I have read numerous accounts on India’s post-partition story, but none from the other side of the border. ‘A Promised Land’ is a refugee’s story, forced to leave her ancestral home and move to a refugee camp in the newly formed country, Pakistan.
Sajidah arrives at the Walton Camp with her father. She has been subjected to a journey that is painful, both physically and mentally. When she is dragged into an affluent family of refugees, she uncovers a plight that is tragic and unfair. Sajidah meets the feisty Taji, who assures her that the only purpose she has in this strange house is to be a maid and serve these people who were smart enough to occupy a vacant Hindu house following partition. This is the plight of numerous girls who are snatched away from refugee camps and subjected to unfair treatment.
This family that Sajidah lives with, has anxious and loud discussions at dinner time that ends up in fights and tears. The difference in political opinion between Nazim and the rest of the family and their admiration of Kazim who aspires to become a government official takes a bad turn most of the time.
The women in this house, while trying to build a new home, face abusive words from their kids. They are victims of the patriarchy because all the three men in the house freely express their opinions without worrying about the consequences. Saleema, on the other hand, is an independent woman, who emerges as a strong yet mysterious character.
Sajidah, in love with Salauddin, rejects Nazim’s proposal and tries to find her beloved. But she fails miserably and hence, starts a family and officially enters this house as the daughter in law. Sajidah’s character grows throughout the story. What starts as a meek girl, clinging to her father ends in a woman with motherly feelings and finding empathy in her heart for the women she initially despised.
Nazim’s arrest demonstrates a land that is still unclear about its ideologies. His years in jail and his description of what he had to endure in the name of patriotism is grim and devastating. Parallelly, Sajidah battles with the world alone, as the man of the house is no longer with her. She is vulnerable to the forces outside, and even in her own home for that matter. This treatment, however, isn’t new to her. Being a woman and an outsider, she had to face prejudice, scorn, and abuse in this house that sheltered her.
The political events such as Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah’s death etc. play an important role in shaping the characters and the story as a whole. These events bring the family close and divide them from time to time, leading to fierce battle of words between the members of the family.
Sajidah is very different from Aliya, the protagonist of The Women’s Courtyard. While Aliya refused to get entangled in the webs of family and relations, Sajidah accepts this new family as her own. Her protests are only when she isn’t allowed to continue her studies. Aliya wants to leave the house behind whereas Sajidah always finds her way back.
Sameera was someone who fascinated me the most. She was always vocal about her thoughts and feelings but finally chooses a solitary, independent life away from her family. She detaches herself from her mother and her favorite cousin, who felt quite out of character. Her choices are different from the rest of the women as she is out in this progressive world to make something good out of her life.
‘A Promised Land’ talks about the importance of land, however small it is. A piece of land offers shelter and protection from a world that wants to tear you down. Through Sajidah, Mastur gives us the prejudice women are subjected too, inside the four walls of a house and through Saleema, we are asked to dream on about a progressive country that will treat both its sexes fairly.
Blurb (as on Goodreads):
In the wake of the Partition, a new country is born. As millions of refugees pour into Pakistan, swept up in a welter of chaos and deprivation, Sajidah and her father find their way to the Walton refugee camp, uncertain of their future in what is to become their new home.
Sajidah longs to be reunited with her beloved Salahuddin, but her journey out of the camp takes an altogether unforeseen route. Drawn into the lives of another family-refugees like herself-she is wary of its men, particularly Nazim, the eldest son whose gaze lingers over her. But it is the women of the household whose lives and choices will transform her the most: the passionately beseeching Saleema, her domineering mother Khala Bi, the kind but forlorn Amma Bi, and the feisty young housemaid Taji.
With subtlety and insight, Khadija Mastur conjures a dynamic portrait of spirited women whose lives are wrought by tragedy and trial even as they cling defiantly to the promise of a better future.
*Thank you to the publisher for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own*