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The Crooked Line.

Ismat Chughtai (1915-91), who was educated at Aligarh Muslim University, was affiliated with the Progressive Movement brigade in the 1940s and later turned away, like several others. She made a significant if shocking impact as a woman writer on contemporary literary sensibility with her short story "Lihaf" (The Quilt), and then with her first two short-story collections, Choten and Kalian. Her outspoken, obsessive, and rebellious treatment of material that pertained even to unconventional themes both titillated and outraged a readership brought up on instructional and conformist writing modes then generally prevalent. Still, she was a success; the culture around her appeared to want more of it as it came along, and there was at least the example of Rashid Jahan in front of her. Energetic and prolific throughout her life, she managed to produce several collections of short stories, novels, plays, and filmscripts in addition to following a career in school administration, raising a family, and acting as the co-grande dame (alongside Qurratulain Hyder) of Urdu literature in India.

First published in 1944, The Crooked Line still stands out among her novels and also in the company of those by her contemporaries like Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, and Aziz Ahmad; and, being similar to many of her short stories, it seems to contain the matter and the method of many of those that appeared after its publication and occasionally called for a comparison with Manto.

The age had just discovered realism, Freud, and the individual. Thus Shamman duly undertakes fashionable middle-class learning. Chughtai focuses mainly on the personality of this female individual and her world, tracing Shamman's inner development and social existence in exuberant detail, from childhood to middle age and maturity, drawing on the people the author knew personally as well as on some autobiographical material. The home, the women's particular precinct, the larger social world, and even the political counterfoil are the spaces in which Shamman's character is unfolded: living among Muslims, Hindus, Christians, et cetera, and between Indians and the British, or those midway. Chughtai creates numerous interpersonal scenarios for her protagonist so as to resolve the intellectual and emotional contradictions of all her characters, who live and act (here as in her other works) just so and expose the hidebound mores of an effete society.

The modern, emancipated outlook has the latter on trial here; and there is much psychologizing of Shamman from early on; as a child, "She would scoop up some sand in her fist and hold it lovingly against her stomach. She wished she could take all of the world's mud and collect it under her tongue, mix it with her spittle and then let the viscous curds glide down her throat." The rest of the paragraph elaborates on desire, frenzy, and its subsiding. The attachments formed with women and men go about the same way. In the moment of supreme self-possession at the end, when she has found herself in the "well-lit ... isolation of her quarters," following the break-up of her relationship with her white husband Ronnie, the lonely happiness of her state is quite ambiguous. Still, the arrival at this point of self-realization is important.

Even the tide of the book is meant to evoke a psychobiological innuendo. Chughtai's narrative is dramatic and rapid; the dialogue has both a colloquial richness and piquancy. The narrator's language is not much differentiated from the character's, but this may be so because the "women's world" is not seen as unrelated to other spheres - the colonial politics of India, race relations, folk fallacies, and social divides made the worse for political folly and civilizational inadequacy. As if foreshadowing the nonfictional Nirad C. Chaudhuri and V. S. Naipaul, Alma says to Shamman, "This darkness exists in our blood.... This blood, this Hindustani blood, has turned black."

The very fine and fluent translation by Tahira Naqvi retains the idiomatic flavors of the original. She rightly emphasizes gender in her introduction, stating that the modern novel in Urdu, in both India and Pakistan, is not to be seen only or mainly as a male genre. It may also be added that women's writing in Urdu goes back to the 1800s; as for a context, Muslim women's writing in India certainly did not end with the elegant penmanship of Gulbadan Begam in the sixteenth century.

Alamgir Hashmi Islamabad
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Hashmi, Alamgir
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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