Guest Post: The Women’s Courtyard – A Complex and Thought-Provoking Look at Feminity and Suffocating Traditions

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.


!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

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.

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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.

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An Opium Journey

Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

The Glass Palace

Taken from 43things.com

‘The Glass Palace’ written by Amitav Ghosh is a massive account of the lives of several unique, interesting people over the span of a century from about the late 1800s’ to the 1990s’.

The book’s size maybe daunting for many novella addicted readers but it is surely worth perusing. The book’s size should not be a deterrent for reading it because believe me it is one heck of an interesting read!

The story starts with an Indian, Rajkumar, who works in a food shop in Burma and parallel to this story runs the story of the King and Queen-Thebaw and Supalayat- of Burma and the latter’s maids, specifically Dolly. Rajkumar later on goes into the timber business along with Saya John, a close friend of sorts. Rajkumar tracks down Dolly, who had gone to British India with the exiled royal family of Burma. Rajkumar predictably finds her and they predictably get married. The story then superbly weaves itself around their lives as well as their children and other significant people of their lives like Uma Dey, who Dolly had met during her stay in India, Saya John’s son, Matthew; Uma’s sister’s kids-Arjun and Manju and Bela and many more myriad characters. Ghosh closely follows each person’s story but at no point does it get drab or boring. Ghosh takes us into the hearts and souls of each character, giving us intricate details of several emotions, several nuances and much more. The novel also deftly manifests how world events or incidents beyond one’s control affect individuals in a way that they can’t even imagine.

Ghosh uses simple short sentences and keeps it brief yet conveys the intensity of the  situation or the emotions quite marvelously. However at times he tends to run away with unnecessary descriptions that veers off from the actual story.

The best part of the book is that it is soaking, literally dripping with history/past. It brings alive an era gone by, how lives were interconnected even then, how even then the world was globalized! It is extraordinary to see the Burmese and Indian interrelations that operated at that time and how porous those borders were until the British took over.

‘The Glass Palace’ is a multicultural and family saga that stands out because of its beautiful depiction of human lives-their vulnerability, invulnerability, their courage, their emotions, their thoughts, their culture-with so much depth and sensitivity that is hardly seen in many books today. It draws the reader into the story, makes them feel like they are part of that era, that family, that life and culture.