Themes of Love, Property, Identity and Class in Khadija Mastur’s Novel ‘A Promised Land’

A Promised Land by Khadija Mastur is translated from Urdu to English by Daisy Rockwell.

Srilal Shukla in his Hindi novel, Raag Darbari, satirically took on the might of the post-Independence Indian bureaucracy and its circular, never-ending red tape.  A Promised Land is not satirical but an incisive, feminist critique of Pakistan after Partition. The novel proffers a critical look at Pakistan post-Independence and how the hopeful visions for the country’s future and betterment crumbled. They were overshadowed by a corrupt bureaucracy.

It begins with the Partition’s aftermath, in the Walton Refugee Camp. This is where the novel, Aangan or The Women’s Courtyard ended with the protagonist Aliya working in the very same refugee camp. But this story is not about Aliya. It is about Sajidah. She lives in that camp with her father.

Like Aliya, Sajidah also believes in drawing her fate. In the earlier part of the novel, Sajidah remembers a folktale her mother used to narrate to her in which the youngest daughter of a king refuses to admit that the King decides her fate. She asserts that she is capable of making her fate. Sajidah identifies with this youngest daughter.

Although she wants to do just that, she is aware of the fate of single women in her society. Sajidah wants to break free from those constraints but she knows that for her survival, she needs to belong to a family; to a husband.

While at the refugee camp, Sajidah is tormented with the matter of abduction as an instrument of revenge. An old man in the camp wails out for his lost daughter whose fate was sealed the moment violence was unleashed upon the two nations. This is the only reference to inter-religious rape used by Khadija Mastur. The rest of the novel deals with intra-religious abduction and assault, which is not often touched upon in Partition novels.

When Sajidah is provided shelter by a family, it is done dishonestly, based on Nazim’s fancy. Nazim is a government worker with the Department of Rehabilitation. He met Sajidah and her father at the camp.

The novel portrays themes of love, property, identity and class in its story. Since a new country has been born, people erase their older identities and create an entirely false one to get grander compensations. People loot and break into abandoned homes and claim it their own. Despite the invigorating hopes that a new nation carries in its wake, the old ideas of class and privilege do not disappear. Sajidah’s adopted family treats Taji, their other ‘adopted’ refugee-like a slave, believing that she is not a refugee because she is poor. They believe that poor people will always move or migrate wherever they wish to and have no connection with the land.

Associating identity with the land is the predominant theme explored in the novel through the corollary of the formation of a new country. All the male characters in the story are driven by the idea of having land, of claiming a space of their own by hook or crook. They make false claims of having had abundant wealth on the other side of the border and thus need to be compensated on an equal footing. Fruit orchards are the most desirable for the cash the orchard’s cash crops can bring in. Mastur portrays how the men can assert their identity through the land; they can give up their previous selves easily. Yet, it is the women who struggle to shed the constraints and have no claims as such on land or rights even when a new utopian country is created.

Sajidah balances her desire to create her fate with her ideas about love and longing. She holds on to her dream of reuniting with her first love which enables her to go through the motions of everyday life. Sajidah trusts that the love between a man and the woman will carry an individual through any trials and tribulations. This is unlike Aliya, in The Women’s Courtyard, who wholly believed in education and a job as a means of freedom. Sajidah believes in all those things as well, but she also believes in love to sustain her.

Saleema, the daughter in Sajidah’s adopted family, is similar to Aliya in the way in which she completely rejects love and establishes her identity through her education and career. Her privilege and class also play a major role in allowing her to shun love, relationships or anything that ties her identity to a man.

By creating two divergent yet similar female characters in A Promised Land, Mastur comments on the various paths that women can take to forge ahead in a patriarchal society. Through this narrative strand, she also critiques the futility of the lofty ideals of nationality and ownership for women when they are denied a space in the society as individuals.  

Like Aliya, Sajidah also believes in drawing her fate. In the earlier part of the novel, Sajidah remembers a folktale her mother used to narrate to her in which the youngest daughter of a king refuses to admit that the King decides her fate. She asserts that she is capable of making her fate. Sajidah identifies with this youngest daughter.

Although she wants to do just that, she is aware of the fate of single women in her society. Sajidah wants to break free from those constraints but she knows that for her survival, she needs to belong to a family; to a husband.

While at the refugee camp, Sajidah is tormented with the matter of abduction as an instrument of revenge. An old man in the camp wails out for his lost daughter whose fate was sealed the moment violence was unleashed upon the two nations. This is the only reference to inter-religious rape used by Khadija Mastur. The rest of the novel deals with intra-religious abduction and assault, which is not often touched upon in Partition novels.

When Sajidah is provided shelter by a family, it is done dishonestly, based on Nazim’s fancy. Nazim is a government worker with the Department of Rehabilitation. He met Sajidah and her father at the camp.

The novel portrays themes of love, property, identity and class in its story. Since a new country has been born, people erase their older identities and create an entirely false one to get grander compensations. People loot and break into abandoned homes and claim it their own. Despite the invigorating hopes that a new nation carries in its wake, the old ideas of class and privilege do not disappear.  Sajidah’s adopted family treats Taji, their other ‘adopted’ refugee-like a slave, believing that she is not a refugee because she is poor. They believe that poor people will always move or migrate wherever they wish to and have no connection with the land.

Associating identity with the land is the predominant theme explored in the novel through the corollary of the formation of a new country.  All the male characters in the story are driven by the idea of having land, of claiming a space of their own by hook or crook. They make false claims of having had abundant wealth on the other side of the border and thus need to be compensated on an equal footing. Fruit orchards are the most desirable for the cash the orchard’s cash crops can bring in. Mastur portrays how the men can assert their identity through the land; they can give up their previous selves easily. Yet, it is the women who struggle to shed the constraints and have no claims as such on land or rights even when a new utopian country is created.

Sajidah balances her desire to create her fate with her ideas about love and longing. She holds on to her dream of reuniting with her first love which enables her to go through the motions of everyday life. Sajidah trusts that the love between a man and the woman will carry an individual through any trials and tribulations.  This is unlike Aliya, in The Women’s Courtyard, who wholly believed in education and a job as a means of freedom. Sajidah believes in all those things as well, but she also believes in love to sustain her.

Saleema, the daughter in Sajidah’s adopted family, is similar to Aliya in the way in which she completely rejects love and establishes her identity through her education and career. Her privilege and class also play a major role in allowing her to shun love, relationships or anything that ties her identity to a man.

By creating two divergent yet similar female characters in A Promised Land, Mastur comments on the various paths that women can take to forge ahead in a patriarchal society. Through this narrative strand, she also critiques the futility of the lofty ideals of nationality and ownership for women when they are denied a space in the society as individuals.

You can buy the book here.

Amrita Sher-Gil's Village-Scene-1938

Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard 

The Women’s Courtyard, by Khadija Mastur, translated into English from Urdu, by Daisy Rockwell, begins with the protagonist, Aliya, having a sleepless night at her Uncle’s place, recalling and pondering on how her life will be from now onwards. In the next few chapters, she recalls how she as a child, had shifted to a newer place that was bereft of any life, community or togetherness and how her previous home was filled with love, friends, and endless entertaining stories that her Khansaman Bua used to regale her with.

The book then jumps into the present and narrative speaks of the events that lead up to that point where Aliya is now restless and pondering over an uncertain future in her Uncle’s house.


Titled,
Aangan, in the original Urdu, the novel is set in pre-Independence India (somewhere in North India) and narrates how the Independence movement affects the men and women of the house. It is the women who are the main characters and the house or the courtyard (angan in Hindi/Urdu) is their stage.

The story is told from the perspective of Aliya, focusing also on other female members of the house such as Aliya’s mother, her elder sister, Tehmina, her friend Chammi and Kusum. The Independence movement takes place in the background for the women yet the male members’ intense involvement and particularly the rivalry of Jameel (Aliya’s cousin) and her Uncle rip the household. Jameel supports the Muslim League whereas his own father is a staunch Congress supporter. Their bitter rivalry tears them apart so much so that they do not speak to each other. Aliya’s own father’s involvement in the movement is what forces her and her mother to shift into her Uncle’s house which is where the novel begins.  (caution: one cannot simply base their assumptions about the Independence movement through a reading of this novel and dismiss the contribution of women to the movement).

The Women’s Courtyard does proffer a varying perspective on how deeply it affected women of the time and how it makes them adjust and compromise on every level as well. The novel is not a critique of the movement but rather of the patriarchy that is embedded in society and even in the movement. While it is important to fight for one’s country which the men in the Aliya’s family do, they themselves are caught between their roles of being breadwinners and freedom fighters which shows the pressures that they themselves faced from their family and society. On the other hand, the stage of the house in the novel and the Aangan makes the reader view a traditionally female occupied space and how their world is confined to that. While the men are out there fighting for freedom and having discussions about that in the drawing rooms, the women are never privy to that world. The female gaze does not trespass that territory even though it affects them in various other ways such as emotional and financial. Aliya is the only one who is shown reading and learning about the movement from her Uncle and his encouragement to read his books. The novel portrays several gender expectations imposed at that time which are applicable even today where women are not allowed to be part of certain decision making processes in several areas and cultures of the subcontinent.

 

Through her college, her reading and her exposure to her immediate world, Aliya, is the diplomatic yet empathetic voice in the story who is able to recognize the unfairness in the way in which society treats people, especially women. Her understanding and ability to interpret and reason make her absolutely logical with a touch of empathy for everyone around her. For example, her notions around love and marriage is shaped by how her friend, Kusum, was treated unfairly by gossip mongers for eloping and how Tehmina lost her senses because of falling in love. She is cautious herself about falling in love and stays away from something that she considers quite irrational. It is not merely the idea of love she detests but the manner in which it is ingrained into women. Thus she severely critiques this wrong notion of how women are expected to behave when in love which is quite relevant even today.

The Women’s Courtyard, is a thoroughly engaging read that unsparingly critiques all facets of patriarchy from Aliya’s mother’s entrenched beliefs regarding women and need for punishment for transgressive women or her aunt’s own pride in her Master’s degree and her condescending attitude toward one and all. It is a beautifully translated novel that captures the tense atmosphere both at Aliya’s home and outside. The one aspect that would have added to the novel’s charm would have been to include certain phrases and lines in the original Urdu, even if romanized.