September Issue 2007

By | Arts & Culture | Books | People | Profile | Published 14 years ago

In speaking of Qurratulain Hyder, where does one begin?

I could talk about the time when I was only seven, and read her mother’s diary, Ayyam-e-Guzashta, in the monthly magazine Ismat. ‘Aini Bi’ was regularly mentioned by her mother, Nazar Sajjad Hyder, in that column.

I believed Aini Bi to be of my age group and in my fertile imagination, she became my saheli. I used to go on the most exciting trips to Kath Godam, Mussoorie, Naini Tal and Simla with her. Since Aini Bi was an avid student of piano, I constructed an elaborate drawing room in my Aini world and was as good as, if not better than, her in playing the piano.

She was the reason why I committed the crime of thievery — for the first and last time — at age nine. I spotted her first collection of short stories, Sitaron se Aagay, at someone’s house. I begged and pleaded with the lady of the house to lend me the book, but she refused point blank. While my mother and she were busy delivering their Khuda Hafiz dialogues, I slipped inside and stole the book. I believed that reading Sitaron se Aagay was my birthright. The theft was discovered. When the haughty lady accused me of being a thief, I admitted my crime with great pride and declared that she would never get the book back. I remember her jaw dropping a couple of inches in astonishment. It was only weeks later that I realised what an audacious deed I had committed.

I could recount the days when I used to read her short stories in Saqi, Nuqoosh, Naya Daur and Naqsh. Subsequently, I devoured her novels and travelogues. My friend Nafees Raza and I began breathing in the world Qurratulain Hyder had created.

This beautiful world was wracked by some of the most venomous articles against Aini Apa that were published in the largest Urdu daily of the sub-continent during Ayub’s rule. It had to do with the novel Aag ka Darya, the finest and most controversial on account of its theme: Partition. An article of mine on Aag ka Darya was printed in the college magazine. In those days, anti-Indian sentiment was at its peak. I was duly declared a ghaddar and a Hindu in college. When I tried to argue my case, I got a sound thrashing from a group of ‘patriotic’ girls. When Nafees came to help me she, too, got her fair share of blows.

I could talk endlessly about the days I passed in her company at 2 Asha Mahal, on Nauroji Gamadia Road. I could quote from her letters, some of which are full of complaints directed against a well-known Pakistani poetess.

Many years later, when I started working for the BBC in London, we would often meet at the Mandir Restaurant and Urdu Markaz. Then there were those meetings at her Zakir Bagh flat where we exchanged the juiciest gossip from here and there. I could relive the day when I received the first volume of her Kar-e-Jahan Daraaz Hai and it said, “Publishing rights in Pakistan reserved with Zaheda Hina.”

Age-old dastans talk about female characters who could pick up pearls with their eyelashes. I have picked up her pearls of wisdom with mine, in a manner of speaking. Through her writings I, and many others like me, understood the glory that was India. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Indo-Iranian civilisation and its enthralling beauty. We saw it all through her profound insight. I am one of the lucky ones who visited this peerless and magnificent civilisation following in her footsteps.

In her personal life, she could get annoyed at the smallest lèse majesté, but when it was a matter of history and civilisation, there was nobody more large-hearted than Aini Apa. She observed, understood and judged humanity in the clear light of the day, without any bias born of origin, race, language or faith.

During the Partition riots, her family residence provided shelter to the sharnarthis (refugees) from Pakistan. One day, the train from riot-ridden Dehradun to Lucknow was ambushed by bloodthirsty fanatics at a small station. Nuns from the American missionary covered Qurratulain Hyder with lihafs (quilts) and sat upon her and thus hid her from the killers who had, perhaps, sniffed out their prey and were bent upon breaking the door of the compartment.

Could the missionaries have imagined that the dreamy 20-year-old whose life they saved would see those riots in the perspective of history one day and would consider them just a terrible whirlwind in the desert of politics?

That night Qurratulain Hyder swam through a river of fire which gave birth to a masterpiece of Urdu literature: Aag ka Durya. It established her credentials as an intellectual giant and a creative artist of great vision.

The thread of pain which brings human beings together is visible not just in Aag ka Darya, but in all her writings. She does not refrain from exposing the ugly side of human nature that emerges when man succumbs to the beast within him. Her long short story ‘Qaid khanay mein talatum hai ke Hind aati hai’ is a fine example of such literature. This tale of torment and anguish was written immediately after the Iranian revolution, and her brave pen drew the picture of an Iran where the statue of imperialism was demolished and replaced by that of mullahism. Under the Shahanshah’s regime, Iranians suffered the torture cells of Savak and, later, were fated to mount the scaffolds of the Islamic revolution.

When Qurratulain first began to publish, critics discounted her writings, but when she produced a substantial body of superbly crafted work that penetrated one’s heart, they began to mention her in patronising tones. The most venerable of these critics began taking her seriously only about 30 years ago. However, the real connoisseurs of her art were her readers, who simply ignored the critics’ shallow and prejudiced criticism. They took her words to heart and proclaimed her the uncrowned queen of Urdu prose.

Those writings were the heartbreaking reflections of common people’s afflictions. Qurratulain Hyder’s subjects were those women who had received no apparent wound during the tumult of Partition, but had suffered emotional scars that may not have been visible to the naked eye, but lingered.

Qurratulain Hyder has portrayed such lives sometimes in a miniature style and sometimes through painting larger-than-life murals. It was her readers who compelled the critics to acknowledge her creative genius. She is the most important name in the history of contemporary Urdu literary prose and has broadened the horizons of the Urdu short story and novel to a Herculean expanse.

She has gone away and the lovers of her writing — her mourners — echo the sentiments expressed in this line by Mir:

“Koson uss ki ore gaye aur sajda har har gaam kiya.”

(We covered miles in reaching her, touching her path with our forehead at every step.)