It arrives on tiptoe. Like the first hints of the changing seasons, definite but subtle, the very first sentences of the novel catch its mood with perfection: “A winter’s night grows desolate so quietly. Today as well, clouds had been gathering since evening. There was a chill in the air now, and the electric lamp burned silently.” This must be one of the quietest beginnings for a great Urdu novel and it captures the pensive, uneasy, hushed spirit of the book with aplomb. Haunting in the original, Khadija Mastoor’s (transliterated as Mastur in the book under review) unique novel Aangan is recaptured in The Women’s Courtyard — a brilliant new translation by Daisy Rockwell.
It is gratifying to see that the book takes its place as a Penguin Classic. Even more important, it is sheer reading pleasure to discover in the translation the unrequited desires and the sepia shades suffused in melancholic tones, true to the spirit of the original. Rockwell’s highly readable version makes me approach the novel with as much excitement as did reading it for the first time many years ago.
For me, it is a novel of significant absences, no less important for what it is not than for what it is. It is not a love story, although it could easily have been one. The characters come close to each other and then recoil without achieving any intimacy. It marks lives devoid of love in the conventional sense. Set in the turbulent 1940s, Aangan also steers clear of ‘Partition literature’ in any conventional sense of the term. It does not describe the arson and violence (as Saadat Hassan Manto does in his razor-sharp short fiction) and it is not a musing on lost times and civilisations past (such as Qurratulain Hyder’s magnificent Aag Ka Dariya). Aangan remains low-key, perhaps deliberately so, focusing on girls and women and, of course, men as well, chronicling the disturbances and havoc created in their lives by political events. Those large events remain off-stage. Rockwell calls Aangan “a different kind of Partition novel” and rightly so. It is a novel which transforms previous definitions.
Khadija Mastoor’s classic novel Aangan receives a superb and nuanced new translation that is likely to garner even more admirers for the book
A recollected past marks the beginning, a time impacting upon the present. The book’s past takes me back in time. It was a presence throughout my childhood. Reading novels to while away the time, I saw my grandmother read it innumerable times sitting in her own aangan [courtyard], and relating totally with it. My parents would often talk about it. My father wrote a literary essay about the novel’s world for Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s journal Funoon and my mother wrote a monograph on Mastoor for the Pakistan Academy of Letters.
I saw Mastoor several times, but it was her sister Hajra Masroor that I felt an affinity with as a writer as well as a person. She narrated an amusing story of how Mastoor completed the novel and went to deliver it to the publisher, but left behind the only copy in the tonga. When she could not find the manuscript, she sat down and wrote it all over again. Both sisters were very different as writers and I developed the idea that Masroor was more accomplished as a short story writer while Mastoor was a fine novelist. The later opinion became a truth universally acknowledged. Critic and novelist Ahsan Farooqi wrote a detailed analysis of the story, finding much to praise in its form and structure, calling it the finest novel in the language. In a similar vein, but without going overboard, Asloob Ahmad Ansari from Aligarh regarded it as one of the 15 major novels in the language. It should not come as a surprise that a critic of the stature of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, quoted on the inside cover of the book, considers it “truly great”, deserving “much greater notice than it has received so far.” So Aangan has never lacked admirers and, in this new version, it is bound to attract more readers.
In its own way, the aangan is not only the setting, but a perfect metaphor for the novel. The central courtyard of a house would be the centre of the household. Technically, this space is not confined to women only — as conveyed by the title — but it contrasts with the more open and public spaces available to men. It is here that the central drama of the family plays out.
Aliya and her mother enter the aangan as they are forced to move into the already populated house of her father’s older brother. The many characters are clearly delineated and memorable, each sad and unfulfilled in their own way. Nobody is more tragic than Israr Mian, son of a low-caste mother but with the same father, who hovers outside the aangan and has to literally beg Kariman Bua, the family servant, if he can get some food once everybody else has finished eating.
Good-looking and romantically inclined, Jameel does not wear the shoes of a hero. He flirts with Chammi and tries to force himself on Aliya as the two female cousins become a contrasting pair, not rivals in love. The contrast reaches a climax at the end when, in a letter from Lucknow to Aliya in Lahore, Chammi announces her marriage to Jameel. The closure is subtle, but perfect. It was Chammi twisting and turning in bed that Aliya could not hear right at the beginning and thought that she must be sleeping peacefully. At the novel’s poignant closure, the wheel comes full circle as Aliya lies in bed, thinking that Chammi has won a victory over her. She folds her hands on her chest. But has she lost? Or is there victory in her being free and independent from opportunistic suitors such as Jameel and Safdar?
The busy world of the aangan and the larger hustle and bustle of the independence movement are minutely covered in the original and beautifully rendered in Rockwell’s sensitive translation. Some nicknames indicating relationships, such as Big Uncle and Mazhar’s Bride, come across as stones in grains of sand, but it is difficult to think of alternatives in English. Mastoor’s unadorned but nevertheless powerful style carries well here. Unlike Hyder, Rockwell notes, Mastoor’s characters express their views sometimes with only a “single gesture” and she manages to create the same effect here.
Rockwell contributes an afterword which offers useful insights into the story and its author. She highlights how Mastoor’s approach to displacement and loss is more subtle: “[the characters’] sense of bereavement comes from their separation from the family members they have been confined with for many years.” Even more telling is her comment on what independence could mean for women, as “women are not automatically emancipated from male dominance by a change in rulers.” Opening with an apt quote from Charlotte Bronte, the afterword makes the oft-repeated comparison of Mastoor and Masroor with the Bronte sisters — in this case, too, there was a third sister who wrote some short stories — but it also highlights important differences between them as artists. Biographical information on Mastoor and her literary context could have done with some beefing up, but for me, the best part discusses Aangan as a Partition novel and places it in context with Hindi novels covering roughly the same period, including Yashpal’s This Is Not That Dawn, Krishna Sobti’s Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas.
Rockwell’s analysis of the novel’s ending is particularly noteworthy and, in the last section, she discusses her own translation in comparison with the 2001 translation by Neelam Hussain. She states that her translation is superior, a comment similar to what she had made about her translation of Tamas and how it was better than the author’s own English version. Rockwell is a far more careful and nuanced translator, hence superior. This becomes obvious when she points out a crucial paragraph — Jameel’s attempt to force himself on Aliya — missed out in the previous version. Rockwell’s version makes me want to rush back to the original and this is her real success as translator.
The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
The Women’s Courtyard
By Khadija Mastoor,
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 25th, 2018