I’ll go right ahead and write this down: Khadija Mastur’s “The Women’s Courtyard” is one of the most satisfying novels I have ever read. It is elegant, poignant and utterly unputdownable. There is much to be said about Mastur’s simple, frills and frippery free style of storytelling and Daisy Rockwell deserves a shout out for doing justice to this manuscript which has been translated from Urdu (Aangan).
Aliya finds herself securely sealed within the suffocating confines of her home, relatively safe from the troubles of a world in turmoil with the final stages of India’s struggle for freedom playing out and the partition looming ahead. But she is all but cut off from an outside world with its endless possibility for one who dreams of self – sufficiency, and left to keep her hopes alive amidst the broken dreams and carnage of conflicting ideologies evidenced by her extended family.
The protected environment she has grown up in proves insufficient to the task of shielding her from the trauma of losing her beloved elder sister Tehmina and dear friend, Kusum to suicide when they invest too heavily in the possibility of heady love and romance in the otherwise arid landscape of their lives only to be left utterly devastated. These episodes leave her with no faith where romance is concerned, especially since she is also an appalled witness to the marriages of her mother and aunt, to men who are more wedded to their politics. Aliya is horrified by both the anger and pettiness of her mother as well as the emotional ruin her aunt is. Yet, with a wisdom that belies her years, she is filled with compassion, has a reservoir of good sense and never ceases to care for her tormented loved ones, choosing to learn from their mistakes while teaching herself to shield herself from the pain wrought by irredeemably bad judgement.
Interestingly enough in this cloistered space, reserved for women, men who are related by blood seem to have right of access and given a surprisingly free hand to romance, stalk, molest or manipulate their cousins. There is Safdar, who loved Tehmina to death, Shakeel who has little qualms about stealing from his cousins, and Jameel who refuses to take no for an answer. Aliya is adamant when it comes to rejecting Jameel’s love for her, despite a certain physical attraction, fully aware that he has wronged another cousin Chammi, writes middling poetry, hasn’t distinguished himself in the professional sphere and is a little too much like the other men in her life given to sacrificing their women and children on the altar of their politics.
Love triangles are usually tedious affairs but the prickly one between Aliya, Chammi and Jameel is beautifully realized. The book is radically ahead of its time in giving us a heroine who adamantly sticks to her guns when it comes to resisting patriarchy even when enforcers pressure her with the prospects of love and marriage, which Aliya realizes are both likely to entrap her more surely than the chains she has been struggling against all her life. Mastur doesn’t spare the women who enable sexism either. Aliya’s mother in particular is a gut wrenching example of a gender traitor. A magnificent book that depicts the bitter battles women fight, far from the battlefield.