Only a few days back, to mark the 60 years of Independence, when we asked an eminent jury to pick out 60 Great Indians in 60 years of our Republic, the name of Qurratulain Hyder was introduced prominently as Urdu's Marquez."Through her novels and short stories, this prolific writer gave Urdu fiction a brave and endlessly inventive new voice," we wrote, and quoted the London Times: "Her magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire), is to Urdu fiction what A Hundred Years of Solitude is to Hispanic literature. [She is] one of the world's major living writers."
But, alas, no more.
For, Qurratulain Hyder breathed her last in a Noida hospital after a prolonged illness at 2:30 a.m this morning. She was awarded the Jnanpith in 1989 for her novel Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar (Travellers Unto the Night), the Sahitya Akademi award in 1967, the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1969 and Ghalib Award in 1985, and had been honoured with the Padma Shri, and, recently, the Padma Bhushan in 2005.
Indeed, when talking about Independence, it is inevitable to think of Partition -- and she was perhaps the most profound, literary explorer of that tumultuous event. She did not write about the physical violence of Partition, as did so many others (foremost among them Manto). In fact, in her most famous novel Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire), a historical tale that moves from the fourth century to the modern India and Pakistan, the moment of Independence, is marked with a blank page that simply says "August 1947". Her interest lay in the wounds that bled inside, the festering wounds that people carried silently for ever. Some of these aspects of her writings were explored by C.M. Naim in the introduction to his translation of one of her short stories and two novellas that we reproduce below as an appreciation.
The days and months that preceded and followed August 1947—when the Indian subcontinent became free of colonial bonds—were filled with most horrific acts of physical violence. The mass killings, rapes, plunder and arson that occurred at the time moved the great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz to call that ‘Freedom’s Dawn’ "a pock-marked and night-bitten morning," and his words became the mantra for a whole generation of Urdu writers on both sides of the new international borders. It was also a time of other, equally rampant ‘violences’ that were not any less scarring for not being patently physical. These were violations of trust; they wounded and maimed the psyches of their victims, leaving the bodies intact. And their time—that season of betrayals—lasted longer than just several months.
These betrayals were of many kinds. In the arena of public life, for example, there was the abandonment by the Muslim League leaders, particularly of U.P. and Bihar, of the very people whom they had vociferously claimed to represent, as they rushed off to gain for themselves positions of power in Pakistan. Then there was the abandonment of their avowed ideals—not to say their Mahatama’s wishes—by the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress when they accepted—some would say, with ungainly haste—the division of the country in order to pursue their own vision of a highly centralized polity. Instead of leading to any devolution of power to the common man—the individual citizen—the emergent polity in Pakistan soon turned into a nightmare military dictatorship. While in India, where the abolition of princely states and zamindari briefly created the effect of a radical change, there eventually developed a feeling of increasing disillusionment as the ‘consensual’ politics of the Indian National Congress quickly showed their true face as shameless manipulations of caste and religion.
At the level of personal lives too, there were many betrayals. One may rightly say, of course, that the physical violence let loose during those ‘communal riots’ was nothing but an extreme violation of the trust that had existed—or should have existed—between human beings. But even otherwise, too, there were innumerable incidents that occurred between neighbors, between friends, even between members of the same family, that were betrayals of established ties and expectations, as masses of people moved from one country to the other—a person suddenly found his neighbor gone even though there had been no fear of violence, or a friend was shocked to discover that his boon companion had emigrated overnight to some distant place. And who can say that those who went away did not at some time or another feel a twinge of guilt for what they had done to the trust that others had placed in them?
From the specific perspective of the Muslims of Bihar, U.P., Rajasthan, Central India and Hyderabad, such sudden, large-scale and continuing emigration had never occurred before. Its consequences in terms of a permanent severing of familial ties—along with what the latter entailed as rights and responsibilities—were unprecedented. Perhaps the worst sufferers in that regard were the women of middle-class Muslim families. House-bound and ill-educated, they had mostly been raised to wait for their male elders to find them husbands, for whom they could then continue to perform their traditionally designated tasks. But now male elders and prospective grooms dribbled away to Pakistan, while the two nations steadily used legislative controls to make their return impossible. It must be difficult today to imagine how it was in the Fifties for countless Muslim girls and their parents, particularly in the so-called sharif families of North India that had fallen on bad days after the abolition of zamindari and the enforcement of the Evacuee Property Act. Ismat Chughtai's memorable short story Chauthi ka Jora ("The Wedding Dress")—partly incorporated in her script for the film Garm Hawa—perhaps best communicates that particular nightmare.
At the time, most major Urdu writers—they were almost all men—wrote about the horrors and brutalities that some human beings could deliberately inflict upon others in the name of religion. Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Krishna Chandra, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Qudratullah Shihab and numerous other male writers produced a powerful ‘literature of the riots’. But to the extent that these and other male writers remained focused on just the physical violence, their fiction—particularly of the less talented, though not any less sincere, among them—often read like a list of horrors. (Usually these horrors were ascribed to the two communities or nations in a carefully calibrated equal measure.) Only later did some of them—Rajinder Singh Bedi, for one—turn their attention to the other, less overtly bloody tragedies: what had happened and continued to happen to individuals and families at those human sites where there had been no ‘riot’ and yet there were any number of victims. Women writers, on the other hand, focused their attention from the beginning on the non-physical and less tangible tragedies of divided families, abandoned parents and siblings, and shattered loves and trusts. Perhaps because these were their own felt experiences. Prominent among the latter was Qurratulain Hyder, who may also have been unique among all writers—women or men—for having experienced and written about such tectonic upheavals on all sides of the emergent borders—in India, and in both West and East Pakistan. Interestingly, she first responded in the form of novels, as if the magnitude of the events demanded a larger canvas, and only later turned to shorter genres. In some sense, however, she never stopped examining the consequences of those events, as is evident even in her most recent works.
The present collection—two novellas and a short story—contains three of Hyder’s best-known shorter fictions about that particular time of trials and betrayals. The first novella, "Sita Betrayed" (Sita Haran), is dated 1960 and was published in Naya Daur (Karachi); the second novella, "The Housing Society" (Housing Society), is dated 1963; it too first appeared in Naya Daur; the short story, "The Sound of Falling Leaves" (Patjhar Ki Avaz) dates from around the same time and was the title story of the collection that came out in 1967 and won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1968. The three, besides being some of my own favourites, also form, to my mind, a fair representation of Hyder’s thematic concerns and stylistic predilections, as will become clear below.
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The chief protagonists of the three works are women: Sita Mirchandani, a Hindu refugee in India from Sindh; Salma (‘Chhoti Bitiya’) and Surayya, Muslim girls from very different social classes in U.P., who are forced to move to Pakistan; and Tanvir Fatima, another Muslim born in U.P. but narrating her story in Lahore and not quite sure why she is there. In fact, this uncertainty and not quite knowing what happened to them and why, is a feature common to these and several other female characters in Hyder’s fiction. Not that they are befuddled, unintelligent, or inert; rather, they seem un-moored, though not unnerved, by the cataclysmic events around them. It is important to note that despite the crumbling away of the social and economic certainties of their childhoods and adolescent days, these women do not fail to shore up new lives for themselves. They are not benumbed into total inaction. However, there does remain a deep hole at the centre of their lives which they repeatedly—and vainly—seek to fill through new human contacts. One reason is that the cataclysms have not dislodged men from their essential position of authority and control. In fact, the changed times seem to provide the men with ever-new channels for exercising dominance.
Arguably, some contemporary readers might see these women as ineffective, or worse. Others might scorn them for repeatedly placing their love and trust in the hands of men who eventually only betray them. These would be unfair judgments. I feel if she were accused of not allowing her female protagonists any ‘agency’, Hyder might well reply, "Guilty as charged. But that’s the whole point." Hyder’s female characters live within a patriarchal society which, of course, still exists, and her censure of that institution of control and exploitation is unequivocal. If her protagonists do not assertively challenge patriarchy, they are not its eager accomplices either. When they make any compromise with it—as, for example, does Surayya near the end of "The Housing Society"—it is for the sake of that most basic of all human needs: survival. On the other hand, there may be seen a ‘heroic’ quality in their apparent naiveté: they would rather suffer than give up the very human habit of trust—which, it must be conceded, is foundational to all our relationships and institutions. Sita Mirchandani in "Sita Betrayed," despite betrayals by a series of men, must remain alive to her own essentially felt need: it is as if, for her, ceasing to search for a shared and lasting experience of love would mean self-annihilation. This particular stance, this curious way of giving meaning to one’s existence, is also hinted at in "The Housing Society" when Surayya quotes a line of verse: "But for this endless illusion, man would die." 
The female protagonists of these fictions also feel a deep, ineluctable separation from their surroundings, despite all the surface congeniality that their lives seem to offer. They live in a state of exile that is more internal than obvious. Sita Mirchandani, a Hindu, feels lost in a predominantly Hindu India; as do her Muslim counterparts, Salma and Tanvir Fatima, in the overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. Sita may have internalised the history of Sindh—in fact, she remembers many histories—but the wound of separation from Sindh itself is so deep that no tie to any other place heals it. So she wanders, from Delhi to New York, back to Delhi, then to Colombo, on to Paris, and again to Delhi. Her story ends with her back in Paris, but again facing the prospect of having to return to Delhi or go somewhere else. Tanvir Fatima, more sedentary and more modest in looks and talents than either Salma or Sita, shares her story with us while sitting in a drab flat in a nondescript alley in Lahore, but for all the extent the particularities of the burgeoning capital of Pakistan’s largest province have any meaning for her, she could as well be in Toronto (Canada), Bradford (U.K.), or New Jersey (U.S.A.).
The title of the novella, "The Housing Society," refers to what was once considered the apex of wealth and power in Karachi: a residence of your own in the prestigious Pakistan Employees’ Cooperative Housing Society (P.E.C.H.S.)—commonly known simply as the ‘Society’. For a couple of decades, the ‘Society’ remained the summit towards which the more ambitious clawed and scrambled through various intermediary stages. Now, of course, it has been surpassed by other, fancier addresses.
The narrative of "The Housing Society" consists of three strands: the lives of three families which intersect for one brief moment in U.P. some years before the Partition and which—unbeknownst to the protagonists—again intersect in Karachi a few years after 1947. (The dénouement takes place at a lavish housewarming party in the ‘Society’.) The element of coincidence is as prominent in this novella as it is in "Sita Betrayed." It is, in fact, a favourite device with Hyder, and serves well to maintain the self-contained world of a novella. In addition, it sharpens the didactic impact of the bewildering changes brought about by the radical post-Partition transformations. Simply put, the fortunes of the family—Salma and Salman’s—that earlier had power and wealth now go into decline, while the two families—Surayya’s and Jamshed’s—that once seemed fated for genteel poverty are launched on an upward trajectory that seems boundless. This predictable narrative, however, is saved by the fact that all the protagonists are drawn with an even hand. And when their experiences of childhood are recalled in the context of their new lives in Karachi, it becomes clear that they are just like everyone else, neither exclusively good nor exclusively bad. The trajectories that their lives took in the wake of the political and social upheavals of 1947 could not have been predicted even a few years earlier.
The narrative flow of the two novellas is familiarly chronological, but staccato and rapid. The scenes shift quickly, and though their firm linearity doesn’t allow for a truly montage-like impression, the final effect on the reader is much like that of watching a fairly rapid-paced film. It means, for example, that there are no moments of reflection and introspection, nor are there any authorial asides. What we do get are auditory flotsam and jetsam—snatches of forgotten songs, bits of poetry, even old doggerel—functioning very much like the musical sound-track of a movie. They help to recreate the ‘reality’ of the events as located in historical times—what in cinematic terms would be called the mise en scène. They also underscore the emotional contents. Hyder’s aural memory is formidable, and she prefers to rely on it—as also on a memory of smells—to evoke for us particular places and times.
This poetic or musical ‘scoring’ of the prose narrative may seem odd to some. A reader not familiar with Urdu culture, for example, may look askance at the set-piece near the end of "The Housing Society" when two reporters drunkenly recite bits of a "Progressive" poem. But most Urduwallas do quote poetry all the time, and what the two reporters do is no different from what so often takes place in any gathering of Urdu speakers after "the night has spread its dark tresses" and nostalgia reigns supreme. The shards of the poem make the scene ‘real’ by placing it in a history. They also sharpen the realization we only gradually come to, that the two drunks, crying over Salman’s fate, are in fact lamenting the passing away of their own innocent and idealistic days of not too long ago.
The use of such textual fragments is more prominent and deliberate in "Sita Betrayed," where in different sections liberal use is made of quotations from (or references to) three famous texts: Vishakhadatta’s play, Mudra Rakshasa; Malik Muhammad Ja’isi’s sufi love-tale, Padmavat; and Tulsidas’ devotional epic, Ramacharitamanasa. The fifth century A.D. Sanskrit play is set in the fourth century B.C. when the mighty Mauryas began their reign. The play, however, does not celebrate that event. It focuses on the fate of Rakshasa, the exiled chief minister of the deposed Nandas, who was too loyal and trusting, and who was therefore easily destroyed by that great "realist" Kautilya, political guru to Chandragupta I. The question of personal loyalty within the context of political shifts, the experience of exile, the folly of undisciplined trust—these are some of the themes that the play shares with the novella. Perhaps it is not insignificant that the fragments from the play are heard in a scene in Delhi, that eternal Indian site of contestations over political power and loyalty.
Ja’isi’s famous sufi premakhyan or love poem, Padmavat, written in the fifteenth century, is considered a masterpiece in Avadhi and predates Tulsi Das’ Ramacharitamanasa. It is one of several such works by Muslim poets who belonged to the Shattari sufi order. One distinguishing feature of that order was its several masters’ extensive interaction with Hindu yogis, to the extent even of adopting many yogic practices in their own instructional methods. In a similar vein, the Shattari poets made use of indigenous tales and legends for their mystical allegories. In "Sita Betrayed," the quotations from Padmavat occur in the section set in Sri Lanka, the legendary Singhaladwipa of the poem. On surface, they indicate the "rootedness" of Jamil and Irfan even after they have moved away from Avadh and its syncretistic milieu. More deeply, they highlight certain ironies. In the poem, King Ratan Sen, who is already married, sets off for Singhaladwipa to find Padmini with whom he has fallen in love on mere hearsay—on a parrot’s word, to be exact. The poem pays scant attention to the grief of the first wife, but glorifies for its sufistic aims the love between Ratan Sen and Padmani. In the novella, Sita, Jamil's first wife, goes to Colombo, hoping that Irfan, who claims to love her, would help her gain custody of her son from Jamil and also her legal freedom from the marital tie. She achieves neither; on the other hand, the two men manage to bond together as they exchange verses from the Padmavat. Neither the medieval poem nor its modern users show any concern for—or even an understanding of—Sita’s anguish.
The use of Tulsi's poem may seem more obvious, but it too is limited in purpose.
The Sita of Hyder’s novella cannot possibly be confused with that absolute embodiment of innocence and virtue, the Sita of Tulsidas. Sita of the Ramayana, born in Mithila, comes as a bride to Ayodhya, follows her husband Rama into exile, where she is abducted by Ravana, who carries her off to Lanka. After being rescued and after the end of Rama’s period of exile, she returns to Ayodhya, only to be exiled by her own husband on account of mere rumours. And though she returns to Ayodhya one more time, her sufferings end only when she is swallowed by Earth, her true mother. Sita Mirchandani thinks of herself as a daughter of the land of the Indus, and to the extent she has internalised the histories of several places, she may even be perceived as a daughter of the earth. But there the parallel ends. The two vastly different Sitas have only one thing in common: the ‘agency’ in the lives of the two women seems to lie exclusively in the hands of men.
Like "Sita Betrayed," "The Housing Society" also has collage-like segments in its narrative: the petition of Surayya’s mother; the old songs that Jamshed and Surayya remember; the fragments of poetry that the two journalists console themselves with. But there the songs and verses merely serve nostalgic impulses; they do not play the same structural role that the fragments of the classics in "Sita Betrayed" do. What is interesting and consistent, of course, is that while Hyder gives no physical descriptions of her protagonists to help us visualize them, she gives us plenty that we can use to hear them in our mind.
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Qurratulain Hyder was born in 1927 to two highly creative, original, and earnest individuals.  Her father, Sajjad Hyder, a product of the M.A.O. College, Aligarh, was an enlightened man who expounded his liberal views on the education and welfare of women in essays and stories, and also through various organizations. Besides being a pioneer short story-writer in Urdu, he also translated short stories and novellas from Turkish, which he had learned from Haji Isma’il Khan, a friend of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Haji Isma’il Khan started a magazine called Ma’arif from Aligarh in 1896 on the lines of Sarwat-o-Funoon, a forward-looking Turkish magazine. Sajjad Hyder, still an undergraduate, worked as its Assistant Editor and transcreated considerable Turkish short fiction into Urdu for it. From 1904 to 1907, he worked as dragoman for the British Consul at Baghdad and came in close contact with the Young Turks. Later he visited Turkey several times. An avowed Turcophile—he adopted the Turkish word Yildirim ("thunderbolt") as his pen-name—Sajjad Hyder saw in the rise of the Kemalist movement a glorious future for all Muslim societies.
Qurratulain Hyder was first photographed by Prashant Panjiar in what was a coup of sorts, everyone talked of how elusive and difficult she could be. When I met her last week to persuade her, she said, 'Tell the magazine I'm a difficult woman.' I told her that was her reputation anyway. For the first time that afternoon she cracked a grin. She seemed flattered.-- Gauri Gill
Qurratulain Hyder’s mother, Nazar Sajjad, was an equally liberal and socially concerned person. She too wrote fiction, both novels and short stories. These were particularly popular with the emergent female readership in Urdu. She was also very active in promoting educational and social reforms among Muslim women. Hyder has memorably celebrated the lives of these two immensely creative individuals in her two-volume Kar-i Jahan Daraz Hai, which is itself a unique book in Urdu, being a novelised account of her family that goes back to the time when her ancestors first arrived in India from Central Asia, and comes forward to her own days (till 1978).
Hyder was educated mostly in Lucknow, first at the famous Isabella Thoburn College, then at the University of Lucknow, where she obtained a Master's degree in English literature. She also studied painting and music, and has always been avidly interested in various other arts.
Hyder’s father passed away in 1943. She and her mother were in Dehra Dun in 1947 when India became free and communal riots broke out at many places, including Dehra Dun. The mother and daughter were able to escape to Lucknow, and in December 1947 left for Karachi, where Hyder’s only brother had preceded them. In Pakistan, Hyder worked for the Department of Advertising, Films, and Publications, working on documentaries, particularly in what was then called East Pakistan. Subsequently she moved to England, where she worked at the BBC. In 1961, she returned to India and lived in Bombay, first as the managing editor of Imprint, then as the Assistant Editor at the Illustrated Weekly of India. Since 1984, she has lived in Delhi and has held various positions, including visiting professorships at the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia. Her writings have brought her several major awards, including the Sahitya Akademi award in 1968, the Soviet Land award in 1969, the Ghalib Modi award in 1985, the Iqbal Samman in 1987, and India’s most prestigious Jnanpith award in 1991. The Government of India honored her with a Padmashri in 1984, and the Sahitya Akademi chose her as one of its permanent Fellows in 1994.
Hyder’s literary career began at a very early age when she started contributing to some of the celebrated magazines of the time that specially catered to women and children. But soon her short stories began to appear in the best literary magazines of Urdu, and the first collection came out in 1947. Her first novel, Mere bhi Sanam-Khane ("My Idol-houses too"), followed soon after. Set at the time of the Partition, it movingly displayed the tearing apart of the lives of ordinary individuals as they got caught in the vortex of events that they understood only dimly if at all, and the destruction of that syncretic Ganga-Jamni (Indo-Muslim) culture that was once the primary defining element for much of the elite society in the towns and cities of the Gangetic plain. The novel’s title (borrowed from a couplet by Iqbal: "You have your idol-houses; I too have mine. // My idols are perishable, and your idols are too") aptly described the young author’s view of those calamitous days: a disillusionment of immense magnitude, a tragic falling from grace of many gods. Notably, she did not write like an outsider writing about other ‘victims’ and thus feeling a need to point a finger at someone ‘guilty’. Instead, her voice was that of a victim who chooses not to accuse anyone, for who is there to accuse but another victim.
Since then she has published three volumes of short stories, six novels, several novellas, the two-volume family saga mentioned earlier, and several translations, including Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. She has also published English translations of her own works, including a novel, Fireflies in the Night, and a collection of short stories, The Sound of Falling Leaves. Another such publication is The Nautch Girl, her English translation of a nineteenth-century Urdu version of what was perhaps the first piece of ‘modern’ fiction written in Persian (ca. 1790), and possibly also the first Indian novel.
During her literary career, Hyder has had her share of controversy too. In the early Fifties when the so-called Progressives had the dominant voice in Urdu literary circles, Hyder was accused of being a bourgeois and a reactionary, given to morbid nostalgia and employing a literary style that, to the Progressives, seemed slight or brittle if not outright flippant. Ismat Chughtai even wrote a parody of her fiction, entitled "Pom Pom Darling." Hyder’s real crime, in fact, was that she preferred to write exclusively about what she knew best. She wrote mostly about upper-crust people and did not denounce them in the manner expected by the votaries of Socialist Realism. But her detractors were utterly wrong to think that she wished for a return of the good old days. They demanded of her a kind of crude class-consciousness, but themselves showed no understanding of the immense pain—private as well as public—that she felt as the life around her changed. Hyder was never oblivious of the economic ties that existed between people as well as between classes of people, she was simply more concerned with the human bonds of trust, loyalty and empathy—values that are often not quite defensible through cold logic. Later in Pakistan, some literary critics, pointing to her apparent affection for that Ganga-Jamni culture of the past, faulted her writings for being ‘anti-Pakistan’. Understandably, her readers in Pakistan, as in India, showed better judgment than the critics.
In almost all her writings Hyder has been concerned with Time, that faceless presence which transforms all appearances and which we ignore only at our own peril. Though this inevitability of a change is our only permanent reality.  Hyder persistently urges us to recognize that it has one face of gain and another of loss. A linearly progressing time brings about changes. Should we then take sides? Should we say that change is progress? Or should we say it is decline? Either, according to Hyder, would be simplistic and perilous, for such issues are not settled by a reference to the material world alone. What counts, for her, is the human spirit and the relationships it generates and nurtures. That is where the linearity of time seems to curve into a spiral, urging us to recognize a past that never quite disappears. This, of course, may have a depressing side too: the more things change, the more they remain the same. What, then, is our choice as individuals? Here it may be worthwhile to recall the characteristically modest, even self-mocking, remarks that Hyder made in 1991 in her acceptance speech at the Jnanpith Award function: "My concern for civililzational values about which I continue writing may sound naive, wooly-headed and simplistic. But then, perhaps, I am like that little bird which foolishly puts up its claws, hoping that it will stop the sky from falling."
I may be stretching the point but it seems to me that what Hyder tacitly offers us is nothing but that wise Candidean response: even in the best of all possible worlds, it is best not to neglect to tend our garden. Certainly, through the several thousand pages of her writings, she has shown herself to be an eloquent witness to that truth.
1. Qurratulain Hyder, A Season of Betrayals: A Short Story and Two Novellas, translated with an introduction by C. M. Naim (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999), pp vii–xx.
2. This existential attitude is most effectively expressed in an extraordinary couplet by the sixteenth century Persian poet, ‘Urfi, who died in India:
Don’t be proud if you were not deceived by the mirage;
Instead, fault yourself for not being thirsty enough.
Iqbal, the most influential Urdu poet of this century, admiringly quotes this couplet in his lectures on the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam.
3. Her maternal uncle Mir Afzal Ali named her after the remarkable Persian poet, Qurratulain Tahira. A Baha’i martyr—she was executed in 1852—Tahira was nevertheless admired as a heroic figure by many Muslim intellectuals at the time, including Iqbal. Mir Afzal Ali’s mother, Akbari Begum, was the author of the famous novel Gudri Ka Lal (1907).
4. Iqbal: sabat ek taghayyur ko hai zamane men. "Only change has permanence in Time."