‘A Promised Land’ review: Sajidah and her sisters

The book’s value is as much historical as literary, offering a woman-centric account of Partition and its turbulent aftermath

September 07, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Painful past: A re-creation of a jail cell at the Partition Museum in Amritsar.

Painful past: A re-creation of a jail cell at the Partition Museum in Amritsar.

A Promised Land opens with a scene which evokes the bleakest of Manto’s Partition short stories. At the Walton refugee camp in Lahore, an elderly man driven to despair by the abduction of his daughter endlessly screams and tears his hair. A young woman, Sajidah, who wants to find a way of offering him sympathy and compassion, is furious when a young male official from the Department of Rehabilitation taunts the old man: “‘Baba! Who is this daughter you cry for? That was no daughter, Baba! That was the most valuable of looted goods. Your screaming won’t bring her back. Your voice cannot reach her!”’

Sajidah wants to “slap the evil man across the face”. Instead, she ends up marrying him.

Never one’s own

This novel is Sajidah’s story: she is a woman of dignity and courage who achieves some happiness, but whose life is blighted by Partition and by women’s lack of agency over their own lives and bodies. She is not abducted in the sense of being snatched and taken away — the fate of tens of thousands of women amidst the trauma which so grievously stained the independence of India and Pakistan — but her fate amounts to much the same thing.

Sajidah is an only child; her mother is long dead; when her father dies in the camp, Nazim, the young official, insists on offering

her a home with his family. A young woman alone doesn’t have too many options. When Sajidah quickly reconsiders, she realises that there’s no way she can turn back — she has no means of leaving Nazim’s family home and nowhere else to go. Although Nazim’s offer of refuge is not altruistic — he clearly desires Sajidah — he offers no sexual threat. But his brother, Kazim, does and it is to escape the prospect of rape at the hands of one brother that she accepts the other brother’s marriage proposal.

In her new home, Sajidah strikes up a friendship with another woman the family has retrieved from a refugee camp. This is Taji, from a lower social class and less educated; she has become the household’s skivvy and Kazim’s sexual property. The entire family is complicit in Taji’s plight and helps organise the repeated abortions which ruin her health. Sajidah is enraged by this and directly challenges Kazim and his mother. But she can do nothing to end Taji’s ordeal.

While Nazim is portrayed as an idealistic and progressive proponent of the Pakistan movement, and is jailed for political reasons after independence, his brother develops into a corrupt, greedy, amoral bureaucrat who thrives in a new nation which, the author suggests, has lost sight of the values upon which it was founded. A Promised Land is a political allegory as well as an account of gender injustice.

Power play

When Sajidah, at the close of the novel, by chance comes across her childhood sweetheart, she discovers that he too has become a land-grabbing man-on-the-make. He delights not in reuniting with his old friend, but in the thought that she might give him privileged access to her powerful brother-in-law.

Khadija Mastur was herself one of the many millions who crossed the Radcliffe Line from east to west at Partition. She was born in Bareilly in U.P. 20 years before Independence but made her home in Pakistan. Her most renowned novel Aangan, published in English as The Women’s Courtyard, also concerns gender and Partition.

This novel was published in Urdu as Zameen in 1987, a few years after Mastur’s death. It’s not hard to see why the book took so long to see the light of day. While the themes it addresses are powerful and resonant, as a novel it is rather slight — disjointed, with characters not fully developed and a plot outline which is at times baffling.

Its value is historical as much as literary, as a woman-centric account of Partition and its aftermath, which stands alongside the writing of Bapsi Sidhwa, Jyotirmoyee Devi, Amrita Pritam and others. The translator, Daisy Rockwell, who has done so much to bring Partition literature written in Urdu and Hindi to an English-reading audience, provides a valuable epilogue, exploring the historical context of the novel’s storyline and discussing some of its key themes.

We don’t find out much, though, about Mastur herself: what was her own experience of being a Partition refugee? Did she visit or spend time in Walton camp? What were her political loyalties and how were these expressed? How much of Sajidah — not her life story, but her determination and anger — reflects her creator?

It’s Sajidah’s husband-to-be who offers the long view of the manner in which women suffer as men seek revenge on behalf of a community which has been dishonoured. ‘“This is an ancient game, Baba! You have no idea how many blameless people have been destroyed by this game for centuries.”’

The writer is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham and a former BBC India correspondent.

A Promised Land; Khadija Mastur, trs Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Pandom House, ₹399

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