Post-partition pangs

‘A Promised Land’ promises a tale woven out of the horrific days of the Partition from a woman’s perspective, writes Lalitha Subramanian

A Promised LandKhadija MasturPenguin, 2019pp 227, Rs 399

Partition stories from the past few decades have mostly been from men — viz Kushwant Singh, Bhisham Sahni; they tell horror tales wrought by the cataclysmic cleaving of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa (Ice Candy Man, filmed as 1947 Earth) is one of the few known female voices on the subject.

Add to the list, a little known name in India: Khadija Mastur (1927-1982). Thanks to the recent translations of this Pakistani Urdu writer, one can experience her two classic ‘partition novels’. A few months back, Mastur’s epic Aangan, was released by Penguin Classics, as The Women’s Courtyard.

The book under review is a shorter follow-up novel titled Zameen (published posthumously, 1987) in Urdu, The Promised Land in English. Translator Daisy Rockwell has done a commendable job, conveying both words and mood of the period, the very ethos, from the original. Her foreword and long afterword should not be missed while one reads this little gem of a book; and it helps readers understand that feminist women fighters of patriarchy are of all time, not just the present. Rockwell informs that this book is not a narrative sequel to the epic Aangan, but a sort of philosophical follow-up that attempts to gauge the growing pains of a new nation.

The story begins at the Walton Refugee camp, Lahore, a repeat setting from the first book. Here, the female protagonist Sajidah moves on to a world beyond, in a land that is figuring out how to rehabilitate refugees and resettle them fairly. And how do women survive such a disturbed society?

Sajidah, an educated young woman and her honest accountant father bide their time at the refugee camp, awaiting rehabilitation. In that short spell, Sajidah experiences a fair amount of trauma.

She sees a grieving half-mad father wailing for his abducted missing daughter — termed cynically by the government-appointed rehabilitation official Nazim, as a spoil of war; remembers her own dead mother; as well as Salahuddin, the good friend she hopes to be reunited with; finds herself uncomfortable as smooth-talking ladies try to steer her to unknown pastures; and sees her father dying abruptly while in camp.

Vulnerable Sajidah is soon whisked away to a household. Her rescuers are the cynical but well-meaning idealist Nazim (who talks of saving Sadijah’s intelligence) and his cousin Saleema — a passionate, fiery young feminist student. Ensconced in this house as a guest, Sajidah watches the power games being played by the members of this mildly dysfunctional family.

There is Malik, the nominal head of the family, drowning his frustrations in drink, but also harmless and ineffective; Nazim and his polar opposite brother Kazim — a particularly amoral specimen, entitled and feudalistic, the sort of person who flourishes in uncertain times. Their mother, the kind but forlorn Amma Bi has virtually handed over the reins to Khala Bi, her widowed cousin that Malik always loved.

Khala Bi runs the household efficiently, turning a blind eye to her favourite Kazim’s transgressions; she is upset by her own daughter Saleema’s anger towards her, unsure about new entrant Sajidah. And, of course, there is feisty Taji, a refugee survivor turned cook-maid, Kazim’s unwilling flesh-victim. Tragic Taji’s side tale sets the tone of the book, by and by.

Sajidah steers her way through this jungle, disliking Nazim erroneously, yet marrying him to save herself from Kazim. On their own, the couple muddles along through Pakistani politics of the early 50s — a time when leftist idealists like Nazim found themselves behind bars, while corrupt bureaucrats like Kazim flourished.

The Malik home becomes materially richer, yet morally poorer. Radical Saleema chooses her path, away from an archaic home. And a long-awaited love disappoints Sajidah — whose eyes finally open to misunderstood spouse Nazim.

The characters are symptomatic of Pakistan’s early years. Kazim’s atrocious behaviour with the house help Taji and his failed attempt to do the same with Sajidah — they are symbolic of the arrogant opportunists thrown up during partition.

One cannot but help love Nazim, a man in love with a woman who tolerates him. And his politics is clear as he quotes Confucius: ‘A despotic government is more lethal than a tiger.’

This many layered tale has an original title (Zameen) that is spot-on; the story reveals land in its many avatars —  the imaginary fruit orchards owned in the past by refugees so that land claims can be made as rehabilitation; the dissatisfied zamindar character in the story, beating up his wife whenever he recalls his father-in-law’s broken promise of land-dowry. And, of course, ‘The Promised Land of Pakistan’, for all Muslims who chose it.

The Indian reader will be happy to note any absence of rancour towards India; and there is regard for Gandhiji, his tragic death noted. Worth a read, definitely.

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