Cover of The Women's Courtyard

Book Review – The Women’s Courtyard

Why I chose this book had something to do with the fact that I had not read any book of an Urdu author and also because I was mighty impressed when it said that the writer, Khadija Mastur, an award-winning Urdu writer from Pakistan, was considered as a Bronte Sister of Urdu literature. Though I knew it was an English translation by Daisy Rockwell, I wanted to read this book. The Urdu title of the book is Aangan, which was published in Penguin Classics as The Women’s Courtyard.

The story is set around 15 years before the Indian Independence from the British rule. Aliya, the protagonist finds herself transported to her elder paternal uncle’s home after her sister’s demise and father being sent to jail. She is a bright girl who is keen to be educated. But in her uncle’s home, she comes across various kinds of people. Though she is encouraged to learn by her uncle and cousins, she is also disturbed by the fact that the home is a hotbed for political activities. Her uncle is a staunch follower of Congress while her cousin, uncle’s elder son believes in the Muslim League. There are constant tensions in the household due to different ideologies.


The book throws light on the condition of women in those times. Women lived under various taboos, they were not allowed to remarry, had to suffer physical and mental abuse and could not move out freely.

Aliya and the women in the household lived in purdah. It’s a system where women don’t come in contact with strange men. And for that, their activities are limited to the confines of the courtyard of the house where they sit and receive female guests and also the men of the house. So, though outside men are not admitted into the courtyard, the family’s menfolk can move and speak freely with the women of the house. As most of the drama unfolds in this courtyard, no wonder the author named the book so.

Let’s talk about the characters in the story. Aliya is the protagonist and a strong woman. She is educated and hold onto her values well. She loves her father and uncle, but she also knows that they were weak men. Though they fought for the freedom of India, they conveniently ignored the situation back at home. It didn’t bother them that there was not enough to eat for the family members or that the women folk were wearing old and torn clothes. She also realizes that with love and marriage come suffering and hence stays true to her vow of not marrying, though she gets various offers of betrothal. However, she is a human too, and in her moments of weakness finds herself attracted to her cousin Jameel. But better sense always prevails.

I find the character of Aliya’s mother as one of the most interesting. She is a woman who knows which side her bread is buttered, but she is also a person who doesn’t appreciate any kindness. She feels entitled to things and doesn’t think twice before hurting people with her acid remarks.

On the other hand, I found Asrar Miyan’s character very pitiable. Though Aliya feels for the poor person, I find it strange that she doesn’t do much for him.

Lost in translation – I experienced something of the kind when I was reading the book. I knew beforehand that a translation cannot always do true justice to the original, but I found the language of the book static. It actually marred the book reading experience and there were times when I actually felt that I should have known Urdu to understand the book better.

I promise not to form an opinion of the writer basis this book and hope to read other books of Khadija Mastur.


Unless you know Urdu, I would say stay clear of this book.

I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to one of them. Seriously, only one!!

1. A book that is a Translation

2. A book written by a Female author



#BookReview of war book - What the day owes the night

Book Review – What the day owes the night

I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to three of them:

1) A book that is a Translation

3) A book written by someone of a different nationality/color/ethnic group than you

21) A book made into a movie

I will be the first one to admit that I do not enjoy war books. They unsettle me for days on end. And then I reason that wars are a part of our legacy, it has made us what we are. I cannot just turn away from it all. Yes, wars have pain, suffering and loss, but they also have hope, love and courage. And these books show us all. So, taking courage in my hand, I read the English Patient. And I tell you, it was a beautiful book. I found a kind of ethereal beauty in suffering. Emboldened by my read, I picked up What the day owes the night by Yasmina Khadra.

Yasmina Khadra is the female pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian army officer who wanted to avoid submitting his manuscripts to the army for approval. The book was originally written in French “Ce que le jour doit à la nuit” and translated by Frank Wynne.


A debt-ridden farmer, Issa moves to a poor neighbourhood of Oran with is wife and two kids, Younes, a 9 year old son and Zahra, a 6 year old daughter. The dirty slum area of Jenane Jato is not for the faint-hearted. While the farmer goes at the break of dawn to search for work and comes home only once the moon is at its peak, young Younes comes across a strange medley of anti-social characters in the neighbourhood. From the orphaned Ouari who catches goldfinches in the scrublands to the war veteran peg-leg who molests young boys and Bliss, the landlord of the slum who later resorts to pimping.

Bad luck doesn’t leave Issa’s side and the obstinately proud farmer decides to give away his son to his brother, Mahi who is a chemist and lives in the affluent European quarter of Oran. The childless couple, Mahi and his French wife, Germaine accepts Younes as their own flesh and blood. Renamed Jonas, the boy gradually loses touch with his old life. Owing to an unfortunate incident involving his uncle, Mahi, the family moves to Rio Salado, a quaint little colonial town just 60 kms away from Oran, known for its vineyards, orange groves and happy boisterous inhabitants. In Rio Salado, Jonas forges a unique friendship with a group of boys that stands the test of time – World War II, love and break ups and the most frightening of them all – the Algerian war for freedom. He meets Emilie, a beautiful girl and falls in love with her, but destiny has something else written for him.

The book is about Younes’s journey from the slum to the countryside, from a young body to an adult, and from past to present and back, which builds his beliefs and reinforces them.


It is a book about a simple boy who is a hero in his own unassuming way. The book is divided into segments each marking an important milestone in Younes’ life. As you move from one segment into another, you feel the ominous change in the young boy’s life.

The first half of the book talks about the transformation of the young blue-eyed boy from Younes to Jonas, his coming to Rio Salado and finding life-long friendship. In the second half of the book, the story picks up pace. With the internal war as the backdrop, it touches on Jonas finding love, losing friends and his surprising stoicism in face of all odds.

Younes or Jonas is a very well-etched out character. The character is so relatable that it could be you, me or the boy next door. A Muslim bought up by a French catholic mother, Jonas has never paid much importance to religion or race. However, time and again, it is thrown in his face and his loyalty is questioned – whether it is by his own friends, the people of his race or the mother of his only true love, Emilie. A quiet loving person and a loyal friend, Jonas is misunderstood by the people he loves the most. A man of his word, he loses more into the bargain than he thought was possible owing to his silence. You can feel his dilemma when he fails to choose sides between the rebels and the France and you can feel his horror at the mindless violence. Your heart constantly reaches out to the young fellow who gives it all but asks for little in return except acceptance.

The author has a way with words especially when it comes to describing the human suffering. If you find the description of the underbelly of Oran beautiful, you will be moved upon reading the suffering from the aftermath of the war.

In Rio Salado, houses stood empty, shutters banging, windows dark, and great piles of clothes and chattels lay piled up in the street. …People rain about, confused, their eyes glazed, forsaken by their saints, their guardian angels. Madness, fear, grief, ruin, tragedy had but one face : it was theirs.

Families searched for each other in the crowds, children wept, old men slept on their suitcases, praying in their sleep that they might never wake.

It reminds me of this famous line from the poem Barbara by French Poet Jacques Prévert – “Oh Barbara, quelle connerie la guerre” (Oh Barbara, what madness is this war?).

Because be it any war, for right or for wrong – it is the humanity that comes out as the biggest loser each time.

Another thing that appealed to my romantic nerve is the way the author has talked about seasons without being lavish about them.

Winter tiptoed away one night.

The winter of 1960 was so harsh that even our prayers froze, we could almost hear them dropping from heaven and shattering on the hard ground.

If you have read and enjoyed Camus’ insights as an outsider, this book shows you the colonized Algeria of 70 years ago from within. Read this book to know the true meaning of love and friendship, and loyalty and promise.

Finishing a good book is like parting with an old friend. What the day owes the night is one such book.