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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Women's Courtyard

by
Khadija Mastur


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Women's Courtyard



Title: The Women's Courtyard
Author: Khadija Mastur
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 390 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: The Women's Courtyard - US
The Women's Courtyard - UK
The Women's Courtyard - Canada
The Women's Courtyard - India
  • Urdu title: آنگن
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Daisy Rockwell
  • Previously translated as Inner Courtyard by Neelam Hussain (2001)
  • Aangan was made into a TV series that started airing in 2018

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rather persistently downbeat, but an impressive vibrancy to it too

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dawn . 25/11/2018 Asif Farrukhi
The Hindu . 24/11/2018 Keshava Guha
India Today . 24/12/2018 Rakhshanda Jalil
New Indian Express A 11/11/2018 Anuja Chandramouli


  From the Reviews:
  • "It is gratifying to see that the book takes its place as a Penguin Classic. Even more important, it is sheer reading pleasure to discover in the translation the unrequited desires and the sepia shades suffused in melancholic tones, true to the spirit of the original. (...) The busy world of the aangan and the larger hustle and bustle of the independence movement are minutely covered in the original and beautifully rendered in Rockwellís sensitive translation." - Asif Farrukhi, Dawn

  • "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 Gandhiís 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. (...) Rockwellís translation is superbly judged. Her English renders the spareness of Masturís Urdu, the efficiency of her physical descriptions, and the devastating concision with which she handles tragedy." - Keshava Guha, The Hindu

  • "Daisy Rockwell's immaculate translation of Khadija Mastur's Aangan is welcome not only for bringing the work to English readers, but also as a feminist tract that questions love, marriage and the need for happy endings." - Rakhshanda Jalil, India Today

  • "Iíll go right ahead and write this down: Khadija Masturís The Womenís Courtyard is one of the most satisfying novels I have ever read. It is elegant, poignant and utterly unputdownable. (...) A magnificent book that depicts the bitter battles women fight, far from the battlefield." - Anuja Chandramouli, New Indian Express

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Women's Courtyard is set in the India and then Pakistan of the 1930s and 1940s, and centers around a girl and then young woman named Aliya. It is a housebound novel, with all the action restricted to the houses Aliya inhabits during this time. It's not that Aliya does not venture beyond her four walls -- indeed, there's one extended period when she goes, by herself, to study in Aligarh, to get her degree, spending ten straight months away from home -- but rather that, whether the move from one house (or country) to the next, the daily routine of work, or the extended absence studying in Aligarh, almost everything that happens elsewhere, beyond the homes' gates, is simply passed over. The world of this novel is entirely domestic; the outside world, and what transpires there, little more than incidental -- even as, of course, it often has great bearing on the household itself.
       The novel is divided into two parts, the much shorter first describing Aliya's childhood -- 'Past' -- and ending with the arrest of her father for striking a British officer (good enough for a charge of attempted murder). The rest is 'Present', as they then move into the house of one of Aliya's uncles, living there until Partition, when she and her mother go to Pakistan.
       Aliya's family is Muslim, and while the actual practice of religion, such as rituals and prayers, barely figures here (or barely rates a mention: you'd almost never notice when Aliya is veiled or not), Aliya's mother, called Amma, has a strict sense of propriety, especially about the role and position of women. She loathes the nephew Sadfar that her husband had brought into the household, because he's the offspring of disgraced relatives and their shameful behavior (who unforgiving Amma would have treated even more harshly: "She should have been buried alive, she says of Sadfar's mother). Sadfar's presence, and Aliya's father's support of him is like a poison in the household -- though Amma turns out to be the kind of woman who seems to be displeased with absolutely everything about her fate (and shares her displeasure freely). The only one Amma has anything good to say about is her brother, Mamoo, who can do no wrong in her eyes -- though Mamoo (and his English wife) do their best to keep Amma at a safe distance, helping out only to the extent necessary and carefully avoiding ever allowing Amma a foothold in their own household.
       Aliya's older sister, Tehmina, was in love with Sadfar, but of course this wasn't a relationship Amma could stand for. After Sadfar was sent off to study, a marriage was arranged for Tehmina -- but she couldn't bear the thought of going through with it, leading to tragedy. (Tehmina's close friend, Kusum, a Hindu married in her early teens and already widowed a few months later, already served as an example of a young woman broken by the strictures of society; Muslim or Hindu, women's roles -- and what was permissible -- were closely circumscribed, with any challenges to them crushed by the overwhelming forces of this society.)
       After her father was arrested, Aliya and her mother moved into his brother's home. Among those there is another relative whom Amma can look down on, the bubbly Chammi, yet another victim of a family broken in yet another way, more or less abandoned by her father, who has gone on to marry repeatedly and merely sends a bit of money to cover her support; when she gets married he can't even be bothered to make an appearance. Chammi is notable also for how active she is in the neighborhood, often going out and visiting neighbors (though always donning her burqa), always returning: "wildly enthusiastic and full of gossip". She stands in considerable contrast to her cousin Aliya, who isn't adventurous in this way and willingly remains mostly housebound. Her uncle does provide Aliya with the keys to his library (which, oddly, he keeps from his son, Jameel), allowing her to lose herself in a world of books -- though it's not the great escape that this is usually presented as: though Aliya does often retreat into this world of reading, she's not one to find inspiration of a different world there; Aliya remains very much down to earth in this respect (and, indeed, repeatedly expresses suspicion of books -- finding her sister read much to much into them, for example).
       Chammi was in love with Jameel -- who, however, seems mostly to have used this affection to obtain support from her while he studied. He, in fact, is more drawn to Aliya, and his attempted wooing of her is a constant during their time together; it also complicates Aliya's relationship with Chammi. Another boy interested in Chammi, Manzoor, goes to fight in the Second World War, leaving her feeling abandoned yet again; as Aliya comes to see: "The world had simply killed off her ability to trust". Eventually, a marriage is arranged for Chammi -- the preparations for which are kept secret from her. (This is long somewhat hard to believe -- everyone working away at the trousseau and the like, for the longest time and in quite plain view -- but ultimately almost believable in Chammi simply not wanting to see the truth she would have to face soon enough.) Needless to say, this arranged marriage turns out to be less than ideal as well -- though ultimately Chammi stands up against her husband (and clobbers her mother-in-law) and not only returns to the fold but finds happiness there, the one reasonably happy ending to all the stories.
       Another son of the household is Shakeel, who gets Aliya to support him -- ostensibly for books to help him with his studies, though it's pretty clear that Shakeel is not very serious about these. He, too, eventually disappears from the household, going his own happy-go-lucky way.
       Among the others in the uncle's household is Asrar Miyan, a figure of almost comic relief who, not being part of the inner circle, keeps purdah, avoiding any interaction with the outside females, including Aliya, and is mostly seen (or heard) asking for his food to be brought to him. There's also Najima Aunty, who also studied in Aligarh and considers herself better than everyone else for having that education and the degree to prove it, and constantly points out her superiority, putting Aliya in her place even after she too gets a degree and becomes a teacher:

     'We do the same work, but you are called a lecturer and I am called a teacher. Even if the difference didn't disappear, would that be the end of the world, Najima Aunty ?' Aliya responded tartly.
     'Hah ! How could that difference ever disappear ? Have you done an MA in English ? Surely there's a difference between a donkey and a horse,' retorted Najima Aunty
       The politics of the time play a significant role in the background, and especially among the male figures. Aliya's father is increasingly outraged about continued British rule -- to the extent that he can't hold back, and gets physical with a British officer, so that he ends up in jail, sentenced to seven years. In the next household they move into, her uncle is a supporter of Congress, working towards an independent but united India, while his son Jameel supports the Muslim League, with its ambitions for a separate Pakistan. The men are increasingly fixated on independence -- to the frustration of the women in the households, who wish they would focus more on day-to-day life (and, for example, running their businesses) -- with Aliya's father lost to them because of his fixation on it, and her uncle also imprisoned for a while because of it.
       Still, her uncle can't help but fixate on it, explaining to Aliya:
When we get independence, our work will be done ! Everything about life will become simple.
       The housekeeper -- another woman unimpressed by the obsession with politics and focused on the here and now -- also notes the disconnect between the national ideal being struggled for and the constant domestic discord:
What I want to know is, will anyone really get independence by destroying a household ?
       Independence and partition do not, of course, bring the dreamed-for paradise. News of the horrors that follow do find their way to the household, just as earlier the news of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had, but the real world only intrudes so far. They're not at the center of things, which helps:
There had been no riots in their own city, but everyone constantly worried about what would happen next.
       Aliya's uncle Mamoo commits his services to Pakistan and is willing to bring his sister and niece along, and for Aliya's mother there is no question about what they must do, her brother finally rescuing her. Almost overnight, they uproot themselves and go to Pakistan -- conveniently flying, which also means that they do not see first-hand the worst of the sectarian violence.
       Before independence, Aliya had allowed herself to dream of a domestic idyll:
She was praying to herself that Allah would quickly make this country independent and that Uncle would come back home, and then in the evenings he'd lie here and chat with Aunty, and he'd ask after Chammi, and he'd write for Sajidah to come visit, and he'd look for a bride for Jameel, and he'd search for Shakeel and bring him home.
       (Revealingly, there's apparently no place for her bitter mother in her fantasy .....)
       Reality, then, turns out differently, her uncle broken by the violent, warped turn independence takes.
       Aliya's mother, on the other hand, is, briefly, in heaven:
Her long-standing desire to live with her brother and her British sister-in-law had now been fulfilled. She intended to live with them her entire life, and was offended when Aliya remained aloof from everyone else.
       Of course, Mamoo -- and especially his wife -- have different ideas, and after a few days they break open a local house that had belonged to a Hindu family that had fled and install Aliya and her mother there; for good measure, Mamoo soon gets transferred to Karachi, leaving his sister behind again. Aliya and her mother do then have a comfortable, spacious house to live in -- but there's no more family anywhere near. So also then:
     After Mamoo's departure, Aliya gave up purdah. She knew no one here, what was the point of clutching on to old customs ?
       Already back in the old country she had lamented, when Chammi had a child, that: "all the customs had died out in their household"; and now, alone with her mother, the death knell was final.
       Aliya got a job as a teacher, and also volunteered at the Walton Camp for refugees -- to the chagrin of her mother, who can't understand why she would bother wasting her time in this way. Figures from their past crop up surprisingly, but any flash of hope is quickly dashed: Aliya finds only disappointment in what has become of them. A doctor from the refugee camp woos her, too -- but she can't see marrying him either. Her disillusionment with love and romance -- even where she has a say in it -- is complete.
       The domestic focus of the narrative is impressively done. The Women's Courtyard isn't claustrophobic, even if Aliya occasionally feels hemmed in. Mastur presents the separation -- and overlaps -- between outside and domestic world exceptionally well.
       Aliya seeks a comfort in this interior, in the family unit that never really coheres. It is constantly being undermined: her parents stand in opposition to each other, and she loses other, smaller holds, like her sister and Sadfar. She can embrace her uncle as a stand-in pater familias, but in that household too the conflicts, of personality and politics, make for impossible rifts. If not quite as isolated as the ridiculous Asrar Miyan or Najima Aunty, Aliya only occasionally feels part of a happier larger whole. Never mind with her uncle Mamoo and his family, who are always very careful to keep at a proper distance.
       Where older sister Tehmina was a hopeless romantic, Aliya sees no happy examples around her, and can barely imagine the possibility of love and romance. She does have feelings -- drawn even to the insistent Jameel, at times -- but does not give in to them, right to the end (when she is tested several times in quick succession), as though not convinced by what they might cost her, given the examples she has grown up with. The loss of her sister, barely harped on when and after it happens -- with Amma not a particularly grieving mother --, does run like an undercurrent through the novel, as a defining experience for Aliya, as is also made clear by her bringing it up again in the novel's conclusion (though there's never a hint, earlier or then, of Aliya being tempted by anything resembling her sister's despairing resignation). It makes for a rather dark tale, but Mastur leads readers through this narrative in a way that even the ultra-bitter and unpleasant mother-figure can't completely poison the story. Even if the joys the characters feel are limited, and there's fairly little sense of optimism, of the possibility of bright futures ahead, The Women's Courtyard isn't grim. There's a vibrancy to it, and also to Aliya, which invigorates the whole novel.
       Even as Aliya is arguably a fairly passive figure throughout the novel, she proves to be a strong character. If she rarely stands up directly to others' overbearing ways, she nevertheless finds and makes her own way in this unusual but successful character portrait, of life in these particular times. Others escape in a variety of ways, from Tehmina to Chammi to their male cousins, with even Najima Aunty -- on her terms (she thinks ...) -- and Asrar Miyan fleeing, while Aliya seems stuck under the thumb of and alone with her mother the whole while, and yet in many ways she is the most independent (for better but also for worse, it must be noted).
       So also The Women's Courtyard is an impressive novel of Partition, even as that too is largely kept off-scene. Some aspects are too simply black and white -- the opposition between father and Jameel, representatives of Congress and the Muslim League (and their positions) respectively -- and some a bit rushed (including things such as the trickle of news of Sadfar's distant fate), but the overall impression is still a strong one; Mastur might tend to under- rather than over-writing, but that seems the more effective choice here. The Women's Courtyard unfolds impressively, and makes for a quite gripping read.
       A substantial Afterword by translator Daisy Rockwell provides additional context as well as information about the author; among the interesting points discussed is also Rockwell's choice to retranslate a novel that was already available in English translation (by Neelam Hussain (2001)) -- as she notes, something that is: "still a rarity in the context of South Asian literature"

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 February 2019

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Links:

The Women's Courtyard: Reviews: Aangan - the TV series: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Urdu-writing Khadija Mastur (خدیجہ مستور‬) lived 1927 to 1982.

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© 2019 the complete review

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