If a women’s courtyard is considered an enclosed inner space, this book is a canvas with streaks and splashes of unexpectedly vibrant colour and design. The women that inhabit the courtyard are strong and lifelike, and the qualities that each one epitomises are perceived through her actions and speech. So while we never learn the given names of Amma (also known as ‘Mazhar’s Bride’) and Aunty, we experience them very clearly as real people.
This is a historical period and a segment of society where poets sing on the streets – but also where arrogance is native to wealth and privilege. Amma has been betrayed by her circumstances, and her constant taunts, bitter appraisals, never-ending self-pity and glorification are received with tolerance and even empathy simply because life has been cruel to someone who expected better. Her sister-in-law Najma, an MA in English and a working woman who in the 1940s arranges her own marriage (and later walks out of it), is vain and consistently demeaning of those she considers beneath her because they have not studied English. She flaunts elitist opinions such as, “Only people who are incapable of getting a job know Arabic and Farsi”. Najma’s sister-in-law, Aunty, on the other hand, is that loving and giving woman – one whose eyes can be seen ‘filled with centuries of grief’ – on whom every large household relies. Even when immersed in disappointment, loss and financial struggle, she labours on, almost always emanating warmth and kindness. Young Chammi – acknowledged as Shamima but once by the author – has the status of one whose mother died and whose father left to live elsewhere, his new life overrun by new wives and their offspring. Beautiful, unwanted Chammi, treated with love by Aunty, somehow became that wild, shrewish girl whose tantrums are feared to such an extent that when her marriage is arranged, no one dares to inform her. Kareeman Bua, who came with her mother in the mistress’s dowry, lives a life of domestic servitude, devoted to the family, oblivious to scars formed by disproportionate rage on her body.
This book is not just about women and their cloistered existence; it also shows how global events infiltrate the courtyard and shape their lives. It is set in a period of Indian history of which authentic details have been so obscured by political propaganda and regressive patriotism, that what remains in textbooks and the general mindset is a trite caricature of what once truly was. Khadija Mastur was known for her own underprivileged background and her political views, and the lives and conversations in this book open a window on the actual terrain of the era. Here is a Muslim household, steeped in tradition and piety, and the nationalist reality portrayed is complex. There is an overwhelming love for the country, which leads to sacrifice of family life and personal comfort, imprisonment, suffering and death. There is also an irreparable rift between members of the family, some of whom follow the Muslim League while others consider them traitors, believing that party to be an instrument of further divisiveness and a fundamental cause of inciting violence and continuing strife.
The most enchanting voice in the book is of Aliya, the heroine, who shares her reality with the reader. Sensitive and thoughtful, Aliya feels the pain of the women – but just as much of the men and their inability to bring happiness to their families. The stories on which Aliya thrives mirror through romantic legend the lives of their characters, fuelling their wellsprings of emotion and, more than once, resulting in ghastly tragedy. (Women would commit suicide for love and depart as examples of perfect fidelity, and then, some dark night, men would appear to momentarily light a lamp over the tomb, then leave, and that was that). Intertwined with the tradition of stories originating in Arabia, runs a strong and persistent strain with the stories and symbols of Krishna and Rama making numerous appearances.
And the most beautiful scenes are as the book ends, in the newly-created Pakistan. The clamour and strife subside and wonderful fictional coincidences transpire, one bringing a tragic finality and another opening out onto a horizon of love and hope.