Guest Post by Arun Kumar
Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Movies and Passion for Books.
“These exalted humans are really something, she thought, when they don’t believe in God they even consider the very word ‘God’ to be false, but when they do come around to believing, they begin to see divinity even in the threshold beneath the feet of saints.”
Urdu novelist Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (originally published in 1962 under the title ‘Aangan’ and succinctly translated to English by Daisy Rockwell in 2018) is set in the backdrop of the final stages of the Indian Independence movement. But this isn’t a narrative that offers a familiar retelling of the political uprisings to break free from the British Raj or provides an account of the communally charged politics that lead to the trauma of Partition. That also doesn’t mean Khadija’s poignant literary creation is apolitical. The novel rather speaks of how a society that demands freedom from its colonizers is firmly bound to the rigid codes of class hierarchy and patriarchy.
The Women’s Courtyard, as its title suggests, revolves around ordinary Muslim women, confined to their house’s inner courtyard. They are largely cut off from the outside world and deeply embroiled in the narrow-minded cultural practices. Aliya, the young protagonist of the novel, dreams of breaking away from the chains of domesticity. She identifies the traditional romantic legends as the means to dis-empower women. Her skepticism about love is aroused after the suicides of her elder sister Tehmina and her best friend, Kusum, whose lives are overturned by the traditional narrative of romantic bliss. Aliya’s father and uncle are swept up under the ideological storm and the politics of freedom struggle so that they only exhibit aloofness when it comes to dealing with their family’s economic ruin.
Nevertheless, Aliya is a still forgiving towards these two family elders compared to the anger she holds for her mother. Amma, Aliya’s grandmother, the family’s dutiful servant Kareeman Bua all represent the role women play in perpetuating the patriarchal belief system. The shock of losing her beloved sister and the petty anger of Amma pushes Aliya to not get caught in the cloistered space, where only specific roles are assigned to women. Aliya adamantly rejects her good-looking cousin Jameel’s romantic advances, who writes mediocre poetry and pretends to not have manipulated or ill-treated another cousin in the household named Chammi. In a traditional narrative, we might expect Aliya to eventually accept Jameel’s ‘love’ or for the development of a romantic triangle. But Mastur cleverly sidesteps such expectations and brilliantly tackles Aliya’s disillusionment about the gendered society and its gendered ideas around love.
Aliya’s evolution or personal growth is distinctly separated into three stages: her childhood & adolescence filled with love and sense of togetherness in her father’s household; the family’s displacement to Uncle’s house after her father’s imprisonment, where Aliya keeps herself busy with her studies and books; and Amma and Aliya’s move to Pakistan, where she obligingly takes the role of breadwinner. And Unlike Najma aunty with an MA in English, whose education only perpetuates ignorance and apathy, Aliya is truly educated. But despite Aliya stepping outside often without purdah and getting empowered through education and employment, the questions remains whether she can truly be free in a communal society that continues to uphold an inflexible code of hierarchy?
Mastur doesn’t offer any vivid portrait of the freedom struggle or the Partition trauma which we usually associate with stories of sexual assault, migration and murder. She focuses on the more claustrophobic and congested atmosphere, where our heroine constantly fights against societal conventions. And these women of courtyard can’t really be fiercely political, since they are caught up under the social, religious dogmas. The power struggles in the domestic space, their restricted exposure to the world, and the dominant sexist gaze are not often perpetrated by men, but by women itself. While the adverse impacts caused on the family due to the men’s political participation and bloodshed due to partition is overtly visible, these injustices [on women] are cloaked under the shadow of traditions and familial set-up. The courtyard may belong to a bygone era, but the misguided thoughts which reverberate within that space could still be found in the contemporary society.
Eventually, it is Khadija Mastur’s simple yet compelling and deeply evocative prose that makes The Women’s Courtyard one of the most immersive novels I have read in recent times. Overall, the novel offers a multi-layered critique of patriarchy while refusing to submit itself to melodrama or other familiar conventions of historical storytelling.