The Women’s Courtyard is an early feminist novel by a progressive author who wrote extensively about the abuse of women within traditional households
In a city in the United Provinces in the 1940s, Aliya and her mother are forced to live in the household of her paternal uncle after her father goes to prison for assaulting a British officer. The household includes her cousin Chammi, her snobby aunt Najma who has an MA in English, her grandfather’s illegitimate son from his mistress (Asrar Miyan), and her cousin Jameel who is in love with her and follows her around the house making unwanted advances.
This scene is highly relevant in today’s #MeToo era, and reflects the shock and ambivalence that is common among victims of assault who have no recourse to any sort of protection – in this case, Aliya’s tormenter is the eldest son of the household and is free to walk in on her in the middle of the night if he chooses.
Aliya quickly pulled the curtain aside and went out into the courtyard. How dark it was. You couldn’t even see objects that were close by. She bumped into the metal chair. A thin shaft of light coming from Chammi’s room was all she could see on the other side of the wall of mist. She crossed the courtyard and quickly climbed the stairs.
As she walked through Najma Aunty’s room, she saw from lowered eyes that her aunt was reclining in her easy chair, lost in a book twice her size, and that a silken quilt exquisitely embroidered with silver lace was draped stylishly over her legs. As was her habit, Najma Aunty did not even look up. But how was Aliya supposed to stop using this route? Flying through the air to her room was beyond her.
The moment she entered her tiny room, she opened the shutters of the window into the gali. She made her bed in the strong electric light and then wrapped herself in her quilt and lay down. When her hands had regained some warmth, she picked up one of Uncle’s books and began to read.
It had got much colder with the window open, but if she closed it she would be plunged into darkness.
She always felt restless in the thin, sickly light of the lantern. There was once a time when a large part of her life had been spent in the glow of the thirsty lantern. How much fun she used to have in the monsoon when the moths would gather around the lantern. “Look, a moth just hit its head on the glass and is lying on its back! Now a second, now a third!” She used to fall asleep counting moths in this way, but now she couldn’t study even for a minute without this free electricity.
Only the early part of the night had passed, but complete silence had descended over the gali. The school building and the dense trees around it were cloaked in mist. She could still hear the sound of loud conversation from downstairs and Asrar Miyan’s reedy voice mingled with the others.
“Kareeman Bua, if dinner is finished, please send some in to me.”
“Eat, Asrar Miyan. If you eat late, you’ll be really hungry. If your hunger has not been sharpened in this expensive age, what will we all do?” Chammi teased in her inimitable style, and the sound of her laughter pierced Aliya’s ears.
Aliya lay the book down on her chest. A twinge of compassion pierced her heart. Really, how was it the poor man’s fault? Why were all these people so hard-hearted towards him? After all, he didn’t enter this world of his own accord – why should everyone be a stranger to him? He was no one’s beloved uncle, no one’s brother, no one’s father – in fact, who would even think such a thing? How could he become anyone’s father when he had no father himself?
How she wished she could run downstairs just this once, arrange a tray with her own hands, then place it before Asrar Miyan, and stand by his side like an obedient niece as long as he kept eating.
But all of this was completely unfeasible. It would injure her mother’s beliefs in the old ways, and Kareeman Bua would surely begin to lament the era gone by. “Well, it’s not my home,” she muttered.
She picked up her book again. Her heart pounded with horror as she read about the atrocities of Ghengis Khan. She put it down and covered her face with the quilt. Mankind, that noblest of all god’s creatures, had fashioned history from such hideous crimes, she thought. She was becoming something of a philosopher these days.
The will to power is never quenched. Countless civilisations are born but none survive. Power burns all to ash. Despite this, it is claimed that now we have become civilised. The idea of erecting towers made of heads, and putting men in cages, brings up memories of centuries-old barbarism, but in this war that was happening now, it only took a single bomb – each one even more amazing than the last – a single bomb to kill the largest number of innocent people, and that was considered the most advanced weapon of all.
And then there was the story of Jallianwala Bagh – that was hardly ancient history! It was this civilisation that gave birth to that incident. And then she thought of Kusum – her corpse floated before her eyes in the dark. Drops of water fell from Kusum’s yellow sari into Aliya’s heart.
Someone softly pulled the quilt off her, and she started and sat up.
“Oh, I frightened you,” said Jameel, who stood by the head of her bed.
“Yes, truly, I did get frightened, just a little while ago I was reading about Ghengis Khan’s atrocities.”
“And it’s also possible that you think me like Ghengis Khan, even though I hardly have his nerve,” Jameel said with a laugh.
“How could I say that? You’re civilised, and also a poet – did Asrar Miyan get his food?”
“I don’t interfere in Kareeman Bua’s business,” replied Jameel insipidly. “But right now, I’ve come to talk to you, and...”
Jameel was clearly not in the mood for chit-chat at this time. He had something else on his mind. She’d already figured out what that was, and what he wanted to say, now in particular, when he’d come into her room in the dead of night after everyone was nestled safely in their beds. Then suddenly she worried that Najma Aunty might begin to suspect something.
Jameel pulled up a chair and sat by her bedside and stared at her deeply. She looked about, trying to put him off.
“Your eyes are so beautiful. The poet must have been thinking of just such eyes when he compared them to paradise.”
“Thank you, cousin Jameel,” she said with a loud laugh. “This is not true paradise. Perhaps it is the false paradise of King Shaddad.’”
“Aliya Madam, making minarets of heads is not so great a crime as making fun of emotions.”
“Is this also one of the finer points of poetry? Oh, I am sorry, instead of making fun of feelings, now I’ll go ahead and make towers out of heads,” she retorted. She hid her hands under her quilt.
“Jameel, if I pass the exam this time, it will be great, Najma Aunty’s erudition would get quite a shove,” she said, trying to change the topic, but Jameel took no interest. He just sat silently with his head down. Chill air blew in through the open window, but she couldn’t even close it. Darkness snatches all light from emotions.
“I know you don’t want to talk to me. You’re putting me off, Aliya. Can you not even respect my love?”
“What are you talking about, I – I...’ She was startled to see tears in Jameel’s eyes and was stunned into silence.
“Aliya!” cried Jameel, and he lifted her up abruptly. She felt as though the shutters had closed and burning embers had been placed on her lips. All this had happened so fast, she couldn’t do a thing. She couldn’t even think, and when she tried to shove him away from her, he rested his head on her arm and sobbed like a baby, and she felt each tear like a boiling raindrop falling on her heart. She could even hear the sound of the drops falling. The light of those drops spread all about the room. She could see a clear path on which to run.
She sat senseless and Jameel had lifted his head and stared at her with great sweetness. There was much pride and peace in that smile.
“Enough, now please leave, Jameel Sahib,” snapped Aliya, looking at him like a witch. ‘Please go make a fool of someone else. I am Aliya. Please go away, please, or I’ll scream so loudly that...”
Jameel leant against the wall, staring at her. His eyes cried out, You can’t love anyone, Aliya Begum, you truly are a witch.
He left abruptly. Aliya closed the shutters again and began to sob.
Jameel, you’ve poked magic needles into my body! What prince will come now and pull them out, she thought. After her heart felt lighter from crying, she began to laugh at her own idiocy. Enough, just stop it! Was she any better than Tehmina or Kusum – humph! Who knows how she had gone so mad. She picked up her course book and began to study peacefully. At some point the book fell from her hand on to her chest and she awoke suddenly from a shallow sleep.
Excerpted with permission from The Women’s Courtyard, Khadija Mastur, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Random House India.