The Hussain Alam House is about the changing life of Ayman’s (the narrator) house in the Hussaini Alam area of Hyderabad in Telangana.
Ayman speaks of each of the female relatives in her house who were dear to her and played a significant role in her life and her upbringing. These included her great grandmother, Qamar un Nissan or her Nanima; her grandmother, Meher un Nissan; her own mother, Naghma Soz; her sister, Mariam and her foster bua (which means a father’s sister, though in this case it was her grandfather’s adopted foster sister), Khudsia or Khalajaan.
A chapter is devoted to each of these members. By outlining their importance or her bond with them, Ayman also throws light on the house and the Nawabi culture they followed and on the festivals they celebrated. This also gives a small peek into Hyderabad’s old city and its lanes, buildings and bazaars.
The chapters speak of declining culture and fortune (and the decline in one is related to the decline in the other), of cheerful evenings of storytelling in the courtyard, of a mournful series of deaths, of arguments, secrets and the family drama within. The novel recreates a bygone era.
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“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.