The Crooked Line is by no means an easy novel to translate. Set in the folds of a large Muslim family, in the inner labyrinths of the cloistered world of its female members, it provides Chughtai with exactly the kind of turf that she rightly regarded as hers and hers alone. Few have the boldness and sensitivity to handle the curious mixture of suffocation and happiness possible within its ambience—a quality that makes Chughtai's world so vivid and lively.
At the heart of the novel is Shaman, the enfant terrible and the despair of her relatives. Often while reading The Crooked Line, one is reminded of George Eliot and The Mill on the Floss. Shaman is not unlike the intense Maggie Tulliver and her uneasy relationships, like Maggie's, are what Chughtai draws on. Like Eliot, Chughtai is at her strongest when she is rewriting autobiography and just as the most poignant and memorable part of The Mill is its first part, Shaman's childhood provides Chughtai with the bedrock of her narrative line. With a frankness unheard of in those days, Chughtai is able to present Shaman's rebellious nature as the mind of a hyper-active and intelligent child who will not be satisfied with the lies that adults tell. With the same innocence that uncovered the seething passions of the begum under the quilt in Lihaf, Chughtai reveals the murky darkness of the world behind the purdah. The widowed Bari Apa's frustrated sexual longings, Unna's robust romp in the hay with her lover and her ignominous dismissal, Manjhu's rejection and neglect of Shaman after her marriage and her mother's unending pregnancies—nothing is hidden from Shaman's (or Chughtai's) all-seeing and questing gaze. Yet Chughtai is never vulgar, her refined 'begumati zaban' probes instead the games children play—dolls' weddings, doctor-doctor—to bring before us a vision of a young Muslim girl's coming of age.
In college and later in life, through her various encounters with love and many kinds of loving, Shaman is revealed to us as a strong, independent and rebellious young woman. But unfortunately, like Maggie, Shaman is punished, not rewarded for this. Then comes a disastrous marriage with an Irishman and with it some fine bit of writing by the nationalist Chughtai. Long before feminism and Simone de Beauvoir were available to women writers here, Ismat Chughtai had her finger on the pulse of a changing cosmos. Very much the homegrown modern archetype, Chughtai writes of the languishing females with empathy and the same zest as she does of her spirited heroine, but it is not at all difficult to see whom she admires more.
Chughtai belonged to an age which Nehru once described as the time when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, struggled to find utterance. Along with other spirited writers, she belonged to the Progressive Writers Association, a left-inclined cabal, that believed that art must not only entertain, but educate. Later, didactism was to creep in and destroy the movement unless you count the Sahmat group as its dying gasp. What makes Chughtai special is that nowhere does her art seem to have a palpable design on us. She is a feminist, an iconoclast, an atheist—yet how perfectly she knows not to offend. It is this quality in her writing that many impetuous and angry young men and women—even a Rushdie—can learn a thing or two from. This is what makes her particularly important to read.
In the portrait of Shaman, Chughtai uncovers with infinite delicacy and a rare frankness what has surely got to be an autobiographical picture. One of her earlier novels, The Crooked Line has within its cast the embryos of several characters who reappear in later works and are detailed there to wrest those hidden depths that elude Chughtai here. Some sound like her, some like friends and family. In her excellent introduction, Tahira Naqvi endorses this, saying "that in the ultimate analysis Chughtai was her own 'heroines': she was Shaman, she the crooked line herself", who never bowed to the demands made of her by her social world and who chose to be a woman on her terms and in her own way.