We read so many books about the partition of 1947, which was a catastrophic event in itself and both sides suffered an immense loss. While I have read stories mostly about people who came to India from Pakistan, I never got to read about what happened in the Pakistani side of the border. So when I read ‘A promised land’ by Khadija Mastur, I was moved with her sheer intelligence, her understanding of complexities and most importantly women’s rights, something which women around the world are still fighting for.
Khadija Mastur is one of Pakistan’s most powerful writers. This book was first published in 1987 in Urdu. It’s a thematic sequel to ‘The women’s courtyard’.’The women’s courtyard’ ended in 1947, and this novel picks up from there, in Walton refugee camp in Lahore, where the protagonist, Aaliya was volunteering.
A new land has been created, and millions of people from India have arrived as refugees, in the new promised country, with hope in their hearts, uncertain of their future, but have full faith in Mohammed Ali Jinnah, ‘Quaid-e-Azam’. The timeline of this book is from 1947 to 1954. Our protagonist, Sajidah, arrives in Lahore with her father, knowing very well that she has escaped the horrors happened to women on either side of the border. She waits for her childhood sweetheart, Salahuddin ‘Sallu’, who has promised her that he’ll meet her in Lahore. She carries on with life with this hope in her heart. One day, Sajidah’s father dies, leaving her all alone, and this is where the novel takes a significant turn. Sajidah is given refuge (or sweetly abducted) in another refugee family. She finds herself drawn into the house and the women of the household who are spirited and they transform her choices. Each woman hangs on to hope inspite of the tragedy that has befallen them.
Let’s take a look at the women characters, Sajidah and Taji, the abducted girl from the camp, now a servant in the house, who is unpaid for all the work she does. Sajidah, is educated, can stand up for herself and is spared the fate of Taji. Taji is also a sex worker. Taji resigns to her fate. Sajidah, decides to stay in the house, because the world is terrible to a single woman. Taji, eventually dies, because if continuous abortions and constant sexual assaults.
Saleema, is another mysterious character throughout the book. I wasn’t able to understand her quite well, she always shrouds herself and never opens up to anyone and after Sajidah and Nazim’s wedding, she puts a curtain on herself completely. It’s never really revealed why, did she love Nazim or secretly loved Sajidah?
The male characters also have a pivotal role to play. Nazim, a leftist, has high hopes for the country and in the principles of ‘Quaid-e-Azam’. He works in the Department of Refugee rehabilitation, but quits because he sees the principles on which the new land was created is dwindling away and corruption is taking its place. Nazim is like any other guy, firm in his beliefs, an intellectual, but still he uses his misogynistic views, because he is attracted to Sajidah. She loathes him because they had a bitter first meeting and also because of the way he spoke about an old man’s missing daughter. She marries him, but she hates him for a major part of their marriage.
There are no two doubts that Mastur, being a writer with strong beliefs and a very progressive person, it reflects in her writings. Mastur’s writing is unadulterated, supported by the lucid translation by Daisy Rockwell. Mastur knows fully well what she is doing, and doesn’t drift away from the story, being aware of the violence and the events happening on both sides, especially with women. She strongly questions the norms of the time, despite being independent, women are yet to free themselves from the bondages of misogyny and patriarchy.
Mastur also touches on the political events of the time, making them a part of the story, but doesn’t dwell on it too much. Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah’s death, the Rawalpindi conspiracy, in which leftists are arrested because of the failed coup, the Qadiani riots, also known as the Lahore riots, (the riots which happened in 1953 against the minority Ahmediya community).
Let’s compare the two protagonists of Mastur’s novels. Aaliya and Sajidah. Mastur definitely wanted a better world for both women in the books. Aaliya and Sajidah are educated, have strong beliefs and are looking to live their life independently. This shows her progressive thinking and feminist stand, which was so ahead of her time! This book is so layered, so complicated yet uncomplicated. Women’s rights are paid special attention, asking for equality in a male dominated household. Through such characters, Mastur demands a world more accepting of women’s freedom and the ability to stand on their own feet.
I highly recommend this book as well!!
Thank you Penguin India for sending an early copy my way. Pictures and opinions are my own.
You can pre-order a copy for yourself here.