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