Qurratulain Hyder was born in Aligarh on January 20, 1927 to Nazar Sajjad Hyder and Sajjad Hyder “Yildirim”. Growing up in an illustrious, literarily inclined, westernised and liberal familial setup, Hyder received preliminary formal education in Aligarh. She cleared her Intermediate examination from Isabella Thoburn College, Lucknow, and went on to graduate from Indraprastha College, Delhi. She earned her postgraduate degree in English from the University of Lucknow and trained in art and music. She also did a short course in modern English literature from Cambridge University, UK.
Popularly known as Ainie Apa, Ainie Khala or simply Ainie among relatives, friends and acquaintances, Hyder was warm and friendly but scathingly candid and vocal about her innermost feelings and ideals. On the one hand, she visited mazars and believed in piri-muridi and, on the other, she was vocal about her belief in the bare reality of life. She personified independence in thought and exhibited it in action.
As a lonely child, Hyder began writing stories in the form of little “books” for her dolls when she was six or seven, publishing her first story in the children’s magazine, Phul, in her early adolescence.
There was no looking back. Several short stories published in literary journals, including the prestigious Humayun, preceded her earliest collection, Sitaron Se Age, in 1947.
She went on to write several novels, including Mere Bhi Sanamkhane (My Temples, Too); Safina-e-Gham-e Dil (Ship of Sorrows [forthcoming]); Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire); Aahkir-e-Shab ke Humsafar (Fireflies in the Mist); Gardish-e-rang-e-Chaman (untranslated); and Chandni Begum (Chandni Begum). Most of these are historical novels – conceived in the sheher-ashob tradition – and are located in the socio-cultural milieu of the Indo-Muslim bourgeois communities of Awadh. Mere Bhi Sanamkhane, Aag Ka Darya and Aahkir-e-Shab ke Humsafar form a sort of trilogy, explicating the political scenario of the Indian subcontinent.
Among these, Aag Ka Darya has received the maximum amount of attention on account of its epic historical sweep and experimental narrative conception. Apart from Sitaron Se Age, Hyder has three collections of short stories – Shishe Ke Ghar, Patjhar Ki Aavaz and Roshni kī Raftār. They received mixed reactions from readers and critics on account of both form and content.
Her novellas, Sita Haran, Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo, Housing Society and Chai Ke Bagh, like her longer fiction, are centred around politics and culture. Hyder has also written works of non-fiction – the three-volume Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai, chronicling the social, cultural, historical and political ambiance of multiple generations of her family, and an annotated, two-volume photo album, Kaf-e-Gul Farosh, chronologically cataloguing her sketches, paintings and photographs along with those of family and friends. This was her swan song.
Hyder witnessed the trauma of Partition riots first-hand, when their house in Dehradun was burnt down. She escaped with her mother and migrated to Karachi, Pakistan, in December 1947.
Nevertheless, despite her personal experiences of communal hatred and loss, Hyder’s oeuvre provides ample indication that she continued to uphold the values of the syncretic Indo-Muslim cultural heritage of the subcontinent. With regard to her civilisational ethics, she said of herself at the Jnanpith Award function in 1991: “My concern for civilisation values about which I continue writing may sound naive, woolly-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.”
While she was in Karachi, Hyder worked as an information officer, a journalist and an editor. She also served as the acting press attaché for the High Commission of Pakistan in London. She worked with the BBC, reporting, translating and doing radio plays. In 1961 she returned to India. In Bombay she served as managing editor for Imprint and co-edited The Illustrated Weekly of India with Khushwant Singh. She moved to Delhi in 1984.
Hyder travelled widely and served as visiting professor at several universities in India and abroad, including Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, the University of California Berkeley, and the Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, Arizona and Texas. She translated several English texts into Urdu, including Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. She also translated Hasan Shah’s Nashtar as The Nautch Girl and brought out Ghālib: His Life and Poetry with Ali Sardar Jaffri.
Hyder was very particular about transcreating her own fictions into English, adapting them culturally and linguistically for Anglophone readers by taking liberties with her own Urdu texts and showing scant regard for received translational customs.
From her earliest collection of short stories, Hyder exhibits a robust inclination for experimental and experiential writing. Locating her texts in history, she explores philosophical perspectives, cultural mores, customs and traditions in language and form that are innovative advancements on the available and the accepted. Hyder challenges linear narrative structures, improvising on traditional, indigenous accounts, enriching them with her individualistic brand of modernism and postmodernism.
Her narratives employ magic realism, pastiche, myths, vignettes, cinematic presentation and stream of consciousness modes. She externalises interiority, contests mono-chronic ideas of time, projects multiple points of view and interrogates the compartmentalisation of fiction into categories based on length. Hyder’s narratives, whether long or short, elucidate the fact that, for her, form and structure are forever fluid, and that “innovative writing can encompass fact, reportage, imagination, documentary presentation and the epistolary form”, among other things.
Although Hyder’s writing is generally believed to be influenced by western styles and techniques, her stream of consciousness style preceded her readings of Virginia Woolf. Hyder’s personal brand of postmodernism made her debate esoteric ideas, pose philosophical questions, present meta-historical perspectives and project psychological-emotional complexities. Her deep-seated knowledge of Urdu, Persian, Turkish and English cultures and languages as well as the immense repertoires of poetry and poetic allusions with which she intersperses her narratives, add vigour and depth to her fiction.
Hyder treats the novel as a super-genre in the truest sense of the word. Through her fictional texts, Hyder emerges as an ambassador of the imaginative spirit, a practitioner of the adab bar aaye adab or “art for art’s sake” mode as against the direct and straightforward adab bar aaye zindagi or “art for life” format.
Hyder’s stupendous knowledge and experience, her profound understanding of human nature, her eclecticism and humanism and her deep-rooted philosophical perception of the meanderings of the river of life are revealed in her published works. Her world view, which consists of both positives and negatives, is evident in the balanced sweep of her narratives and the patterns evinced by the lives of her protagonists.
Nemesis is the watchword of existence. Time brings with itself retribution; it is a healer and a trickster and material comforts are, in fact, the bottomline of human existence. Life’s little ironies are continually revealed through the frustrations of man’s motives. The conflict and fatalism as well as the issues of migration and reconstruction of identity that Hyder writes about are mostly drawn from personal experience and extensive readings; her protagonists are but ambassadors of her private individualism.
Hyder’s central protagonists are frequently women, but women’s issues are not her primary concern. On the contrary, she provides an artist’s impression of woman in relation to the environment, in which the protagonist thrives or withers as the wheel of fortune turns. By and large, her oeuvre represents bourgeoisie womanhood, with all the permutations and combinations of power and inadequacy that contribute to the formation of its textured fabric.
Hyder stood apart from her Progressive contemporaries, both ideologically as well as in the depiction of social class and milieu. She stressed her conscious political non-alignment in Shahra-e-Harir of Kar-e-Jahan, for instance, by quoting Iqbal: “Khudawand yeh tere sada dil bande kidhar jaen”. With regard to leftist ideology, she quoted, “Khwab tha jo kuch dekha / Jo sunā afsana tha”.
Unlike her contemporaries, who emphasised modernity and socialism, Hyder drew on personal experience and familiarity, concentrating instead on the realistic patterns of existence, emphasising the dichotomies and ironies that provide the various hues to human subsistence. Her inimitable narrative style, her erudition, her enthusiasm for experimentation and her bourgeois content brought her both prominence and condemnation.
Some of her readers failed to understand her. She drew flak from her Progressive seniors for creating upper-crust protagonists; but for her, her texts were tongue-in-cheek “Studies in a Dying Culture”.
In 1994, Hyder was elected as a permanent fellow of the Sahitya Akademi. She was presented with several awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award for Patjhar Ki Aavaaz (translated as The Sound of Falling Leaves), the Soviet Land Nehru Award, the Padma Shri, the Ghalib Award, the Iqbal Samman and the Jnanpith Award for Aahkir-e-Shab Ke Humsafar.
Qurratulain Hyder died on August 21, 2007, in Noida, New Delhi. She is secure among writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera and has the distinction of being the Grande Dame of Urdu literature. She has been translated into several languages worldwide and, even 10 years after her passing, continues to inspire both translation and research.
Dr Fatima Rizvi is an Assistant Professor at Lucknow University. This article is a part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.