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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Crooked Line

by
Ismat Chughtai


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Crooked Line



Title: The Crooked Line
Author: Ismat Chughtai
Genre: Novel
Written: 1944 (Eng. 1995)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: The Crooked Line - US
The Crooked Line - UK
The Crooked Line - Canada
The Crooked Line - India
  • Urdu title: ٹیڑھی لکیر
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Tahira Naqvi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well done harsh and painstaking character portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
India Today A 30/9/1995 Rukmini Bhaya Nair


  From the Reviews:
  • "The Crooked Line is a pitiless document. In it, Chugtai rehearses, with the cool zeal of a sociologist, the consequences of absolute emotional deprivation. (...) Chugtai's masterstroke consists, in my view, in her reading of the entire politics of empire through Shaman's interior world of the Muslim female psyche. Shaman is the metaphor for the permanent damage done by servitude." - Rukmini Bhaya Nair, India Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Crooked Line centers tightly on Shamshad Fatima -- Shamman -- and begins with her birth -- already described, in the novel's opening line, as: "ill-timed". The tenth child in the family, she appears with: "a thunderous howl" but typically almost immediately finds herself, in this over-full family, treated as little more than afterthought -- though at least the young wet-nurse Unna is, initially, there to make sure she's not entirely overlooked.
       From the first, Shamman is clingy and willful, and marked repeatedly by those few that she is closest to abandoning her, beginning with Unna, who is sent away from the household -- leaving baby Shamman feeling: "as if she had been orphaned". Next it is her sister Manjhu that takes her under her wing, but when Manjhu is married off Shamman no longer can get the attention she is so desperate for from her. Next it is her widowed older sister Bari Apa who more or less takes charge of the child -- since their mother was fit only to perform one task: "and that was to give birth. She had no idea what came after that, nor did anyone feel the need to enlighten her" -- but for Bari Apa Shamman is just an anti-example to hold up to her own children:

     'If you don't bathe you'll have lice like Shamman does.'
     'If you don't study you'll remain illiterate like Shamman.'
     'You're being stubborn, like Shamman again.'
       Shamman is a wild child, and elemental, constantly getting impossibly filthy -- "Why did she love the earth so much ? She wanted to disappear in its bowels". It's hardly surprising: she can't really see a place for herself in the crowded household, and there is no one making any great effort to integrate her into the established framework; she remains -- angrily -- on the periphery. Decades later, when she is adult, someone poses the question that has by then haunted her whole life: "Tell me, does anyone really care for you ?" -- as she certainly believes that no one ever has, not for beyond brief, misleading moments.
       When she is sent to school she approaches it warily, suspicious of any generous gesture or any praise, or any shows of simple kindness -- being so unused to all these. She does settle in, finding support from a teacher, Miss Charan -- only to be left yet once again devastated when Miss Charan is sent away, real-life experience convincing her that: "the fault had never been Manjhu's. The fault lay somewhere with her, and she had to accept that now".
       At her next school, she manages to settle in; she matures, but it's also a hardening
Gradually her sorrows diminished, although she still did feel stifled. But now she had become accustomed to everything. Life had taught her to make compromises.
       She makes friends at school but, as so often it is the depths and intensity of her feelings that complicate matters, in a world ill-adapted to accommodate them.
       The world opens up to her as she grows up, and moves from her Muslim school to the American Missionary College. There are boys that flirt with her -- the brother of a classmate; another one's unlikely father -- as she moves from her childish navigation of the separation of the sexes to a more open if still cautious mixing and mingling.
       After getting her BA, Shamman takes a position as a headmistress of a provincial national school. Even -- or especially -- here, the novel's harsh tone still dominates, in describing the surrounding corruption and poor conditions, but there are also genuinely comic elements, as in the preparation for an official inspection, complete with the renting of books from a local bookseller for display (five hundred books loaned for ten rupees).
       Shamman's friend Alma has an illegitimate child, and Shamman can see herself in the boy who acts up just as she had at his age. Alma finds it difficult to show the boy simple maternal affection, but is devastated by his death; afterwards, Shamman returns briefly to her own family, only to be reminded again of how little place she seems to have there. Try as she might -- so also in watching over others' children -- she is never part of family, her own or any other.
       Politics intrude -- in Europe, Germany advances, into Poland, then France, then the Soviet Union. The independence movement is a constant in this India, but also only bubbling in the background; concern about Hitler and then also the Japanese, as well the personal all distracting from it too. Shamman does get involved in some political activity -- and with one of the revolutionaries -- but she also: "soon wearied of the non-revolutionary antics of the revolutionary organizations".
       After quitting her job, Shamman travels restlessly around India. When she meets up with Alma again, Alma introduces her to an Irishman, Ronnie Taylor, and they find in each other enough to seek some more lasting hold -- even if both are aware of their relationship's questionable foundations:
     'Ronnie, why are you so worried ? I'm not a child and neither are you. Why were we thinking of marriage ? Because both of us can do a lot for the world. Love has nothing to do with it.'
     'You'll never love me.'
     'I ... I've never been able to understand what love is and now I've stopped contemplating this question altogether,' she said quietly and Taylor peered at her face closely.
       They do get married, and they do get frustrated with each other in their marriage -- a union of ups and downs that includes some amusing bits, such as their disagreements about the movies they go see. Needless to say, the marriage is doomed; unsurprisingly its end comes as abruptly as so many of Shamman's relationships, Ronnie simply disappearing from her life.
       The Crooked Line rarely lets up. Shamman is not always miserable, but traditional sorts of happiness elude her; what marks her, and the novel, most strongly is an intensity of feeling -- from that first infant wail on. As she grows up, she seems more under control -- her outbursts and her lashing out become rarer -- but underneath simmers the same disappointed dissatisfaction. As one person diagnoses:
I know you're beyond any real feeling. Your ego has been kicked so many times it's transformed into a shameless lump of clay. Because so much has been snatched from you, you now pick up everything and throw it away yourself.
       Yet The Crooked Line does not feel defeatist. Shamman's inner -- and often outer -- rage seethe on -- and sustain her, and much of the narrative. It makes for an odd and in many ways very dark novel, but not one that collapses into its own sadness.
       Chughtai's powerful prose and unrelenting pushing on in this packed narrative make for a compelling story. Shamman is so defined by her circumstances -- of family, religion, culture, society, and history -- and yet Chughtai's uncompromising focus on her protagonist means the novel doesn't seek (or need) to (over)explain these. So, for example, important characters such as Shamman's parents barely figure in the story's action at all; beside Shamman, there's practically no room for anyone else, with those that do figure significantly in her life also generally only doing so ever so briefly.
       The incidental politics comes closest to rising to the fore -- interestingly enough, especially the German advances in Europe, a distant threat that Chughtai nevertheless recognizes as significant. The Indian independence movement, and some of the notable events surrounding it in those times, are less closely considered but also loom over the latter parts of the story -- with Chughtai slipping in the occasional broader observation, as when she has Alma point out:
Gandhi ji tried to free us from bondage and what did we do ? We turned him into a Mahatma and started worshipping him. The intense national fervour was focused on the meaningless adoration of a god.
       (Recognizing that such observations are out of keeping with most of the novel, Chughtai wryly observes: "Alma had been transformed into a philosopher while strolling on the railway platform".)
       A sledgehammer of a novel, The Crooked Line is both vibrant and oh so bleak, packing in so much -- each of Shamman's relationships, regardless of how brief, is conveyed with all its lasting weight and significance, but often just in a few sentences or paragraphs -- and snowballing on and on to achieve its cumulative weight.
       An impressive work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 November 2019

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Links:

The Crooked Line: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Urdu-writing author Ismat Chughtai (عصمت چغتائی) lived 1915 to 1991.

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© 2019 the complete review

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