How do third world women create psychogeographies of the cities they inhabit? In this Dawn column, Kamran Asdar Ali says:
…it needs to be emphasized that although women, the poor and children (in some cases minorities) in cities have not been granted full and free access to the streets — are not complete citizens — yet industrial life has brought them into the public life; they survive and flourish in the interstices of the city and negotiate its contradictions in their own particular way. Hence for Karachi’s working class women, urban space too is used for mobility, transgression, and the different pleasures that they seek, in the process “negotiating” the everyday in favourable and unfavourable terms. Yet they may also exist in a social and cultural landscape of potential harassment, with their movements being regulated by the imminent threat to their bodies and emotions. Perhaps other representational forms than those found in the social sciences are more suited to render meaningful the range of women’s social experience. In order to explore these interstices we may have to turn to women’s voices that are present in non-formal archives such as diaries, biographies, memoirs and even fiction; sources where we find women speaking in non-public spaces.
In looking at early anglophone writing by South Asian Muslim women, I’ve often resisted the facile disciplinary methodology of literary and anthropological archeology: peeling back the veil so as to expose and analyze the ‘true-life’ stories of elite late-colonial women smarting from the impositions of multiple and competing patriarchies. These women, Attia Hosain, Zeenuth Futehally, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, Iqbalunissa Hussain, writing their first novel in English, are acutely aware of their audience and its appetite for the female Other’s domain, that which is forbidden from the gaze of Empire, and yet permeated by the conflicts of imposed colonial modernization. But more than the novels, this awareness is most explicitly articulated by memoirist and essayist Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah, whose writing celebrates the late colonial culture of the declining Muslim aristocracy. In her book of essays, Behind the Veil, she becomes the explicator of the customs of elite Muslim South Asians, documenting especially the material culture of these households soon fragmented by political and social overhaul brought about by decolonization and Partition. Yet despite the minute attention lavished upon the courtyard house and its zenana, some of this writing is concerned with more than merely the transformative potential of the domestic space wherein dwell women who observe the codes of purdah to varying extents. This corpus of writing isn’t only about the ills of seclusionary practices, domestic surveillance and circumcriptions on women’s mobility, some of it also addresses the relationship of such women to the material and imagined space of the city—Lucknow in Hosain’s case, Hyderabad in Futehally, Lahore and Delhi in Shah Nawaz, and Calcutta and Delhi in begum Ikramullah’s memoirs. In Futehally, there is a sustained undercurrent of Tagoreanism along with an overt endorsement of ascetic Gandhism so far as tactics to achieve independence is concerned. But Futehally’s eponymous protagonist Zohra is also at pains to reimagine the essence of ‘Indian’ culture, which she, like Tagore, contrasts with the mechanized commodification of natural resources that the West stands for. Zohra never enters into any relation of production, her value is in her reproductive potential, and so it is easy for her to reject her Nawabi privilege of never having to work. Yet because she is unable to work, her labour is rendered invisible just as her mother’s is—her mother who never appears in the novel in a state of idleness, always sewing or delegating household chores, or preparing food. She becomes obsessed with her children because even though she is ambivalent about her first pregnancy and motherhood, she quickly realises that it is one of the few things that gives her purpose and fulfillment. Another is when she realizes her desire for her husband’s brother, when she realizes that it is indeed reciprocated. The arc of the novel takes the reader from Zohra’s childhood to her death from the plague. She visits Mussoorie, Bombay, the caves at Ajanta and Ellora, bangle markets and the Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad, even Paris, and all throughout, there is little participation in the city allowed to Zohra. We see her in enclosed interiors even in Paris where she has discarded the purdah. Yet Futehally is at pains to allow Zohra to imagine the national space. So when she visits Ajants, she imagines a glorious syncretic past for India moored not in untrammeled greed and military expansionism but rather renunciation and spiritual largesse. The public space becomes the space of her emotional transgressions as well. It is at Ajanta where she finds within her husband’s brother Hamid a person of similar sensitivity with whom she can begin to fully articulate her ideas about Art, Nature and History. The trope of transgressive love in monumentaalised public spaces like the Qutb Shahi tombs recurs in Mumtaz Shah Nawaz as well. In The Heart Divided, Lahore’s Shalimar gardens and Srinagar’s Dal lake become spaces of relative safety for Habib and Mohini, and the Qutb complex in Delhi become Kamal and Sughra’s refuge. Desiring women are compelled to transgress circumscriptions on their mobility and seek refuge in particular urban spaces sticky with history, bringing into sharp focus the palimpsest late colonial city not entirely disciplined under the colonial spatial order that hierarchised inhabitants and determined who had access to where based on race and class, but also gender and religious affiliation. In Sunlight on a Broken Column, Hosain’s protagonist Laila first meets Ameer at the Baradari where she is taken by her cousin Zahra to attend the reception given by the Taluqdars of Oudh to the visiting Viceroy. This is her first social reception where she will not be a spectator watching from the purdah gallery, which she has thus far been content with. It is Zahra who bursts forth with her discontent with this seclusion even in a no-domestic space, saying:
Content? I was not content. There was no alternative in those days. You are lucky you do not have to wait until you are married to do all the interesting things I could never do.
To which Laila replies:
The only interesting thing you have done since you were married is that you have traveled.
Like Futehally’s Zohra, who expresses great discomfort and misgiving in being thrust into the company of strange men after marriage having lead a secluded childhood, Laila too is nervous about the crush of bodies in the Baradari. It is also important to remember that it is only after marriage that Zohra and Zahra are able to travel, even if this journeying offers them as limited an interaction with new spaces as the purdahnasheen woman in Rashid Jahan’s “Dilli ki Sair,” who only reaches the platform of the Delhi railway station where her husband abandons her sitting on top of the luggage to go chat with his friend the stationmaster, and when he returns after two hours, his wife has had quite enough of the bustle and crowds of the station and demands to be taken home to Faridabad.
These women do not walk the city, they traverse it in covered cars. In Zohra, where Zohra and her sister-in-law want to go shopping along, walking the lanes of the swadeshi market in Bombay, Zohra’s husband Bashir forbids it and spoils their experience with his disapproval by insisting on accompanying them. In Hyderabad when Hamid takes Zohra bangle shopping, she does not alight the car, but rather shop-assistants come up to her window to display the wares. The only scenes in which Zohra appears in a public space, walking in it, is when she is a visiting tourist in Mussoorie, Ajanta, Paris or even the Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad. Similarly, the most detailed description of Lucknow that occurs in Sunlight is seen from inside a car, from where Laila articulates the shape of the old city as it was before the destruction of orchards and palatial properties owned by feudal powers to accommodate refugees after Partition. The only scenes in The Heart Divided where any of the female protagonists are seen walking the city are the ones where they are actively engaged in political activity—whether it is Sughra canvassing for votes or her youngest sister Zohra (not to be confused with Futehally’s heroine) protesting alongside workers.
Yet in all of these texts there is a very definite evocation of the city—especially the Islamicate city—in Mumtaz Shah Nawaz and Attia Hosain. Even if there is very little participation in it—least in Futehally. The city where one resides, where one is known, offers the greatest challenges in mobility, the fear of being discovered by others and branded improper a very real deterrent to transgression. But transgression does occur, and often in the refuge of iconic monuments and public gardens. Travel allows these fictional protagonists to experience greater freedom, as does marriage and in a different way, the discovery of romantic love which emboldens them to seek spaces to meet lovers. Between these constraints of movement however, the late colonial South Asian city is imagined in abstraction over and over again, if not represented as having been ‘explored’ through one’s feet.
This is a Muslim women’s psychogeography of a 1930s Islamicate city in South Asia: one that allows for a greater facility to imagine what a national space would look like and the kinds of participation that would be available to minoritized elite Muslim women. The character of this city permeates each of the novels even if a large part of the scenes occur indoors, the changes in this character felt acutely in Sunlight when Laila returns to Lucknow fourteen years after the carnage of Partition to discover the fragmentation of her ancestral town house Ashiana, and the inelegant spatial order of postcolonial modernization that disregards heritage for more pressing concerns of refugee rehabilitation.