Common to several of the short stories, pen-portraits, and memoir pieces collected in At Home in India, is the delightful figure of the modern Indian woman. Inhabiting small towns and urban spaces in colonial and independent India, she speaks her mind, stands her ground, chooses and excels at professions hitherto closed to her, navigates new social realities, and fashions a self-conscious subjectivity often denied to her older sisters. Much of the same might be said about the author herself.

Born in a family with a decided literary predilection (and literary pedigree), tracing their ancestry to the 18th-century Islamic scholar, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, and Nawab Muhammad Amir Khan, a distinguished military general of the Maratha Empire in the early-19th century, Qurratulain Hyder grew up immersed in the world of literature and culture. Her first published pieces were for children’s magazines in colonial India. Her long writing career saw her (somewhat tangential) involvement in the Progressive movement of the 1930s-50s, as well as the more experimental, “modernist” naya afsana of the 1960s and 70s. The current volume of her work, edited and translated from the Urdu by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai, brings together stories, selections from her biographical “non-fiction novel” Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai, pen portraits/khake of women writers and celebrities like the actor Nargis, as well as interviews with the author, mostly from the “middle phase” of her literary career, after her return to India in the 1960s and during her active journalistic years.

Radical women

Hyder’s writing reflects the liberal values of her milieu. Five of the six stories in this selection – “Sherbet Lane”, “The Secretary”, “The Tightrope Walker”, “A Vision Appears Before Us”, and “The Exiles” – explore complexities of gender. The women in these stories belong to a diverse range of class identities. There is 19-year-old Juhi Rajnath, born in privilege, destined to be a movie star, and Rani Damyanti Devi of Ramkot, stately and elegant, and unfortunately unlucky in love. There is Begum Almas Khursheed, a newly married resident of a plush apartment in the commercial hub that Bombay had already become, and her maid, Tarabai, a child widow from a village in Gorakhpur, a beneficiary of the advancement in medical science in modern, Nehruvian India. There is the tragically romantic Peeroja Dastoor who has studied music in Paris, and Khem and Kishwari, girls who grow up in a small town and aspire to be modern, educated women, ultimately finding themselves on two inviolable sides of political ideology. There are also, outside of the glamour of the rich and the famous, several women of multi-ethnic identities who live in reduced circumstances as has-been actors, circus artists, and performers. While the stories themselves are often evocative and crafted with much skill, the foregrounding of women’s desires, whether romantic or predicated in terms of personal ambition, breaching conventional norms, is decidedly radical in its politics. Hyder’s women, even when unlikeable, take up space, and refuse to be invisibilised.

Rizvi and Kidwai have translated extracts from Hyder’s biographical essays as well as her opus, Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai (As the World Turns), to tell the story of a family spread across northern, undivided India and to paint a nuanced picture of a society in transition. She writes with obvious affection about her idyllic childhood spent in family homes in Dehradun, Almora, and Lucknow. A Bengali family taking up residence at Dalanwala, Dehradun, inspires the other Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim families in the upscale neighbourhood to take up music and dance, shedding their cultural inhibitions against “singing and dancing”, ushering in an era of Anglo-Indian music teachers and violin and sitar lessons, segueing with stories of high romance and inevitable heartbreak. At Almora, her uncle’s bungalow in the mountains transforms into a magical land of fairies and pari-folk in Cinderella coaches, English ghosts who demand butter and sugar, the untarnished glamour of cinema, and the joy of make-believe.

The spectre of Partition

Having studied at the illustrious Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow (an obvious early influence on the author that finds mention in many of her stories and anecdotes), Hyder finds Indraprastha College at the University of Delhi lacklustre, even as life in Delhi unfolds amidst a robust literary and cultural community comprising of the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, descendants of Daagh Dehlvi, members of royal families, and many others in upper echelons of administrative services. Hyder is generous in her mentions of names of people, often referring to them with affectionate honorifics. Since the extracts skip over significant stretches of time, it often becomes tedious for the reader to keep track of family members, acquaintances, and even places. However, the richness of detail goes a long way towards a realistic portrayal of pre-Partition India. Hyder comments on the dynamism of this urbane existence, unsuspecting of the ruptures it was to experience soon: “Nobody knew that only in the next three-and-a-half years, everything was going to be irrevocably destroyed – as on Doomsday.” Qayamat, or the day of destruction, seems apposite as the description for an event that was to change the fibre of families and an entire nation forever.

The spectre of Partition hangs over the selections from Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai. In the months leading up to the Partition, Muslim families were selling off properties in Dehradun and Mussoorie and moving away, while affluent Hindu and Sikh businessmen from provinces that were likely to go to Pakistan were buying land and properties in these cities. Hyder’s narrative, in her biography, as well as in the story “The Exiles”, centres on anxieties and fears about the loss of home, separations in families, economic crises, and the increasing disillusionment with the idea of independence. The aftermath of the Partition witnessed the influx of refugees and continued communal violence.

During this time of chaos and confusion, when homes were being left behind, sometimes by choice, other times by coercion, she writes how it had become impossible to keep track of friends and family members. Raising funds and working for refugee camps, Hyder and her circle witnessed the horrors of Partition firsthand. The current selection does not detail Hyder’s years in Pakistan or her return to India in the 1960s but the narrative continues to engage with the long shadow of the Partition. In her story of trying to retrieve the auctioned-off boxes of her family’s belongings in Lucknow, she brings to the reader’s attention the disruption of family histories and the loss of material archives. The unmooring of families and of intimate friendships is also evident in the letters across borders from the decades of the 1960s and 70s that Hyder details in one of the later sections of Kar-e Jahan.

Documenting new India

Hyder’s pen portraits are an engaging exposition of her socio-cultural space. Her portrait of Rashid Jahan, one of the foremost names associated with the left-leaning Progressive movement, is prefaced with a detailed study of the often-overlooked contribution of women to Urdu literature. Hyder writes of Hijab Imtiaz Ali, who created “a fantasy world” in her writing (and who, in the long line of women breaking social taboos, had also acquired a flying license from the Lahore Flying Club), of Anis Fatima Kidwai, whose collections of essays were political, unflinching, and honest about the chaos of independence, and of Khadija Mastur who contributed significantly to the epistolary tradition in Urdu. She critiques the Progressive movement’s invalidation of certain voices and speaks of the need for reclamation. She brings alive the dynamism of Attia Hossain and the charm of Nargis, the actor who won hearts in the sub-continent as well as in far-off Russia. Hyder’s portrait of Nargis and of her colleagues – Khushwant Singh, Bachi Karkaria, among others – at the offices of The Illustrated Weekly are also a portrait of a new Bombay, one where the pull of cinema was fashioning new sensibilities and re-writing the story of insistently modern India.

At over four hundred pages, At Home in India is more than just an anthology of Qurratulain Hyder’s writing. It is a portrait of a writer and her tumultuous times, of a country that witnessed the worst kind of dislocation, and a cultural imaginary that re-shaped itself in the five decades that this selection spans. It is a sensitive portrayal of Muslim culture and, also, a sharp commentary on the prejudices and stereotypes that Indian Muslims have often encountered.

You cannot help but chuckle when, at her hostel, during her MA at Lucknow, a classmate asks young Qurratulain’s cousin, “You Mohammadans speak Persian at home, na?” and the author nods in enthusiastic assent, going on to string together the few Persian words she knew in nonsensical order, creating an ongoing in-joke the cousins would continue to delight in for weeks. What easier way to counter prejudice than with destabilising humour, after all? The same sharpness and candour inform her interviews where Hyder is by turns assertive and exasperated, refusing to be self-effacing and being, like her heroines, a modern Indian woman who knows her worth and will not settle for either pallid praise or sweeping generalisations. At Home in India is an exhaustive (sometimes exhausting in its excessive detail) anthology but, more importantly, it is a document of an era that we would do well to remember.

At Home in India: Stories. Memories. Portraits. Interviews, Qurratulain Hyder, translated from the Urdu by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai, Women Unlimited.