she tries to justify it by attributing her sentiments to Satil's overpowering sensual overtures, going so far as to suggest that he is like a male prostitute who calmly waits for 'fruit to fall off a tree'. Unlike Alma, Shaman's rebellious, daring friend who finds herself embroiled in a relationship she later regrets deeply, Shaman refuses to succumb to her strong, passionate feelings for Iftikhar, nor does she allow her feelings for Satil to become apparent. In a society where women are not rewarded for craving independence, both Alma and Shaman are tragically doomed, and worse stilI, Shaman cannot feel loved. But, although her emotional machinery is rusty, making it nearly impossible for her to sustain a loving, physical relationship with a man, at college she does succeed in emerging from the shell of self- deprecation as she becomes aware of the 'hidden embers ofrebellion and self-reliance' and is dazzled by the 'radiance' of this 'new Shamshad'.

Unfortunately, by the time she meets and marries Ronnie Taylor, an Irish Army captain who is a friend of Alma’s, the passionate side of her nature has been corroded by years of denial and disappointment. She has begun to feel she is a rock on which nothing will take root. Set against the turbulent times of India’s struggle for independence from the British Raj, the romance between Ronnie and Shaman assumes larger meanings, not only for them but also for the reader. Breaking with tradition once more but lacking meaningful direction, Shaman finds herself struggling to stabilise a pitching boat that has been cast on uneven waters. She and Ronnie fight constantly. Their inability to come to terms with the differences in the 'colour of their skins' eventually shatters whatever hope there might have been for the relationship to develop and mature; like the British and their colonised subjects, who can no longer see eye to eye on anything and must end their relationship, Shaman and Ronnie too struggle to be free of each other. Analogous to the political tussle plaguing India, their struggle also suffers from doubts, confusion and despair and, like India, Shaman must grapple with the pain of rebirth and impending independence, She finally does achieve peace and independence, but, much like her nation in the throes of labour, not without a cost.

Stylistically, The Crooked Line provides a sampling of the many qualities that characterise Chughtai' s short stories: an energetic and robust diction laced with unique examples of the begumati zuban (the speech patterns used specifically by the ladies of the house); picturesque, vibrant imagery; fast-paced narrative; plausl.ble, lifelike characters; a sharp piercing wit; an unself-conscious cynicism; an uncommon courage to speak one’s mind it’s all there. In addition one can not fail to notice that many of Ismat chugtai’s short stories seems to be germinating in The Crooked Line. The character of Bari Apa and her circumstances are reminiscent of the young Qudsia Bano in the novella Dil ki Duniya (Realm of the Heart), whose husband has abandoned her in favour of an English wife and who is waiting out the days of her youth at her parents’ house. The young boy Ajju, called Aziz in the novel after his amazing transformation and whom Shaman so despises, is with only slight variations unmistakably Kallu in the story of the same name, while the visit the Chacha and Chachi accompanied by their eligible son Abbas Mian, all of whom are elaborately entertained by the family's calculating, conspiring older women obsessed with matchrnaking brings to mind Chautht ka lara (The Wedding Suit). The autobiographical content in The Crooked Line appears to have a direct connection with Kaghazi Hai Perahan (The Papery Raiment), an early autobiography by Ismat Chughtai. We see Alma, her friend at the college in Aligarh, also Manager Sahib at the school in Aligarh where she was headmistress and who assumes a similar role in The Crooked Line, and there's Razia Begum too, complete with her antics, and a host of other colourful characters and happenings that have also found their way into The Crooked Line. In fact, the autobiography reads like detailed notes for The Crooked Line. This is a phenomenon linked closely with another aspect of Chughtai's writing; most of her work is openly autobiographical in nature, sometimes to such an extent that it is difficult to know where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Perhaps Ismat Chughtai's work is one of the best examples of an imaginative blending of fact and fiction and perhaps that is why we find everything she says so believable.

Chughtai also mentions in Kaghazi Hai Perahan that she modelled many of her 'heroines' after Rashid Jahan and that when she thinks about her own fiction she realises that she 'grasped her [Rashid Jahan's] frankness and her forthrightness', but she couldn't grasp 'all of her personality'. All the same, her debt to Rashid Jahan is indisputable. Chughtai hated 'the type of femininity that was characterised by weeping and complaints, that only produced children and forever mourned'. Rashid Jahan, on the other hand, symbolised for her the woman who had broken ties with the suffocating aspects of tradition and who was fearless and undauntedly bold, much like Ismat was to become. In the ultimate analysis, however, Ismat Chughtai was her own 'heroines', she was Shaman, she was a crooked line herself, someone who was, in the words of Beauvoir, 'taking charge herself of her own existence', a rebel who refused to yield to society's stereotypes about women, but who never wished to be anyone but a woman.


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