Khadija Mastur’s Urdu novel The Women’s Courtyard is circumscribed by the borders of the courtyard, both in action and worldview. Situated in the turbulent – and significant – decade of the 1940s, it provides an inverted perspective on the Partition: Aliya’s aangan, or courtyard, is removed from what might be expected of a Partition novel. It contains little, for example, of blood and violence, rape, genocide or murder.

The Women’s Courtyard is conspicuously empty of the political pondering and large national questions that played out, typically, in the arenas of men. Instead, it gives expression to the preoccupations of the women in the courtyard, fighting different battles with loud voices.

The novel follows a Muslim girl, Aliya, and her family, about and around the climax of the Independence struggle. Here, the family is the nucleus. The narrative acquaints the reader gradually with the once-powerful grandmother, the aunt who eloped, the bastard uncle, the loyal servant woman, and so on, until we realise that this is the structure that governs the lives of the women in the courtyard, while the Congress and the Muslim League grapple in the remote distance. The reader, initially thirsting for news about the national struggle raging on the street, gradually understands that Aliya, Aunty and the residents of the courtyard are tethered hopelessly to their own problems of life and death.

This is not to say that the Partition passes them by. The pages of this novel are scarred heavily by the upheaval ravaging the nation; but it is all too easy to tune in to the national drama and sideline the voices of home. Mastur’s quiet brilliance consists of this very balancing act: The Women’s Courtyard speaks within the world of the courtyard against the raw-red backdrop of the independence struggle. Mastur provides a fresh, honest angle on the much-sung lore of 1947.

The (in)visible violence

The Women’s Courtyard is an experience in suffocation. Restricted geographically as it is to the home, its action is also contained within the strict religious and social framework of a rigid Muslim family. There is a purdah, literally, between Aliya and the rest of the world; the reader can observe, close-up, the social mindsets that keep it in place.

This book is full of insidious violence on the inside. While the men in the book, notably Aliya’s father, uncle and cousin, wage politics, get beaten up, and go to jail in the unseen outside, their families back home are forced to wait in deteriorating conditions, trying desperately to hold up the social structure that confines them. Mastur constructs an entire system of violence before our eyes, without shoving it in our faces.

The phantom of sexual violence also haunts the pages. Two girls commit suicide at the hands of their respective lovers, and Aliya is forever on edge owing to the advances of her cousin, even in the supposed safety of the aangan. This, too, is written quietly, unexceptionally, normally. Even as the women finally speak, they are constrained, either by the men around them or by one another. That is, Mastur gives the stage to her female characters, but tells the truth about them – they, too, are culpable.

The critique of the patriarchy is natural. It does not poke or provoke. It feels like a story that one has heard somewhere, sometime, but not listened to closely enough – a story that is simply the truth, and, much like the patriarchy, a story that slowly suffocates.

Indoor feminism

Aliya is not a feminist heroine. At least, not conventionally so. The reader might look to the protagonist to be cognisant of the oppression and the injustices vocalised in the novel, but Aliya, though intelligent and introspective, is also a piece in the systemic setup. Mastur handles her feminism with grace.

The book traces Aliya’s maturation, initially through her memories of her past. The reader learns that while Aliya is bred in a system that, for instance, cuts her off from political discussions. Yet, she has a delicate strand of independence that allows her to be Mastur’s feminist mouthpiece.

Aliya identifies the traditional romantic legends fed to her sister as a patriarchal tool of perpetuation, although she had once been enchanted by these very tales. She knows not to succumb to her own romantic feelings towards her harasser cousin Jameel, even when pointedly nudged in that direction, because she has learnt (although not explicitly) that marriage and love will “ruin her”, in her own words. This internal conflict is tastefully written.

Mastur introduces elements of traditional romance between Aliya and Jameel: the moonlit terrace, the nightly encounter, the wordless tension, and later, the flower in her hair, almost resigning the reader to a “happy” ending; but Aliya resists all of them. She is aware, finally, that a stiff salary package is her only hope for peace.

Despite this, Aliya is not, in the general sense, a feminist heroine. She does not protest against Chammi’s forceful marriage to a man she has never seen, and conspires via cooperation. She does not articulate her opposition to the injustices that she does identify: She only cries “tears of rage” upon Safdar’s manipulation of her sister, and she harbours an endless and uncritical respect towards her male elders, while often mentally castigating her mother and aunt.

Nevertheless, the novel itself is undoubtedly a slab of feminism. Mastur traces the arduous and awkward toddler stages of feminist thinking in, perhaps, the average educated twentieth century woman on the subcontinent: Aliya can comprehend certain patterns of injustice but is blind to others; she speaks sometimes, and is mute at other times. She draws the reader into the system along with her. Mastur demonstrates the difficulties of purveying the aangan critically from within it.

Loss, longing and the Partition

The Partition (controversially) is quite a benevolent actor in Aliya’s story. Following her mother to Pakistan, she becomes the breadwinner of the house, and finally takes up the reins of her own life, without shadows being cast by elderly male figures. When Safdar, who has long faced discrimination in society because of his low birth, makes a surprise re-appearance, she is free to offer him a place in her house and her heart, and also to refute both later on, saying, “I’m not getting married.”

This is the flip side to the disorder wreaked by the Partition, usually neglected in deference to its violence. Mastur suggests, rather covertly, that for those who were spared from its brutality, the disruption that ensued also liberated some people trapped in an oppressive tradition.

Aliya, however, is far from happy at the denouement. The war for independence hardly leaves her unscathed; she has lost her father and uncle, and is separated from her remaining loved ones. As Safdar lets her down, her sense of disillusionment is telling:

“Aliya felt as though she had travelled here from far off, through desert lands. Flat-out exhausted. Thirsty for many lifetimes. Please, could someone pour just a few drops of water down her throat?”

This is not a happy ending. As the translator Daisy Rockwell points out, Aliya faces an array of poor choices as a woman, even in liberation. Nearing the conclusion, however, she increasingly spends time outside the house (though the book does not portray those scenes); she stops wearing the veil, and it seems she has finally breached the boundary of the courtyard that has oppressed the book so far.

This is the real victory, although it, too, is understated and uncertain. In the background, we must not forget, a people have been wrenched apart. Millions of people have been slaughtered and everyone, including Aliya, pays the toll. Among the many limits that were transgressed, however, Mastur tells us of one: ie, Aliya steps out of the courtyard.

In another language

Daisy Rockwell’s translation picks up successfully on Mastur’s unembroidered style in English, and delivers pace, simplicity and depth. There are certain points of friction however, which may also be the result of the publishing company’s editorial choices rather than those related to translation alone. For instance, Courtyard might have been a more fitting translation of the original title Aangan, in terms of preserving its emphasis. To specify that the courtyard belongs to women seems to be a questionable choice on most accounts.

Then, having familiarised ourselves with a kinship framework identified in Urdu – Ammi, Abba, Mamoo, Bajiya, Kareeman Bua, Asrar Miyan, etc. – why do we have to accommodate the traditional grand old matriarch of the household as “Granny”? Similarly with “Big Aunty”, “Big Brother”, or “Mistress”, whose recurring usage seems out of place both in a smooth English reading and an Urdu-ised English, because this latter does not in fact bother with explicating kinship elsewhere. While consistency in either of these two strategies would have been acceptable, their arbitrary amalgamation, especially as it is sometimes extended to words in general (“dupatta”, “takht”, and “paan”, but “betel-nut cracker”) creates a bit of discomfort.

Presumably Rockwell does not compromise on the original Urdu expressions in her translation, but some of the choices with respect to the dialects of different characters do not quite harmonise with each other. The choices of expletives are illustrative: Aliya calls Jameel “this creep”, which fits, perhaps, the tone of a young, modern-ish woman, but Chammi calls Shakeel “you wretch”, which is slightly weirder, given that she is Aliya’s contemporary.

Or, when Chammi says, “To hell with you, you sympathiser”, it takes a while for the reader to understand the degree of offence she wants to convey. Similarly, when Amma says, “Tell me this, Big Brother, where have these people gone and died who were supposed to bring a proposal for that witch Chammi?”, the phrase comprising the last three words does not sit well with either the context or the expected socio-linguistic register of the speaker.

These rare aberrations, however, only causes temporary jerks in the reading experience. Overall, Rockwell is fluent with her use of Urdu idiom, and her translation guides us through the text admirably.

Simplicity is the varnish of The Women’s Courtyard. The book leaves unanswered the question of who has won: Chammi has won her Jameel back home, and is exalted, and Aliya has won her independence and is full of despair. Mastur sticks no morals down our throats; she simply tells a story, and asks, perhaps, some questions.

The Women’s Courtyard, Khadija Mastur, translated by Daisy Rockwell, Penguin Random House India.

An earlier version of this review appeared here.

Niyati Bafna is a second year student of English and Computer Science at Ashoka University. She translates from Hindi, blogs original work at The Fountain Pen, and enjoys solving cryptic crosswords.