What does Urdu Writer Ismat Chugtai have in Common with French Writer Simon de Beauvoir?
Book Review by Namrata
Title: The Crooked Line
Author: Ismat Chugtai (Translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2019
Narrating the tale of a lonely child called Shaman, the novel, The Crooked Line, by Ismat Chugtai is considered to be one of her finest works. Written is an extremely poignant and evocative manner, Shaman’s story takes us through her experiences of growing up as a woman in a conservative Muslim family.
Ismat Chugtai is regarded as one of the most rebellious and provocative women writers in Urdu and continues to be a luminary till date. The Crooked Line was originally published in 1945 and was translated into English fifty years later, after it was compared to The Second Sex (1949) by de Beauvoir for its strong portrayal of gender and politics. However, the two books are starkly different in their approach with The Crooked Line being a novel while The Second Sex is a treatise; though it has always been argued that the former could be semi-autobiographical.
“To begin with, her birth was ill-timed.”
These powerful lines announce the arrival of Shaman, the youngest child in a large and affluent family. In a way, they also set the tone for what is yet to arrive in the novel. Everything about Shaman is encapsulated in these lines — ill-timed, ill-mannered and ill-fated. Tracing her journey from her childhood to her old age, this story is beautifully layered with deepest desires, darkest secrets and emotions interwoven with the fragility of human relationships.
Born as the tenth child to her wealthy parents, Shaman is left to be tended upon by her wet nurse Unna. All through her growing years, Shaman continues to feel unloved, unwanted and uncared for. As a toddler, her mother was busy giving birth to children while fulfilling her duties as a wife and running the household. Just as Shaman gets emotionally attached to her nurse Unna, she goes away leaving behind a gaping hole in her heart. Unna is replaced by Manjhu, Shaman’s sister. Shaman grows fond of Manjhu and then, her marriage is announced. Again, Shaman is left wanting.
On the threshold of her teenage, Bari Apa, Shaman’s eldest sister, is widowed and comes to live with them with her two kids. Faced with constant comparison and callousness, Shaman is left with a deep sense of worthlessness which is further intensified when she is sent to hostel. Her constant efforts to move away from the hostile environment of her home and to rediscover herself are met with multiple roadblocks ultimately leading to failure, the title being synonymous with the numerous ups and downs in her life.
Witnessing various rituals and traditions of women at close quarters, Shaman grows up being confused about her sexuality. Gradually she begins to fill her emotional void by rebelling against everything that is told to her and is soon labeled as an unruly child. Her rebellious streak continues through her schooling, university and beyond when she marries an Irish Army Captain, Ronnie Taylor, much to the dismay of her staunchly religious family. Despite being aware of her needs and desires all the while, Shaman is unable to fulfil them. This further impacts her sense of self and leaves her broken. The open-ended climax is full of possibilities, left for the reader to imagine or interpret as they please.
The translator, Tahira Naqvi has done a brilliant job at capturing the subtle nuances in the descriptions and narrative to showcase an engaging read. Through Shaman’s story, Chugtai gives us a glimpse into the private lives of women and the multiple roles they fulfill, their relationship with each other and the men in their lives. Like in most of her works, Chug-tai draws heavily from her own experiences even in this narrative.
Witnessing how an individual is suppressed by societal norms is truly heartbreaking. A woman is always being asked to be everything but herself. A daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother — the roles expected from her are endless. She is asked to be all of this and much more. The characters Unna, Bari Apa, Manjhu, Noori, Prema and the protagonist Shaman seem extremely familiar and relatable as each one of them struggles with life in their own unique manner, reflecting different shades of a patriarchal society deeply instilled into their psyche.
Shaman’s story is about breaking away from the stereotypical expectations of society and carving a niche for one’s own self. The Crooked Line, like most of Chugtai’s works, depicts women beyond the confines of their homes. A compelling read, this book continues to be a stark reminder of how little has changed today for women as they continue to struggle to break-free from societal expectations.
Namrata is a lost wanderer who loves travelling the length and breadth of the world. She lives amidst sepia toned walls, fuchsia curtains, fairy lights and shelves full of books. When not buried between the pages of a book, she loves blowing soap bubbles. A published author, she enjoys capturing the magic of life in her words and is always in pursuit of a new country and a new story. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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