Narratives from the Indo-Muslim world

Published : Mar 21, 2024 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

Qurratulain Hyder

Qurratulain Hyder | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

A multifaceted treasure trove of materials that provides us with a new and richer understanding of the legendary Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder.

Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007), winner of the 1989 Jnanpith Award and awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005, was one of the greatest novelists in Urdu, together with Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Intizar Hussain, and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Her greatest work, Aag ka Darya, published in 1959 in Pakistan where she then lived, caused a controversy, and she left Pakistan to spend a couple of years in London and then returned to India for good. In 1998, this novel was published in her own translation in English, with many excisions and revisions which may help us map her journey over the four decades that separate the original text from the self-translation. Not only was her magnum opus translated, but equally, she herself had meanwhile been translated.

At Home in India: Stories, Memories, Portraits, Interviews
By Qurratulain Hyder; Edited and translated by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai
Women Unlimited
Pages: 437
Price: Rs.750

It is clearly with reference to this return and homecoming that this substantial anthology of Hyder’s diverse works is titled At Home in India. The centrepiece of this volume is the long extracts, translated here for the first time, from Hyder’s intimate family history, Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai, which she called “a biographical non-fiction novel”. (Its title is translated here as “As the World Turns” but may more closely be rendered as “Endless are the Affairs of the World”.) This three-volume saga begins in 740 CE in Tajikistan and concludes in the year 2002 in Delhi, spanning aeons, nations, cities, cultures, and sensibilities. Earlier, in Aag ka Darya, Hyder had taken an even longer time span, from the 4th century BCE up to Partition, with a quartet of characters appearing in new avatars in successive ages: Gautam, Champa, Kamal (not as in the flower but pronounced Kamaal and signifying here a Muslim character), and Cyril. There is nothing probably in any Indian language to match these two prose epics in scope and ambition.

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The landed Muslim aristocracy

Qurratulain was given that rare Arabic-Quranic name by her learned father, a polyglot scholar and writer; it means an offspring who cools or delights the eye. Being too precious for daily use, the name was shortened by her friends to just its tail end, as “Anie”. Precociously, she began publishing fiction in her teens. Then, her family migrated to Pakistan, as did many other interconnected families they were close to. It is this network of the landed Muslim aristocracy of the area around Lucknow, which the British called “Oudh”, that forms the staple of Hyder’s family history.

This class had flourished off the fat of the land when north India was ruled from Delhi, prospered even more under the local Nawabs of Awadh, and under British rule retained intact their privileges and affluence as jagirdars and taluqdars, that is, loyal landlords. But when Independence came and egalitarian/majoritarian democracy loomed large, many of them upped and left even though they could not carry their lands with them. They owned so much land, Hyder recounts, that one of her ancestors, pleased by the song-and-dance performance of a tawaif (courtesan) one evening, gifted her a whole bagh, an orchard, which then came to be called “Tawaif ka Bagh” (p. 273). But the uprooted landlords did carry with them a substantial part of their assets, and some left in enviable style.

“Hyder’s memoirs are as thickly populated as a Brueghel canvas, with every other person married to someone else’s offspring or cousin or niece and thus constituting a vast qunba—or kutumba!”

Hyder described in her novel Safeena-e- gham-e dil, translated by Saleem Kidwai as The Ship of Sorrows (2019), how a family from Lucknow drove bag and baggage to Kanpur, took a chartered Dakota plane from there to Karachi to fly over the newly drawn shadow line, and seamlessly began to live its old privileged life there as if it had been a move merely from one gymkhana to another. Hyder said elsewhere that she was particularly repelled by the palatial houses many of the migrants had built in Karachi (p. 8).

Cover of At Home in India

Cover of At Home in India | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

A large enough number of Urdu writers left India for Pakistan. Indeed, a little book could be compiled recounting the various causes and circumstances that professedly led each one to do so, and the different creative modes and tones in which they described the migrants’ destiny: Intizar Hussain (nostalgic-mythic), Manto (sceptical), Khadija and Hajra Mastoor (domestic), and Josh Malihabadi (post-nationalist). Perhaps many entertained the apprehension that Muslims were not going to be safe in India, and nearly all were driven by the lure of the Land of the Pure doubling as a Land of Limitless Possibility.

Several migrants succeeded but some were disillusioned, perhaps none more so than Manto. Reportedly, when Josh, the nationalist poet who only left in 1956 after he had been awarded the Padma Bhushan (in 1954), was asked on a visit back to India how he found Pakistan to be, he replied that everything was fine—except that there seemed to be too many Muslims there.

Double vision

With her double perspective of having been to Pakistan and done that, as it were, and living in India both before and after, Hyder offers in the pieces selected and translated in this book as rich a portrait gallery of her literary and political contemporaries on both sides of the border as can perhaps be found in any one place. Her memoirs are as thickly populated as a Brueghel canvas, with every other person married to someone else’s offspring or cousin or niece and thus constituting a vast qunba—or kutumba!

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In describing this elite community across time and space, Hyder’s tone is scrupulously neutral and a little distant, as if she were a fly on the wrong side of a glass wall. She recounts how Zafarullah Khan, a legal luminary who actively championed the cause of Pakistan and went across as soon as it came into being, was promptly appointed the Foreign Minister, while another legal luminary who stayed behind, Mohammad Hidayatullah, rose to be the Chief Justice of India and was subsequently elected Vice President of the country.

Cover of Ship of Sorrows

Cover of Ship of Sorrows | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Apparently, Hyder also described over several pages in Kar-e Jahan the “negative criticism heaped” on her head in Pakistan following the publication of the idealistically syncretic Aag ka Darya (p. 9). But that passage, relating to a controversy that transformed Hyder’s life, is not translated here for unstated reasons, though it might have been of vital importance in a book titled At Home in India. But some suggestive little traces of that episode can still be discerned scattered over this volume. Years after Hyder returned to India, she would get letters from friends in Pakistan that said: “Your writings are Pakistan’s treasures and it is impossible to deny this” (p. 259), or “My dear Qurratulain Hyder, please come back wherever you are—nobody will say anything to you” (p. 303), or “You went away—we were unable to appreciate you. We lost an invaluable gem” (p. 305).

Another important context in which Hyder is to be viewed is her stance towards, and her own place among, writers who were Progressives and those who were not. She began her Jnanpith acceptance speech by observing: “I began writing during the golden age of Progressive writers. They rejected me saying I had no social consciousness. I was quite shocked at this verdict of theirs. All around me, …there were villagers, the Indo-Mughals, and Indo-Europeans, all mixed up like intertwined garlands, and each felt a pang about their pasts” (From Jnanpith Puraskar 1965-2010, my translation). Perhaps the Progressive rejection was brought home to her most sharply by Ismat Chughtai, who was older than Hyder by 12 years but remained the enfant terrible of Urdu while Hyder herself came to be acknowledged in time as its serene grande dame.

On Chughtai

In her article “Pompom Darling”, Chughtai castigated Hyder forthrightly as being a “product of the decadence of capitalism”, especially when “capitalism is in its death throes”. In saying this, Chughtai was perhaps closer to the rhetoric of the day than to Hyder’s milieu, which the latter herself characterised as being a (pre-capitalist) “feudal culture” (p. 295). In her turn, Hyder in her obituary tribute to Chughtai, titled “Lady Changez Khan”, connected her to her “remote ancestor” Changez Khan, noted that her “artistic hold” over her short stories had slackened due to her prolific scriptwriting for Hindi films, and observed that “the fire and fury” of her youth had mellowed into religious piety in her old age when she devoutly attended Shi’ite assemblies dressed mournfully in black.

Cover of River of Fire

Cover of River of Fire | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Incidentally, both Hyder and Chughtai came from the same region and social class and went to the same elite college, Isabella Thoburn in Lucknow. Later, they both spent the better part of their working lives in Bombay, Chughtai in Bollywood and Hyder as a reporter and editor in the English publications of The Times of India group. They often met, and once when Chughtai declared that she would readily sleep on a pavement to gather materials for her short stories, Hyder noted that everyone thought it would be “a very bohemian thing for her to do” (p. 357).

Later, in 2006, Hyder came to speak at a conference at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, held to mark the 70th anniversary of the legendary first session of the Progressive Writers’ Association in Lucknow over which Premchand had presided. She held the audience spellbound by narrating in a deadpan manner many piquant anecdotes, including an incident she witnessed in Karachi in the 1950s. A well-dressed man was observed sitting all by himself, evening after evening, at the far corner of the lawn at the Karachi Gymkhana Club, sipping beer and reading a novel in French. It soon transpired that it was Sajjad Zaheer, who had been sent over by the Communist Party of India to bring about a Red revolution in Pakistan and was currently “underground”! Hyder named many other scions of aristocratic families who had, like Zaheer, been sent to British universities to earn high-ranking degrees but had returned as fervent communists.

Numerous gems

The matching essays on each other by Chughtai and Hyder are not included in the book under review probably because they have already been published elsewhere (see Ismat: Her Life, Her Times, 2000), nor does it have Hyder’s Jnanpith acceptance speech. But it has numerous gems of its own to offer, including six short stories of Hyder’s, extensive extracts from Kar-e Jahan, five “Portraits” of women writers and one of the actor Nargis, and finally two interviews with Hyder, with one of the interviewers being the poet Shahryar, who himself won the Jnanpith Award in 2008. This volume is thus a truly multifaceted treasure trove of materials that afford us a new and richer understanding of Qurratulain Hyder.

Ex-Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar presenting the symbol of the Jnanpith Award, “Vagdevi”, to Qurratulain Hyder in New Delhi on January 9, 1991.

Ex-Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar presenting the symbol of the Jnanpith Award, “Vagdevi”, to Qurratulain Hyder in New Delhi on January 9, 1991. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Though quite substantial, the volume remains an appetiser that leaves the reader asking for more. The snippets it offers from Kar-e Jahan, a unique work encapsulating in intimate personal terms not only a family or clan but indeed a whole Indo-Muslim subculture, are even more to be valued and cherished now perhaps than when Hyder wrote them. Indeed, the dedicated editor-translators of this volume have their work cut out for them. It may not be feasible for all the three large volumes of that stupendous work to be rendered into English, especially as its cast of hundreds if not thousands of men and women includes people who were once figures in the land but now are barely recognisable names.

But a judicious selection of say 500 pages translated into English would provide an invaluable resource for social-cultural and literary historians. Another book for which there is a crying need is a biography of Qurratulain Hyder, of the “Life and Works” kind, to be written urgently before the remaining people who knew her and the materials relating to her vanish forever. The editors have done such a splendid job of putting this volume together that it also arouses great expectations.

Harish Trivedi taught English at Delhi University.

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