The Women’s Courtyard

Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard brings to focus the ‘aangan’ of a house—the epicenter of most household chores, discussions, and storytelling. It is a place that is primarily governed by the women of the house. Set in the 1940s, The Women’s Courtyard is the tale of a Muslim family that is equally influenced by pre-partition events and ingrained patriarchy.

After a brief ‘past’ where Aliya’s life turns upside down due to the loss of her sister and her father being sent to jail, Aliya and her mother move into her uncle’s house. Thus, Aliya finds herself coming of age in a strange household where political aspirations are rupturing perfectly healthy relationships.

Aliya has been hardened by her past experiences, and is detached from what’s happening in the house, being neglected most of the time. She cries tears of rage in the solitude of her room, accusing people of the choices they make. She despises love, and is a strong advocate of how love can only bring destruction, never happiness. Disgusted by Jameel’s advances and declaration of love, especially after losing her sister, Tehmina, and her friend, Kusum, to suicide at the hands of their lovers, Aliya maintains a safe distance, never entertaining or acknowledging any of it.

Aliya admires (almost blindly) her father and uncle because of their strong political opinions, but criticizes them when there is an imbalance in the household. Her knowledge of the ongoing fight for independence and the difference in ideologies between Congress and The Muslim League comes from the debates brought into the courtyard by the men. Her life is confined to this courtyard, detached from the outside world and its influences.

“How strangely he was asserting his authority over the household today, and just because his political beliefs were being mocked.”

Aliya’s mother—cynical and cruel, can be very opinionated at times. She openly condemns her mother-in-law’s inability to poison her own daughter because of her marriage to a poor farmer. She shows immense strength in the face of crisis—the absence of a male member in the family in this case—but also repels happiness by always finding a grim thought to latch on to.

Similarly, each woman in the house has her fair share of loss and disappointment. They can be seen expressing their opinions either through loud tones and rebellious actions or by muttering to themselves how their small and humble world is now falling apart. Aliya, on the other hand, defies the social norms and finishes her education without falling into the trap of forced marriage or everyday chores.

The Women’s Courtyard focuses on the lives of the women of the house, who are not allowed to have political aspirations (or opinions, for that matter) and are constantly tormented by the fact that the men would rather give their lives up for the country than take care of their own house. The only way partition enters this courtyard is through the men. They are the harbingers of news—good and bad alike. As the country fights for freedom, the women struggle to hold the house together and provide to its inhabitants the very basic needs in life.

Mastur’s prose lacks sentimentality, and is neither flowery nor ornate. The narration can be considered merely as an observation of sorts. While the women are constantly tormented, their love for their male counterparts and their sons is immense, and that is what holds this family together.

The courtyard can be considered as a stage, the characters being puppets of patriarchy. Not even once does the narrative venture out of this courtyard. The story brings us out of the political turmoil that we all enjoy reading about (stories of bloodshed and fights rarely enter this courtyard) and dunks us into the lives of the women, always home, worried and scared out of their wits (especially during riots and rallies). While the story talks about political ideologies, the narrator doesn’t want to impose them on us or ask us to form an opinion and pick a side. Instead, we are told about the systematic violence that exists within the four walls of a house—a lack of freedom in the name of tradition and customs. 

The story cannot be considered feminist as such, because the women are confined to a geographical location, going about their assigned tasks and being subjected to the unpleasantness of patriarchy at all times. Aliya voices her opinions, but never does that cause a shift in power within the house. Her best monologues are delivered during the late hours, or in moments of isolation.

Daisy Rockwell’s translation is the second version of the book that was initially translated as The Inner Courtyard. Rockwell’s translation from Urdu can be described as crisp, preserving the true essence of the original text. A look at the afterword is essential to understand where she stands with the book and what influenced her to translate this book into English.The Women’s Courtyard renders an independent voice to the women stuck in domesticity, repressed by unjustified patriarchy and forced to live a life without purpose or opinions.

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