Reading Race and Gender in ‘Mummy’ and The Crooked Line: How Writers on Marginality Represent Anglo-Indian Women byDr. Dolores Chew©(1)
Literary works are key when approaching issues of history and identity. Not so much for factual content, but for what they provide in terms of ideology and aspects of subjectivity. One constant in Anglo-Indian Studies, (and definitely in my own research) has been the literary representation of the Anglo-Indian. Revisionist work in this area, concentrates on how these representations were constructed. My earlier work has been concerned with this – tracing the historical origins of such representations, especially as they relate to Eurasian/Anglo-Indian women. It is a sorry picture that has been painted, one that elicits indignation, revulsion or just plain outrage from the community. And these representations continue ad nauseum. Most recently, Keith’s (D’Cruz’s) work, on that pathetic film Cotton Mary, foregrounds some of our concerns.
With this essay I bring what I describe as a breath of fresh air(2). Once more, the topic is gender representations of Eurasian/Anglo-Indian women, but there the similarities with what we have come to expect end. The two writers I am concerned with at the moment are Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) and Ismat Chughtai (1915-1992). More specifically, I am concerned with one of Manto’s short stories, "Mummy"(3) and some of the characters and notions about race that appear in Chughtai’s Crooked Line(4).
Both works were originally written in Urdu, by writers who were culturally Muslim. Manto is considered one of the most outstanding Urdu writers of the twentieth century. Chughtai, one of the pioneers of women’s writing in Urdu, produced work in a feminist strain. Both writers knew each other well, but had a love-hate relationship(5). They shared the distinction of being charged, in pre-’47 India with obscenity, and were hauled before the courts. For Manto it was a badge of honour, for Chughtai, it was harassment she could have done without. They were part of the pioneering literary scene of their day, which was influenced by the Bolshevik Revolution, Russian and French writers, (Chekhov, Hugo), strong anti-colonial political foment – Jallianwala Bagh, Bhagat Singh, and the challenges to entrenched social, political and economic power. Manto for his part chose to publicly distance himself from the very influential Progressive Writers’ Association saying in his characteristic style that they made machines into poetry and poetry into machines! "The PWA denounced him as a ‘reactionary’, who was obsessed with sex and the seamy side of life, abuse he wore like a campaign medal on his chest (6)." Chughtai’s rebellion was a little more complex. She was always acutely aware that as a woman she was judged by another standard. The furore created by her story "Lihaaf"(7) made it the only one she regretted publishing. "She also talked openly of … sexuality in days when women were considered mindless, opinion-free objects of desire. She never [shied] away from voicing her views – on "relationships, men, love, sex, religion and tradition"(8) at any forum. Gender was an issue that both Chughtai and Manto tackled, though their concerns with the public’s response were different. As Manto said about Ismat, "She’s a woman after all."(9)
In bringing consciousness and context to a discussion of authorship we can see that the issues that Manto and Chughtai were concerned with were very different from most writers of their time and language. They were breaking new ground in terms of topic and style. Realism, challenging the status quo, hypocrisy, women’s struggle against the slow death of domesticity, were all taken up in their stories. Therefore it is unsurprising that when they wrote of Anglo-Indian women their take would be very different from the mainstream and the status quo. There is also the element of language (10). Would Urdu writers construct things differently anyway?
Let’s move on to look at these works. Manto wrote over 200 stories, plays and essays in his day. "Mummy" is one of his longest short stories, and he wrote it in one sitting. The central character, Mummy, is Mrs. Stella Jackson, who we are informed, is the widow of a World War I soldier. [There is no mention made of Mr. Jackson’s race.] She lives in Poona, where her home is the centre of social life for a group of young people. There is racial difference along gender lines. All the men who congregate there each evening are Indian, from north and south and religiously diverse. All are connected to Poona’s film industry – they either work in it or aspire to do so -- actors, writers, film directors and music directors. They share a bungalow next door to Mummy’s, and live in typical bachelor style, consuming alcohol more than anything else, careless about housekeeping matters and robbed outrageously by their servant who himself is constantly drunk. Being connected to the film industry, they live insecurely, off advances and constantly borrow money from one another. All the women who come to Mummy’s home are Anglo-Indian. One woman works in a hair-dressing salon. It’s not clear what the others do to earn a living. Or perhaps they don’t.
It’s not clear whether Stella Jackson is a fictional character, because Manto writes in the first person and uses his own name throughout. She may be someone he did meet, or could be a composite of several women he knew. In the story, Manto gets to know Mummy when, on a visit to Poona with his wife, he runs into his old friend Chadda, one of the bachelor bungalow gang, who happen to be Mummy’s next door neighbours.
In his treatment of race and gender, at first Manto seems to present the ‘stereotype’. Mummy comes across as a procuress who runs a somewhat informal brothel. By presenting the views of various characters in the story, we get a sense of societal norms regarding sexuality. The reader is made aware that rules concerning cross-gender socializing are constantly being flouted. Manto seems to be sub-consciously aware of this, yet appears to expect it. Manto’s wife represents the voice of society. She immediately slots Mummy into the Anglo-Indian prostitute role. By the end of the story Mummy hasn’t changed but Manto obviously has.
What is noteworthy about the story in terms of gender representations, is that Manto makes clear that what happens openly in Stella Jackson’s drawing-room, the unabashed interaction between the sexes, happens in secrecy and with deceit in other communities, viz. his friend Harish Kumar the film director who constantly cheats on his wife with lovers, often film stars. All the men are aware of this and are party to his subterfuges. Because it is such common knowledge, one can assume that Harish’s wife also knows what is happening but goes along for appearances sake. Manto’s wife who passes judgment on Mummy does not utter any criticism of Harish. A sexual (and yes, racial) double standard prevails. By the end of the story, the lesson Manto learns is to go beyond superficial appearances. In the story, one of his first observations is of Mummy’s make-up, "so grossly painted that it hurt the eye". By story’s end, Manto goes beyond stereotypes to look at the person within. It is no longer important whether Stella Jackson is a procuress or not. She may be, she may not be. In fact the story ends with Mummy leaving Poona because the police were blackmailing her. As Chadda explained to Manto, "They offered to leave her alone if she would do their dirty work for them. They wanted to use her as a procuress, an agent. She refused. Then they dug up an old case they had registered against her. They had her charged with moral turpitude and running a house of ill repute and they obtained court orders expelling her from Poona (11)."
The police use the letter of the law to harass and blackmail Mummy, whose dealings are transparent. There is no attempt to veil with subterfuge and formality that men and women meet in freedom and without pretence in Mummy’s home. They enjoy each other’s company, flirt and may have affairs. The kinds of liaisons that Harish Kumar pursues are not scrutinized in the same way. For one, they are conducted in secrecy and for another, ethnic/racial mixing is not apparent (12). Mummy is vulnerable to gossip and the unwanted attentions of the law because she has violated the rules of a society where gender segregation, except within families was the norm in middle and upper class households. She had committed the sin of flouting this convention. Really, it was not so much what happened but the context and situation. In my earlier work, I have attempted to show how such characterizations emanated from culture difference and implied subordination by virtue of myths linked to notions of racial purity and mixing. This political and status-based subordination resulted in the differing standards and expectations of many.
What shines through in the story is Mummy’s openness, her position on sexual exploitation and her deep compassion. As Manto put it:
Her world was simple and beautiful and reassuring. Yes, there
was drinking and sex and a general lack of seriousness, but one
felt no emotional unease. It was like the protruding belly of a
pregnant woman; a bit odd, but perfectly innocent and immediately comprehensible (13).
What Manto succeeds in doing so well is forcing the reader to examine her/his biases and notions of morality. His story is the stone that shatters the mirror of societal hypocrisy, challenges the reader to ponder who is really immoral, demonstrates that there are double standards of sexual morality that cross race and gender lines but questions whether difference should be the reason for marginalizing and denigrating others. With "Mummy", Manto does what he always does so well, side with the marginalized and expose hypocrisy. He converts what would in polite society be considered flaws, into ideals worthy of emulation. Manto succeeds in accurately presenting the problem. His pre-occupations are not the action but the actors and space of the action.
Ismat Chughtai’s Crooked Line is a novel about a young woman, Shaman (nickname for Shamshad) who grows up in a large, very comfortable Muslim household in pre-Partition North India. Despite being surrounded by people, Shaman grows up emotionally deprived. Always rebellious, she is constantly seen as a trouble-maker by most in her family and a bad influence on the other children in the household. Shaman however is brilliant, and grows up to be a very intelligent woman, who always challenges the system – gender, class and political. Chughtai explores many issues in her biographical novel, among them female sexuality and agency. Through Shamshad, we perceive that Chughtai has learned that forthright, outspoken women are always put down and have to develop ways to cope, but often end up unhappy. Issues of race come up fairly often in the novel, often in the context of the nationalist struggle in India.
The reason I introduce the point is because Chughtai’s handling of race removes it from a colonizer/colonized dichotomy. The European man is not problematized by race. The protagonist goes beyond this division to engage with him in human terms. This underlying aspect is what also informs her relationship with Alma. This is soehting that again sets her apart. Race and ethnicity are not the essentializer we have come to see In other fictional representations of Anglo-Indians.
The protagonist’s views about white people and her contempt for Indians who regarded them as gods are explicitly stated. Ironically, Shaman realizes that at a personal level, she can be charmed by a white man to the point of marrying him. Though, perhaps the fact that Ronnie Taylor, the man she marries is Irish and not English is key. When Shaman is first introduced to Ronnie, her response is extremely negative and sarcastic.
With some reluctance she acknowledged the handshake. She didn’t
like the way Alma had introduced her. Alma was looking at Taylor
with such respect and adoration, one would think he was not an
ordinary white man, he was Bhagwan himself who had descended
into her home. Shaman hated the Hindustanis who felt elated when
they received the slightest attention from these white-skinned people.
they don’t know that the Englishman only socializes with them so he
can return to his country and surprise people by telling them that he
had observed and studied the Hindustanis so closely, and that
neither did they bite him nor did their dark colour muddy his whiteness.
he would show his compatriots their picture saying, "Here are the
savage monkeys who have been civilized by the English (14)."
Later, during one of their rows, Shaman snarls at Taylor:
And you think you’re very handsome? Your bleached, sick-looking skin,
Your rotting teeth, you monkey! (15) (p.365)
The relationship between Shaman and Ronnie is problematized by race, but much more so by Shaman’s independent spirit and her prickliness about any suspected attempts to curb it. Race is not the central issue. However in a study of race and gender, Chughtai’s fictional portrayal of an inter-racial marriage in India built on political awareness and feminist politics is quite remarkable for its time, and as far as I know, unique.
Running through the novel is Shaman’s relationship with Alma, who is described as a "Christian friend", whose appearance was "typically South Indian" (16). As so often happens, identity is somewhat grey here. Alma could be Indian, or Anglo-Indian (17). Culturally, definitely she could be the latter, one who, far ahead of her times has thrown in her lot with the Indians and has become India-identified in terms of the nationalist politics of the time. Alma is the main reason that I chose to write about Chughtai’s ideas of race and gender. Throughout the novel Alma is the person Shaman would like to be, her alter ego, totally uninhibited in expressing herself and living up to what she believes in an uncompromising manner. Alma is sociable and an easy mixer where Shaman is awkward and embarrassed. Alma is intellectually very sharp, where Shaman is insecure about voicing her opinion. Alma pays the price for this several times. She falls down, but gets back up again with courage and determination. And Shaman would like to be able to do this. At college, Alma gets pregnant with a student leader. She leaves the college and plans to have an abortion but eventually keeps the baby, who at first she hates, but then loves with a passion. When he dies at a young age she almost loses her mind, but eventually with Shaman’s assistance she recuperates and re-builds her life. Shaman’s and Alma’s stories are women’s stories, narrated with great sensitivity and understanding of the mores of their time. How challenging it was to be an intelligent, outspoken, sexually-aware, strong-minded woman. How women were constantly being beaten down and expected to play the droopy flower role. In Alma we find a female character of strength and integrity.
Shaman’s marriage to Ronny and her admiration for Alma demonstrates Chughtai’s freedom in exploring an identity not influenced by race or religion. And this is not some simple fascination with Westernism. The novel has characters whose lifestyle is western but who display social conservatism. Social radicalness was not bounded by race. Yet Shaman felt most comfortable with two people – a foreigner and an Indian Christian/Anglo-Indian, not because they were culturally and racially different (attraction of opposites) but because they said and did what they believed in. Again, as with Manto’s Mummy, we see glimpses of how hypocrisy, double standards and lack of honestry are factors that prevent some people from staying away from their own community. Chadda and Manto appreciated Mummy, and Shaman adminited Alma.
Alma is a strong woman, the foil to those characters who are socially marginalized and also in the traditional narratives of which there are so many, relegated to the fringes of the plot. Alma’s sexuality and her sexual life are presented without in any way being used to denigrate her. Shaman in fact would love to have a sex life. She feels deprived and frustrated because she is unable to find a satisfying situation and partner.
Nationalism plays a part. Alma is India-identified and if we can presume that the Crooked Line is biographical, then Chughtai must have encountered a character like Alma. This raises the interesting aspect that most representations are based on stereotypes and presumptions without real knowledge of the community and its members. In Alma we can find some of the independence of spirit we find in Victoria Jones of Bhowani Junction (18). John Master’s treatment is different. Victoria has an identity crisis. Alma does not. It is Shaman who is having one because of the kind of person she is struggling to be and the forces that are dragging her away from that direction.
Putting Stella Jackson and Alma together one gets almost two ends of the spectrum. The stereotype and the very common but unheralded ideal. As you read "Mummy", you can’t help squirming at times because Stella Jackson is so close to the caricature. When you encounter Alma you cheer with relief, "Finally a character who flies in the face of the stereotype." Yet if we do this, we fall into the trap we are so critical of. Rather, I suggest we take "Mummy" for what Manto intended her to be, a challenge to the readers to accept diversity, devoid of race, and yes, to some extent, class terms. This is what Manto does so well with all his writing. He forces us to confront our hypocrisies. He challenges us to shatter the complicity of the status quo. And not simply because there is caché to being an iconoclast, but because we inflict so much pain and suffering on others as a result. With Alma, in The Crooked Line I suggest we take a remarkable character who is able to challenge the accepted gendered norms and has the strength to hold onto her convictions. And finally, I suggest we popularize the heroines in "Mummy" and The Crooked Line.
(1) Dolores Chew was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She lives in Montreal and teaches at Marianopolis College and Concordia University.
(2) This work is still in its early stages and should be read accordingly.
(3) I have not been able to ascertain the date when Manto wrote this story. The translated version I use appears in Kingdom’s End and Other Stories translated by Khalid Hasan (New Delhi: Penguin, 1987). Manto has written about the socially and religiously marginalized and deals to a large extent with hypocrisy and double standards. As such, writing about an Anglo-Indian woman who is socially ostracized by some is not surprising. In fact another story in the same collection, "Mozail" is about a young Jewish woman in Bombay during the time of Partition. In this story also the main character, a Sikh man is somewhat shocked by the sexual openness of Mozail, just as Manto is initially shocked by Mummy.
(4) Terhi Lakir, written in 1943.
(5) See sukrita Paul Kumar and Sadique, eds., Ismat Her Life Her Times. New Delhi: Katha, 2000.
(6) Khalid Hasan, "Introduction". In Kingdom’s End, p.8
(7) "Lihaaf" ["Quilt"] published in 1942, alluded to a lesbian relationship between a rich begum whose husband neglected her in favour of young men and her maid.
(8) Joya Banerji, "Life Beyond ‘Lihaaf’". Biblio 6:7 & 8 (March-April 2001), p. 2.
(9) Tahira Naqvi, "Introduction". In The Quilt and Other Stories. Translated by Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S. Hameed. (London: Women’s Press, 1990), p. viii.
(10) And here I must admit I have more digging to do in terms of other Urdu writers of that time or even earlier and later. Did they write about Anglo-Indians – central to plot or even peripheral – and if so what were the characterisations.
(11) "Mummy", p. 220.
(12) The women Harish has extra-marital affairs with are film stars. Their ethnicity is not an issue worthy of comment.
(13) Mummy, p. 216.
(14) The Crooked Line, p. 302.
(15) The Crooked Line, p. 365.
(16) TheCrooked Line, p. 121.
(17) This may seem to be skating on thin ice. Particularly since in some circles these distinctions for many reasons have become so contentious. I have taken a fairly liberal interpretation looking at cultural rather than strictly racial identifiers. As such, Alma would fit the requirements of the Eurasian/Anglo-Indian woman from a cultural standpoint.
(18) John Masters, Bhowani Junction (London: M. Joseph, 1954).
Joya Banerji, "Life Beyond ‘Lihaaf’". Biblio 6:7 & 8 (March-April 2001)
Ismat Chughtai, The Crooked Line. Translated by Tahira Naqvi. New Delhi: Kali, 1995
_______. The Quilt and Other Stories. Translated by Tahira Naqvi and Syeda S.
Hameed. London: The Women’s Press, 1990.
Saadat Hasan Manto, Kingdom’s End And Other Stories. Translated by Khalid Hasan.
New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1987.
John Masters, Bhowani Junction. London: M. Joseph, 1954.
Sukrita Kumar Paul and Sadique, eds. Ismat. Her Life, Her Times. New Delhi: Katha, 2000