In the time of breaking of nations
Urdu writer Khadija Mastur's acclaimed novel casts an intimate eye on the lives of women during Partition
Khadija Mastur’s Urdu novel Aangan (1962) depicts the lives of those who endured the personal and emotional trauma of Partition. Recently translated into English by Daisy Rockwell as The Women’s Courtyard, it is not a typical Partition tale—for women make up the core of this story. As is the case in, for instance, some of Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories, women here aren’t merely bodies upon which the horrors of Partition are inflicted. Rather, they are oppressed, liberated and self-liberating at different times. In that sense, the novel is as much an indictment of a patriarchal system as it is a comment on the fragmenting of nations.
As the title suggests, The Women’s Courtyard unfolds largely inside the home, the domain of women, as it were. A family of Muslim women in purdah are confined to the domestic space either by men or by each other. Scenes rarely move beyond the space of the courtyard and, if so, only briefly into the bedroom. News of political events is quietly referenced through the arrival of newspapers and letters, or of a character from the outside world who ends up serving as a messenger. The restricted spatial scope of the novel is precisely what gives it magnitude. From within the courtyard, four generations of women must deal with men who are unable to provide for the family because of their political activities. The women must fight for an education, and seek love in a world where marriage is a pact of security, not passion. Each woman (even if of the same generation) seems to hold a morality different from the next. The continually shifting equation of the friction and solidarity between the women layers the novel with complexities—there are no easy character evaluations, no sure stances on the choice between India and Pakistan, or between wanting a liberated lifestyle and a secure family.
Aliyah, the focal character (though hardly the protagonist), receives an education with the permission of her Congress-sympathetic father. Later, when she moves with her mother to her uncle’s home, she continues her education, eventually studying at the university at Aligarh. With her intellectual knowledge, Aliyah stands apart from the other women in her life—mother, grandmother, sister, cousin. Yet, in spite of her pursuit of an education, she remains sympathetic to her mother’s desire for a stable and respectable home, her uncle’s (financially crippling) political aspirations, and her cousin’s confusion between a fanciful romance and succumbing to familial expectations. Even where Aliyah has what seems like a role model—her aunt Najma, who holds an MA in English—Aliyah asserts her own will. She doesn’t buy into the myth of intellectual superiority espoused by her aunt. Instead, she tries to help the various women and men around her, often just by being present, while attempting to also maintain her own emotional stability. Although a symbol of the complicated, independent woman of the new post-colonial world that is to come, Aliyah is by no means a saviour. Rather, her moral struggles, her negotiation of sexual trauma, as well as that of socially enforced silence make her the agent through which we come to understand the lives of a wide palette of characters. The pitfalls of marriage, the obscuring of sexual violence within the family, the muting of sexual agency, and the uncertainty of political movements, all play out through her observations of the world. The personal rings with the political in every way.
We know where the novel is headed from the beginning. Partition will come. And the family will have to decide between India and Pakistan. The way Mastur knots and frays the events leading up to that expected end, however, is compelling. Men depart the home, following differing political allegiances (from communist to Muslim League), leaving the women to deal with the mess within the home. The tragedy, though, is that the home ultimately remains answerable to men. In this compromised position of power, the women must reconcile their own political views and disappointments (even if they are deemed inconsequential by men) with the daily labour of keeping the family together. Beyond the revolutionaries martyring themselves and the men making geographical decisions for their families, the women seem to toil through the most thankless work behind Partition—the work of preserving in a time of destruction.
Rockwell’s translation is, in fact, a re-translation after Neelam Hussain’s in 2001. Re-translation isn’t a trend within South Asian literature and it is heartening to see an attempt here. Rockwell’s prose generally shows a light hand, though her choice to be faithful to Urdu word choices sometimes leaves us with idioms that seem a bit fluffy in English. Also, the English sometimes fails to capture the emotional register of the Urdu, so the novel, particularly with its women, moves in and out of seeming a tad hysterical. Still, the story doesn’t fail to captivate, feigning the smallness of a domestic portrait while quietly writing the saga of a family, its women, and its nations.