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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The Forgotten India

Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom, smile at at old, mildewed photos of one’s ancestors, open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books.

These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era, preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.

For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, Sunlight On A Broken Column celebrates the past – a harmonious and elite life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.

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‘Untouchable’ left me touched

‘Untouchable’ is a marvel of Indian fiction. Written by Mulk Raj Anand, it is not the regular kind of a book but rather a classic with deals with one of the worst evils of Hindu caste system-untouchability. Its written so sensitively that the book captures the reader immediately into its raw depictions and narration.

Taken from longitudebooks.com

The timeline of the story is only one single day. In that one single day, the novel follows the life of Bakha, a sweeper by birth and therefore an outcaste, an untouchable, who lives in an outcastes’ colony on the outskirts of the Bulandshahr. The discrimination he faces since the morning, the manner in which he deals with them and his reflections on many ordinary things are touchingly brought out by Mulk Raj Anand. In the morning, Bakha is abused by a priest who accuses Bakha of having touched him, later on Bakha is cast out of the temple, then he faces the wrath of a housewife because he sat on her porch. Later, a mother of an injured upper caste boy scolds Bakha for touching him and in the end, his own father’s reaction disgusts him. All these numerous forms of discrimination happen in only one day and are so intensely described that one thinks that 2 or 3 days have passed. I think that by using this technique, Anand wants to show the readers that just in one day Bakha has to bear so much injustice; so it is unthinkable how much endless discrimination he faces his whole life!

‘Untouchable’ doesn’t just simply question this problem of untouchability but also provides three solutions(which are mentioned in the preface) of which the last one is the most practical. This aspect is what makes the book stand out because it doesn’t merely represent a problem but aims to resolve it also.

The book definitely proffers an excellent look of an Indian society of pre-Independence era, how life functioned then. Its something we can’t imagine because our lives and our society is so vastly different from that. Its slightly slow paced as it gradually follows the events, thoughts meandering in Bakha through one single day.

Nevertheless, ‘Untouchable’ is hailed as a masterpiece and so it is. Its a great book and a must read for any one interested in Indian English Fiction or Literature.