Why I chose this book had something to do with the fact that I had not read any book of an Urdu author and also because I was mighty impressed when it said that the writer, Khadija Mastur, an award-winning Urdu writer from Pakistan, was considered as a Bronte Sister of Urdu literature. Though I knew it was an English translation by Daisy Rockwell, I wanted to read this book. The Urdu title of the book is Aangan, which was published in Penguin Classics as The Women’s Courtyard.
The story is set around 15 years before the Indian Independence from the British rule. Aliya, the protagonist finds herself transported to her elder paternal uncle’s home after her sister’s demise and father being sent to jail. She is a bright girl who is keen to be educated. But in her uncle’s home, she comes across various kinds of people. Though she is encouraged to learn by her uncle and cousins, she is also disturbed by the fact that the home is a hotbed for political activities. Her uncle is a staunch follower of Congress while her cousin, uncle’s elder son believes in the Muslim League. There are constant tensions in the household due to different ideologies.
The book throws light on the condition of women in those times. Women lived under various taboos, they were not allowed to remarry, had to suffer physical and mental abuse and could not move out freely.
Aliya and the women in the household lived in purdah. It’s a system where women don’t come in contact with strange men. And for that, their activities are limited to the confines of the courtyard of the house where they sit and receive female guests and also the men of the house. So, though outside men are not admitted into the courtyard, the family’s menfolk can move and speak freely with the women of the house. As most of the drama unfolds in this courtyard, no wonder the author named the book so.
Let’s talk about the characters in the story. Aliya is the protagonist and a strong woman. She is educated and hold onto her values well. She loves her father and uncle, but she also knows that they were weak men. Though they fought for the freedom of India, they conveniently ignored the situation back at home. It didn’t bother them that there was not enough to eat for the family members or that the women folk were wearing old and torn clothes. She also realizes that with love and marriage come suffering and hence stays true to her vow of not marrying, though she gets various offers of betrothal. However, she is a human too, and in her moments of weakness finds herself attracted to her cousin Jameel. But better sense always prevails.
I find the character of Aliya’s mother as one of the most interesting. She is a woman who knows which side her bread is buttered, but she is also a person who doesn’t appreciate any kindness. She feels entitled to things and doesn’t think twice before hurting people with her acid remarks.
On the other hand, I found Asrar Miyan’s character very pitiable. Though Aliya feels for the poor person, I find it strange that she doesn’t do much for him.
Lost in translation – I experienced something of the kind when I was reading the book. I knew beforehand that a translation cannot always do true justice to the original, but I found the language of the book static. It actually marred the book reading experience and there were times when I actually felt that I should have known Urdu to understand the book better.
I promise not to form an opinion of the writer basis this book and hope to read other books of Khadija Mastur.
Unless you know Urdu, I would say stay clear of this book.
I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to one of them. Seriously, only one!!
1. A book that is a Translation
2. A book written by a Female author