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‘The Women’s Courtyard’: About the human costs of patriarchy

Going beyond: Amrita Sher-Gil’s oil, ‘Village Scene’, 1938.

Going beyond: Amrita Sher-Gil’s oil, ‘Village Scene’, 1938.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

One of the most powerful indictments of patriarchy in Indian fiction

Aangan, the first of Khadija Mastur’s two novels, was first published in 1962, and is now experiencing a revival of interest. The Women’s Courtyard – Daisy Rockwell’s new English translation — arrives only weeks before a major Pakistani television adaptation.

Although it has been translated into English before (in 2001, as The Inner Courtyard, by Neelam Hussain), this unusual and hugely compelling novel has never received the wide readership it deserves, particularly in India.

The Women’s Courtyard is often compared to other Muslim fiction of Independence and Partition: Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire, Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, and Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories.

But while it is deeply concerned with such questions as Hindu-Muslim harmony and opposition to colonial rule, and its central characters move from what is now Uttar Pradesh to Lahore, to call it “a Partition novel” would be misleading. It is at its core an indictment of patriarchy — one of the most moving and powerful in all our fiction.

Single setting

What makes The Women’s Courtyard unusual is the formal constraint imposed by its setting. After a long prologue (“Past”), Aliya and her Amma move to the house of a paternal uncle. The rest of the action, until their departure for Pakistan, will take place exclusively in the titular aangan. Rockwell rightly compares this to a stage play with a single setting. The outside world of politics and commerce regularly enters the action, but always through a character coming into the courtyard.

‘The Women’s Courtyard’: About the human costs of patriarchy

When a character leaves, we don’t follow them — when Aliya leaves for Aligarh for a year to earn a teaching degree, one sentence later she is back in the courtyard, degree in hand. Male relatives come and go — when they want to exclude the women, they talk in the outer sitting room beyond the aangan.

Within this confined setting, Mastur gives us a narrative on the epic scale, ranging across four generations, the life-arcs of dozens of characters — births, marriages, suicides, imprisonments, sexual assault, divorce — and taking in Gandhi’s leadership of the national movement, the rise of the Muslim League, and the birth of Pakistan. The narrative is always gripping, although it can strain from the sheer quantity of event.

The accounts of political debate — the family is divided between Congress and League supporters — are rather crude, sometimes little more than a sideshow. But politics is something only men have the luxury of engaging in: and that engagement comes at a great cost, borne by the women.

For freedom

Aliya and her Amma reflect the human costs of patriarchy in contrasting ways. Amma is, on the one hand, a terrifyingly cynical and even cruel character, who openly regrets that her mother-in-law did not murder a daughter for the crime of falling in love with a poor farmer. She seems constantly on the lookout for opportunities to deny her daughters or nephews their chosen route to happiness. Amma, and to an extent the others of her generation, show how women can be the most committed defenders of patriarchy.

But, viewed another way, Amma’s behaviour is that of a survivor — a woman who has had to keep a family going in the face of persistent male failure. This resilience is what mother and daughter have in common. Aliya rejects both her mother’s amoral cynicism and the romantic idealism of her sister Tehmina (romantic idealism, in this novel, ends only one way). She seeks independence, and acquires it through education. One of the most affecting and revealing moments in the novel concerns her decision to go to Pakistan. We know that, to the extent that she is political, she is in sympathy with her father, a loyal Congressman appalled by the idea of Partition. And when she reaches Pakistan, she continues to live by this doctrine. But Pakistan is a way out of the “swamp” of the aangan. So she goes.

Rockwell’s translation is superbly judged. Her English renders the spareness of Mastur’s Urdu, the efficiency of her physical descriptions, and the devastating concision with which she handles tragedy. This is a retranslation — a common and necesary practice, but too rare in India. Retranslation is necessary not only because existing translations may be inadequate, but also because there is no one way to best translate a work. Rockwell is a literary scholar as well as translator, and her Afterword is essential reading, both as an analysis of The Women’s Courtyard and as an explanation of her motives and methods.

The writer is based in Delhi.

The Women’s Courtyard; Khadija Mastur, trs Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Classics, ₹499

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:59:42 AM |

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