Set in the 1940s, with Partition looming on the horizon, The Women’s Courtyard  brings into focus the claustrophobic lives of women whose entire existence was circumscribed by the four walls of their homes, and for whom the outside world remained an inaccessible dream. An excerpt:

At night, Aliya would demand that the cook, Khansaman Bua, tell her stories, such as the tale of the prince and the princess who slept in the same bed with a sword lying between them. This story always worried her greatly. What if the prince or the princess shifted in their sleep and someone got cut? ‘Sweetheart, people in stories don’t get cut,’ Khansaman Bua would explain to her, but that did nothing to lessen her anxiety. As she herself was falling asleep she dared not move at all. Who knew if that sword might have made its way into her own bed?

Khansaman Bua told her many amusing tales, such as the story of Raja Bhoj and Gangu Teli, and the tale of the puppet that ate up everything in the king’s palace. The puppet’s story was so entertaining. When the king received word of the puppet’s evil deeds, the news was sung very sweetly:

The Women's Courtyard-front
The Women’s Courtyard Picture Credit: Penguin

 

That wooden puppet, oh, king, she’s gone and devoured all the horses!

‘Khansaman Bua, when they sang that to the king, didn’t he get angry?’ she would ask with astonishment.

‘No, dear, kingly folk have very delicate temperaments, you must tell them everything nicely. Otherwise they might throw you and your whole family into the oil press.’ And when Aliya felt scared, Khansaman Bua would hold her to her chest, sticky with sweat.

The only connection she had with Amma was that she’d hug her when she came inside from playing. Amma would speak affectionately to her and tell her to go play again. Abba she saw only from a distance. He went to the office in the morning, and in the evening the sitting room would fill with his friends. They all talked and laughed loudly, and Khansaman Bua would make them cup after cup of tea.

The only connection she had with Amma was that she’d hug her when she came inside from playing. Amma would speak affectionately to her and tell her to go play again.

After Aliya was enrolled in school, her world became broader. Several of her girlfriends had also started school and she made friends with new girls as well. When she came home after school, Safdar would call her to him, ask her questions about her studies, and laugh heartily at her every response— ‘Oh my, you know absolutely nothing!’ he would tease. She didn’t like it one bit and would attempt to run away from him as soon as possible.

When she entered class five, she began to play more refined games on the advice of Khansaman Bua. A large doll’s house was built in one corner of the yard, where the dolls would get married and wedding processions would depart with great fanfare. The dolls would have babies, and she would stitch them clothing from piles of scraps Tehmina had given her. Khansaman Bua always served sweets on special occasions, such as weddings and births. Sometimes she would even make zardah. On such days, Kamla, Usha and Radha would not observe the rules of untouchability and openly consume the sweet rice.

When she entered class five, she began to play more refined games on the advice of Khansaman Bua. A large doll’s house was built in one corner of the yard, where the dolls would get married and wedding processions would depart with great fanfare.

But here there was nothing. She walked outside and looked all around: some shepherds drove their goats along and a handful of naked children sat playing in the dirt. She could see two small mud huts. There was only one two-storey house near theirs, and the chaprasi’s yellow mud hut. She stared for a long time at the tall two-storey house but she saw no girls that she could make friends with. A man came out and walked quickly down the steps, holding up the hem of his brilliantly white dhoti, and strode away. After that she could hear someone singing and playing a harmonium from the upper storey. She repeated the verses of the song to herself but found them boring.

Birds twittered loudly from the trees. She went and sat dully in the doorway to the sitting room. She felt like sobbing loudly, tearing at her clothes and running away.

‘Sweetie, come over here to me!’ The wife of the chaprasi was leaning over the low mud wall surrounding the yard, calling out to her.

‘Humph!’ she said, and went back inside.

Quite a bit of their luggage had been put away by now. The easy chairs had been set out in the courtyard and the chaprasi had made tea. Tehmina, Safdar, Abba and Amma were all sitting around silently, looking tired. No one said anything to her. There was a small henna plant in the middle of the yard with leaves that were turning bright green. She filled a pot with some water and began pouring it over the plant.

‘Drink some tea, Aliya.’ Safdar spoke to her so affectionately for the first time that day that she went over and sat down on the chair next to him.

‘You feel anxious, Aliya, it’s a new place, and you don’t even have anyone to play with.’ She burst into tears when Safdar patted her on the head. He was the only one who understood how she felt. She leant over and lay across his lap.

You feel anxious, Aliya, it’s a new place, and you don’t even have anyone to play with.’ She burst into tears when Safdar patted her on the head.

When Amma looked over at her sternly, she closed her eyes to protect herself. Amma began ordering the chaprasi around in a harsh tone: ‘Your responsibilities are outside the house. You can’t do any inside work. Arrange for a maid for us right away, but make sure that she isn’t young; such women don’t do a bit of work.’

‘As you wish, ma’am. It will be arranged by tomorrow.’

Evening was falling and Abba picked up his thin cane to go outside for a walk. Amma stared once at Safdar from the corner of her eyes. ‘Go now, play,’ Amma said mechanically, as she grabbed Aliya’s hand and lifted her up. Aliya went back outside to the doorway and stood there. Smoke rose from the upper storey of the house across the way. She could hear the clanging of temple bells.

‘Humph! Play? Play with whom! Who is there here in this jungle?’ She felt overwhelmed with grief. ‘She’s telling me to stay in the house or sit in this doorway and play,’ she muttered. On top of that, everyone else was sitting inside, looking grumpy. She began to choke up.

‘Come, sweetie, have some chapati.’ The chaprasi’s wife leant over the wall again. Aliya quickly wiped away her tears and turned her face away.

‘Aliya.’ Tehmina had come to stand behind her, her huge eyes downcast. ‘Come inside, it’s getting dark now. My, what a beautiful place this is, isn’t it?’ She sighed deeply and looked far off, then wrapped Aliya’s arm around her waist and brought her inside. As they passed by the small room near the sitting room, she stopped for a moment and stood still. Safdar was hunched over a book spread out on the table, reading near the lantern.

The beds had been set up in a row in the courtyard. Tehmina’s bed was next to the henna plant, and Aliya’s was next to that. She lay down silently on her bed. The moon was rising. The sky was still light, but she could see Tehmina’s face even more clearly than the sky in the faint darkness of the yard. She had realized for the first time that day that Tehmina was distracted all the time. At that moment too, she sat on her bed tearing up the leaves of the henna plant and scattering them about in a preoccupied manner.

Excerpted with permission from The Women’s Courtyard by  Khadija Mastur and translated by  Daisy Rockwell  published by Penguin. Pages – 352, Price – Rs 499

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