Daisy Rockwell on "A Woman's Courtyard"

Posted by sepoy on October 04, 2018 · 17 mins read

[We are very excited that Daisy Rockwell (CM's own lapata) has a new translation of Khadija Mastur's Āngan now released by Penguin India as The Woman's Courtyard (2018). Rockwell has also written a wonderfully erudite afterword to the novel which beautifully places the work in several overlapping contexts. CM is excited to be publishing an edited and shortened version of the "Afterword" as an essay on the work. Thank you to Daisy Rockwell for sharing the essay, alongside a rare photograph of the Mastur sisters. Do buy the book!]


'If you think . . . that anything like romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken. Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie? Do you expect passion, and stimulus, and melodrama? Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.'
— Charlotte Brontë, Shirley

I. The Brontë Sisters of Urdu Literature

Khadija Mastur and her sister, Hajira Masroor, have been called the Brontë sisters of Urdu literature. This comparison seems to have been made primarily on a biographical basis— they'd led tragic lives, were meek and unassuming in person, but wrote with conviction. But from a feminist perspective, the comparison is quite apt. Khadija Mastur wrote two novels and five collections of short stories in her fifty-five years, and it is a rare story that does not contain a critique of patriarchy, chauvinism and misogyny. Happy endings are few and far between.

Though the Brontës' books are often described as romances, they too took a bleak view of male behavior. The Brontës sometimes came up with a 'happy' ending, though it often feels tacked on, for the sake of the formula. 'Reader, I married him'--- Charlotte Brontë's famous last line in Jane Eyre cannot be seen as a truly happy ending to the brutal tale. After all, our romantic hero is by now old, blind, disabled and semi-homeless. Mr Rochester, as has been explored in countless retellings and analyses, is not a very nice man: one who locked up his mentally ill Creole first wife in the attic, and then lied about her very existence. It is only when Mr Rochester is tragically maimed and reduced in the eyes of society that Jane Eyre can hope for a relationship built on trust and mutual respect. In fact, throughout their works, it is clear that the Brontës did not have a high opinion of male motivations and behavior—as with Anne Brontë's description of married life in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which even the supposedly positive character of the male narrator often behaves poorly himself; or the unappealing and disappointing male love interests in Charlotte Brontë's Villette.

Unlike the Brontës, Mastur and Masroor came of age writing at a time when there was a strong progressive writers' movement. Though they could have chosen to write romances, they were politically engaged, Mastur for a time serving as the head of the Pakistani Progressive Writers' Association. Because of her political views, shaped in part by a youth marked by poverty and deprivation, Mastur felt no obligation to deliver happy endings to her readers. It is clear from her writings that she saw patriarchy and classism as systemic poisons that destroy and kill women intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Not that Mastur treated her female characters with unstinting kindness either. Far from it. In characters such as Aliya's mother and grandmother in The Women's Courtyard, Mastur paints a detailed and unforgiving portrait of the role that women play in perpetuating the rigid bonds of patriarchy and class hierarchy.

II. A Claustrophobic Life

When we consider the setting of The Women's Courtyard, and many other stories by Mastur, the Brontë comparison breaks down. Brontë heroines may live bleak lives, but they are also proto-flâneuses. An unhappy Brontë heroine is always free to walk out of the door and go charging off across the moors. Lucy Snowe walks all over the town of Villette, night and day, when she is upset. If one is poor, one might take a horrible position as a governess in a rich family and earn a meagre living, away from unpleasant family. Certainly, there are barriers to what they can do in their lives, but those are nothing like the virtual imprisonment of the courtyard, or āngan, in a traditional South Asian home. The courtyard is a central open space where women gather to cook, prepare paan, talk, garden, sew and often live out their entire lives. It is surrounded on three sides by a covered veranda, and along the veranda are doors to individual rooms. The fourth side would often be a wall, with a door to the outside. A room near the wall would be a sitting room for male members of the family to receive guests, and that room would have a door on to the street as well, so that strange men could not accidentally enter the women's space. Only approved men from the family would be allowed into the courtyard, and on the rare occasions that outsider men showed up, women would retreat to a part of the veranda that had a large heavy curtain, or pardā (this is where the English term 'purdah' comes from), that could be lowered to protect the women from view. A richer home would have another story above the first one, with additional rooms, and rooftop terraces, where women could also move about freely.

The Urdu title of The Women's Courtyard is simply Āngan. For Mastur, the courtyard is not merely the setting of the novel, it is a rigid delimitation for all the action of the entire book, apart from a few scenes at the very beginning when Aliya recollects life as a small child when she could run about freely outside with neighbor children. Interestingly, unlike her mother and aunt, Aliya is not literally a prisoner in the courtyard, in that she attends school outside of the house in the section 'Past', and later even spends a year in Aligarh getting a teaching degree, after which she works outside of the house as a teacher for the remainder of the book. But whenever Aliya leaves the home, we do not see her again until she returns. This strict adherence to the mise en scène makes the novel resemble a play, a form that demands relatively static locations due to the restrictions of the stage and sets.

Limiting the narrative and dialogue to the courtyard can also be seen as a formal feminist experiment on the part of the author. In a men's world, during a tremendously active political moment—the Independence movement in the United Provinces in the 1930s and '40s—how can you keep the story focused on women's lives, without allowing male dialogue and male activities to hijack it? Indeed, in novels by men in Hindi and Urdu that cover this period, there are endless political debates, speeches, rallies and excerpts from newspapers. The men are scarcely ever inside their homes. The national political moment is important, indeed critical, to the story of The Women's Courtyard, but if the narration were to follow the men out of the door to rallies, processions, prison or even men's talk in the sitting room, the voices of women would immediately become marginalized.

In 1985, the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel created a comic strip depicting a conversation between two women complaining about the male-centric nature of most Hollywood films. One woman tells the other she will only go to movies that 1) have at least two women with distinct identities in them; 2) feature women talking to one another; and 3) portray women talking to each other about something besides a man. This set of three criteria has come to be nown as the Bechdel Test, and most films and many books the world over continue to be so infused with patriarchy that they do not pass muster in these terms.

Thanks to Mastur's formal experiment, The Women's Courtyard passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, despite being set in a strongly patriarchal milieu. Mastur does not eliminate male voices; far from it—the men in the family all play prominent roles in the narrative. But her choice makes it possible to privilege women's voices. In this way she also foregrounds an anti-patriarchal feminist politics. The men in the family are obsessed with independence from British rule, and endlessly argue about Congress versus Muslim League ideologies, yet fail to see how the change of rulers on a national level has virtually no impact on the lives of the women in the courtyard. Independence from foreign rule is vastly more important for the men than for the women—not because women have no political beliefs, but because it is men who will step into positions of increased power. Women are not automatically emancipated from male dominance by a change in rulers.

III. A Different Kind of Partition Novel

Despite The Women's Courtyard's strengths as a feminist novel, it is most often referred to as a Partition novel. The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, which coincided with the end of British rule in the subcontinent, was marked by massive upheaval and movement of peoples, loss of life and the rape and abduction of women. The events of Partition gave rise to numerous works of fiction, particularly in Hindi, Urdu,Punjabi and Bengali, and later in English as well. Partition literature, as a genre, is quite varied, with some authors focusing on the violence and inhumanity on display during the days immediately preceding and following Partition, and others turning their attentions to the sense of nostalgia and loss for those who lost their homes, ancestral lands and family members.

The short-story writer Sa'adat Hasan Manto (1912—55) is perhaps the best-known Urdu author to write about Partition in numerous scathing short and very short stories describing, in his classic ironic style, unspeakable acts of cruelty and stupidity and man's inhumanity to man (and even more so to women). Manto's stories depict horrifying violence against women in skin-crawling detail, a quality that has led many to laud him as a feminist, though the case can be made that the obsessive detail of his descriptions of rape and assault can shade into a kind of voyeurism. Qurratulain Hyder (1927—2007), another famed Urdu author, is known for her lengthy novel AÌ„g kaÌ„ DariyaÌ„ (1959—'River of Fire'). River of Fire, which follows a series of characters over millennia in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, starting with the era of the Buddha and ending in a post-1947 era with a diaspora that leaves the characters isolated and lost, in England, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Where Manto's stories focus on violence and inhumanity, Hyder's novel is concerned with Partition as a destroyer of a syncretic and harmonious civilization. Her characters are centered around Lucknow, not Punjab (or Bengal), where the most brutal violence occurred. They are erudite, learned and imbued with the multiple layers of culture that have existed over the history of the Gangetic plain.

Mastur's novel takes a different course from either Manto or Hyder. Partition occurs late in the novel, and the main characters, who live somewhere in the United Provinces, are far from the bloody events taking place at the new Punjab border between India and Pakistan (Hyder's characters all enjoy a greater degree of privilege than Aliya's family, and many are in London during Partition, whilst Manto's are in the thick of the violence). The riots and atrocities are mentioned in The Women's Courtyard, but only in the context of newspaper stories and a general atmosphere of fear.

While the stories of rape, abduction and abandonment of women during Partition are important to tell, Mastur's quieter narrative tells a tale of liberation tinged with loneliness and loss. Migration, Mastur reminds us, does not always result in trauma, and for women, it can sometimes disrupt a patriarchal milieu and lead to a quiet empowerment. In this way, The Women's Courtyard is reminiscent of Hindi writer Yashpal's two-volume 1958—60 novel JhuÌ„tÌ£haÌ„ Sach (my translation published by Penguin Classics as This Is Not That Dawn, 2010).

Though Yashpal's woman protagonist, Tara, is abducted during the riots of Lahore, her subsequent repatriation to India leads eventually to employment, independence and emancipation. For both Aliya and Tara, the disruptions and migrations of Partition create new possibilities to find independence from traditional family structures and patriarchal hierarchies. This same formulation occurs in Krishna Sobti's recent autobiographical Hindi novel Gujarat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan (forthcoming in my translation as A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There, Penguin India). Set in the years immediately following Partition, Sobti's novel depicts a young woman embarking on a quest for a career in education in independent India. Despite the challenges she faces, she finds no small degree of success and independence. A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There is written more in the classic style of a Bildungsroman about a male protagonist, setting out on the threshold of adulthood, ready to take on the world. Sobti's autobiographical character feels her future is full of possibilities, and she has only to scan the 'help wanted' sections of the newspaper to find her next adventure.

Narratives of rape and abduction during Partition, and tales of women's post-Partition emancipation from traditional patriarchal family structures can be read as two sides of the same coin. During the chaos of Partition, women were literally forced out of the safe space of the home, out of the courtyards that protected them. But those courtyards were also prisons for some. As Mastur shows us throughout her oeuvre, sexual violence existed even within the friendly confines of the āngan. The rupture of those walls led to worse violence and imprisonment for some, but liberation for others. When we think of women in Partition we are more likely to think of Bhisham Sahni's village women committing suicide by jumping in wells in Tamas, or Manto's horrendous rapes, than we are of Yashpal's Tara, Mastur's Aliya and Sobti's heroine finding personal independence.