The Women’s Courtyard is circumscribed by the borders of the courtyard, both in action and worldview. Situated in the turbulent – and significant – decade of the 1940s, it provides an inverted perspective on the Partition; Aliya’s aangan, or courtyard, is removed from what might be expected of a partition novel: it contains little, for example, of blood and violence, rape, genocide or murder. The Women’s Courtyard is conspicuously empty of the political ponderings and large national questions that played out, typically, in the arenas of men. Instead, it gives expression to the preoccupations of the women in the courtyard, fighting different battles with loud voices.
The novel follows a Muslim girl, Aliya, and her family, about and around the climax of the independence struggle. Here, the family is the nucleus. The narrative acquaints the reader gradually with the once-powerful grandmother, the eloped aunt, the bastard uncle, the loyal servant woman, and so on, until we realize that this is the structure that governs the lives of the women in the courtyard, while the Congress and the Muslim League grapple in the remote distance. The reader, initially thirsting for news about the national struggle raging on the street, gradually realizes that Aliya, Aunty, and the residents of the courtyard are tethered hopelessly to their own problems of life and death.
This is not to say that the Partition passes them by. The pages of this novel are scarred heavily by the upheaval ravaging the nation; but it is all-too-easy to tune in to the national drama and sideline the voices of home. The quiet brilliance of Khadija Mastur consists in this very balancing act: The Women’s Courtyard speaks within the world of courtyard in the raw-red backdrop of the independence struggle. Mastur provides a fresh, honest angle on the much-sung lore of 1947.
The Women’s Courtyard is an experience in suffocation. Restricted geographically as it is to the home, its action is also contained within the strict religious and social framework of a rigid Muslim family. There is a purdah, literally, between Aliya and the rest of the world; the reader can observe, close-up, the social mindsets that keep it in place. This book is full of the insidious violence of the inside: while the men in the book, notably Aliya’s father, uncle and cousin, wage politics, get beaten up, and go to jail in the unseen outside, their families back home are forced to wait in deteriorating conditions, trying desperately to hold up the social structure that confines them. Mastur constructs an entire system of violence before our eyes, without shoving it in our faces.
The phantom of sexual violence also haunts the pages: two girls commit suicide at the hands of their respective lovers, and Aliya is forever on edge due to the advances of her cousin, even in the supposed safety of the aangan. This, too, is written quietly, unexceptionally, normally. Even as the women finally speak, they are constrained, by either the men around them, or each other. That is, Mastur gives the stage to her female characters, but tells the truth about them: they, too, are culpable.
Mastur’s critique of the patriarchy is natural. It does not poke or provoke. It feels like a story that one has heard somewhere, sometime, but not listened to; it is a story that is simply the truth, and, much like the patriarchy, a story that slowly suffocates.
Aliya is not a feminist heroine. At least, not conventionally so. The reader might look to the protagonist to be cognizant of the oppression and the injustices vocalized in the novel, but Aliya, though intelligent and introspective, is also a piece in the systemic setup. Mastur handles her feminism with grace.
The book traces Aliya’s maturation, initially through her memories of her past. The reader learns that while Aliya is bred in a system that, for instance, cuts her off from political discussions, she has a delicate strand of independence that allows her to be Mastur’s feminist mouthpiece. Aliya identifies the traditional romantic legends fed to her sister as a patriarchal tool of perpetuation, although she had once been enchanted by these very tales. She knows not to succumb to her own romantic feelings towards her harasser cousin Jameel, even when pointedly nudged in that direction, because she has learnt (although not explicitly) that marriage and love will ‘ruin her’, in her own words. This internal conflict is tastefully written. Mastur introduces elements of traditional romance between Aliya and Jameel: the moonlit terrace, the nightly encounter, the wordless tension, and later, the flower in her hair, almost resigning the reader to a ‘happy’ ending; but Aliya resists all of them. Aliya is aware, finally, that a stiff salary package is her only hope for peace.
Despite this, Aliya is not, in the general sense, a feminist heroine. She does not protest Chammi’s forceful marriage to a man she has never seen, and conspires via co-operation. She does not articulate her protests against the injustices that she does identify: she only cries ‘tears of rage’ upon Safdar’s manipulation of her sister, and she harbours an endless and uncritical respect towards her male elders, while often mentally castigating her mother and aunt. Nevertheless, the novel itself is undoubtedly a slab of feminism. Mastur traces the arduous and awkward toddler stages of feminist thinking in, perhaps, an average twentieth century woman: Aliya can comprehend certain patterns of injustice but is blind to others; she speaks sometimes, and is mute others. She draws the reader into the system along with her. Mastur demonstrates the difficulties of purveying the aangan critically from within it.
Loss, Longing and Partition
The Partition (controversially) is quite a benevolent actor in Aliya’s story. Following her mother to Pakistan, she becomes the breadwinner of the house, and takes up the reins in her own life, finally, without the overcast shadows of elderly male figures. When Safdar, who has long faced discrimination in society because of his low birth, makes a surprise re-appearance, she is free to offer him a place in her house and her heart, and also to refute both later on, and say, ‘I’m not getting married’. This is the flipside of the disorder wreaked by the Partition, usually neglected in deference to its violence. Mastur suggests, rather covertly, that for those who were spared from its brutality, the disruption that ensued also liberated some people trapped in an oppressive tradition.
Aliya, however, is far from happy at the denouement. The war for independence hardly leaves her unscathed; she has lost her father and uncle, and is separated, finally, by the Partition, from her remaining loved ones. As Safdar lets her down, her sense of disillusionment is telling:
‘Aliya felt as though she had travelled here from far off, through desert lands.
Flat-out exhausted. Thirsty for many lifetimes.
Please, could someone pour just a few drops of water down her throat?’
This is not a happy ending. As Daisy Rockwell says, Aliya faces an array of poor choices as a woman, even in liberation. Nearing the conclusion, however, Aliya increasingly spends time outside the house (though the book does not portray those scenes); she stops wearing purdah, and it seems, perhaps, as though she has finally breached the boundary of the courtyard that has oppressed the book so far. This is the real victory, although it, too, is understated and uncertain. In the background, we must not forget, a nation has been wrenched apart. Millions of people have been slaughtered and everyone, including Aliya, pays the toll. Among the many limits that were transgressed, however, Mastur tells us of one: i.e. Aliya steps out of the courtyard.
While Daisy Rockwell’s translation might occasionally cause friction, she picks up on Mastur’s unembroidered style in English, and successfully delivers pace, simplicity and depth. It is true, perhaps, that Courtyard might have been a more fitting translation of the original title Aangan, in terms of preserving its emphasis. To specify that the courtyard belongs to women seems to be a questionable choice on most accounts. Overall, however, Rockwell is competent with Urdu idiom; her translation, likewise, tides us over.
Simplicity is the varnish of The Women’s Courtyard. The book leaves unanswered the question of who has won: Chammi has won her Jameel back home, and is exalted, and Aliya has won her independence and is full of despair. Mastur sticks no morals down our throats; she simply tells a story, and asks, perhaps, some questions.
Book Review: The Women’s Courtyard, Khadija Mastur, translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. Penguin.
Niyati Bafna is a second year student of English and Computer Science at Ashoka University. She translates from Hindi, blogs original work at The Fountain Pen, and enjoys solving cryptic crosswords.