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Qurratulain Hyder: A writer of a divided world

Qurratulain Hyder closely observed and commented on the dilution of syncretic values both in India and in Pakistan

When Hyder visited the Urdu Academy in Lucknow, she remarked that the institution had become stuck in a time warp, like the language it fostered.
When Hyder visited the Urdu Academy in Lucknow, she remarked that the institution had become stuck in a time warp, like the language it fostered. (Getty Images)

March is Women’s History Month. It’s the time of year to celebrate women’s writing across the world. But Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007), one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, would probably have disapproved of the moniker.

Hyder, or Aini Apa (the pen name by which she was known), was a writer first, in her own right. Labels of religion, ethnicity and gender can scarcely do justice to her prodigious vision of humanity or the skill with which she expanded and reimagined the scope of Urdu, the language she mostly wrote in. As she said in a tribute to fellow Urdu writer Anis Kidwai (1906-82), shortly after the latter’s death, “The keepers of social equality committed a grave injustice against capable women writers by compartmentalising literature into categories of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ literature.”

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Yet, few writers from the subcontinent, or indeed from anywhere across the world, deserve to be celebrated this season, and for all time, as Hyder. If you want to taste her sheer genius, Aag Ka Darya (River Of Fire), first published in 1959, is a remarkable novel to start with. But, in case you want a more panoramic view of her life and career, At Home In India: Stories, Memoirs, Portraits, Interviews, edited and translated from the original Urdu by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai, and recently published by Women Unlimited, is pure gold.

Hyder’s literary as well as personal legacy is one of the many reasons that makes this volume required reading at this time. The title is poignant and has been invoked by others to talk about the lives of Indian Muslims. (The former Union minister, Salman Khurshid, who published a book about the history of Muslim identities in India in 2014 is a case in point.) In Hyder’s case, this title is a double-edged sword.

Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, Hyder left for Pakistan with her family in 1947 as the bloody violence of Partition broke out. By this time, she was a feisty 20-year-old, brought up on liberal values by her progressive writer parents, Sajjad Haider Yildirim (1880-1943) and Nazar Sajjad Haider (1892-1967).

Hyder spent the next few years as a journalist and writer, and her stories and essays appeared in a wide variety of publications, giving her prominence as well as notoriety. Few writers in Urdu before her had pushed the classical foundations of the language into uncharted modernist terrains, either to create genre-bending narratives or in the service of a stream of consciousness style. Until 1959, when a huge controversy erupted after the publication of Aag Ka Dariya, a novel about syncretism and revisionist tendencies, and Hyder decided to return to India.

The stories, interviews, essays and memoirs collected in At Home In India capture this complicated inheritance that trailed writers like Hyder, Attia Hossain, Ismat Chugtai, Khadija Mastoor and others. After growing up in the best traditions of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, where syncretism was a way of life rather than an acquired habit, Hyder was disturbed by the deep-rooted conservatism of Pakistan, especially by the status of women there. At the same time, she wasn’t one to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses. As she said in 2005, “…when it came to the freedom of women, the attitude of all Muslims, irrespective of class, was the same… Our values and morals were framed by the middle class after the 1857 Uprising, and the intelligentsia from Aligarh played a major role in this.”

In her 80 years, Hyder not only lived through Partition, but also several wars that tore through the subcontinent and upheavals, like the vandalism in Ayodhya in 1992, which shook her profoundly. She had been a hair’s breadth away from violence when in 1947, a mob of rioters threatened to break into the train in which she and her mother were travelling, but they were protected by three American missionary women. Yet, Hyder was able to hold her personal histories of belonging and alienation with clear-eyed lucidity, refusing to stray into sentimentalism, blame-games, or easy nostalgia.

If the stories in this anthology are a class apart for the pace and suspense with which they unfold, it is in the memoirs and essays that we glimpse a mind that is like a flintstone—sharp, flammable, fiery yet unostentatious. Where you would expect maudlin grief for the lost world of the yore, Hyder weds her journalistic rigour with the nuance of a fiction writer to document the changes that befell during her lifetime.

'At Home In India: Stories, Memoirs, Portraits, Interviews', is edited and translated from the original Urdu by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai.
'At Home In India: Stories, Memoirs, Portraits, Interviews', is edited and translated from the original Urdu by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai.

As a journalist with The Illustrated Weekly Of India, among other publications, Hyder wrote about the film world of Bombay (now Mumbai), the city she settled in with her mother after returning from Pakistan. Among the many gems in this volume is a beautiful portrait of Kaneez Fatima, the daughter of Jaddan Bai, who attained stardom under her screen name of Nargis. An Epoch-Making Actor, which is largely focused on the life of the heartthrob of the 1940s and 1950s, is also Hyder’s account of the shifting mores of the media and movie worlds.

In her trademark digressive style, she meanders down memory lane, remembering the “Old Lady of Bori Bunder,” a nickname for The Times Of India, known at the time for its “thoughtful and mature journalism.” She recalls Mehtab (1913-97), the resplendent heroine of Chitralekha (1941) and Jhansi Ki Rani (1953), who opened a salon near Hyder’s home in Bombay and worked as a hairdresser later in life.

Her glittering humour and sardonic eye notwithstanding, Hyder had a keen sense of pathos and irony that defined democracy in independent India, especially its slow dilution into towards autocracy.

As she wrote, “All those intellectuals who spent their lives struggling for freedom from the British were heartbroken and, after independence, took refuge in the very same Britain against which they had fought and sloganeered, when the governments of their own countries, India and Pakistan, placed restrictions on them.”

Along with the post-colonial state’s restrictions on free speech and cultural policing, Hyder witnessed the gradual erosion of values, knowledge systems, and the double helix of Hindu-Muslim identity. And so, in the late 1990s, when she visited the Urdu Academy in Lucknow, she remarked that the institution had become stuck in a time warp, like the language it fostered. “Urdu had now become like a modest woman sitting behind a veil in a slow-moving palanquin.”

Back in the 1970s, Hyder observed, “It is nearly thirty years that the subcontinent won its freedom, and nothing has changed.” Unfortunately, that undercurrent of fear and chaos has not been stemmed by the democratic promises of a Superpower India even in 2024.

Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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