Even though it has been 13 years since my aunt, Qurratulain Hyder or Aini Apa as we knew her, left us, I still think of her every day. She was very close to my mother – her cousin – and played an important role in my life, having had an enormous influence on my thinking.
In 2007, the year of her death, I learned from Aini Apa’s niece and my cousin, Huma Hyder Hasan – who lived near her in Noida and looked after her like a daughter – that Aini Apa had been in the hospital for over a month.
I was getting news of her condition regularly from Huma but somehow felt that she would pull through. Huma told me that Jamia Millia Islamia had decided to honour Aini Apa with an honorary doctorate, but she wasn’t well enough to receive it.
I asked Huma to suggest to Jamia Millia Islamia to confer it on her in hospital, but it was not to be. Aini Apa died early in the morning of August 21, 2007. The sadness of her loss lingers within me like melancholy background music and the realisation that she is no more still hits me each time I hear people talking about her death, read about her, or see her photos.
So Aini Apa of the sparkling aura, her fragile, delicate form suggestive of a glowworm, became history and I could no longer look forward to staying with her and being rapt by her conversation whenever I went to India.
It is when we lose someone that the memory of all that endeared the person to us becomes sharp and clear.
Aini Apa was my mother’s cousin and her close friend. On most visits to India, I used to visit her and spend a few days at her home in a naval colony, some miles from Delhi. It was a small and unpretentious dwelling, unostentatious in its décor. In that milieu, Qurratulain Hyder, the doyenne of Urdu writers, could be found much of the time dictating to her secretary, or being read newspapers to by him.
She would sit in the small veranda of her home in the winter, enjoying the sun and listening to newspapers being read out to her.
Visitors came, including many from Pakistan. She enjoyed their company and some of her best friends were jovial people with whom she could share a hearty laugh. One of her regular visitors was the painter, calligrapher and poet Ameena Ahmad Ahuja, and they would joke and guffaw, leaving me in fits at their funny stories.
In my younger days, when Aini Apa lived in Okhla, near the Jamia Millia Islamia in the suburbs of Delhi, her flashes of irritability used to scare me.
I began to understand that she was sensitive to some points, such as my attempts to discuss the position of Muslims in India or why she decided to leave Pakistan and re-settle in India.
She would brush me off curtly and ask me from where I picked up those stories. Like most warm-hearted people, she was as quick to show annoyance, as she was generous with her affection. She mourned the death of my mother and, when I met her in Noida soon after that, she kept repeating my mother’s name, Nafisa, and saying, “hai, hai.”
I was the beneficiary of her old-world hospitality whenever I stayed with her. Her right hand had become weak because of a fall and so, at mealtimes, a maidservant would stand by her dining chair and assist her in ladling food onto her plate. Pointing to the choicest dishes, Aini Apa would tell the maid again and again, “Put this on Munni’s plate”, referring to me by my nickname.
She did not like to be photographed informally and objected whenever I took out my still or video camera and would not allow photography unless she was formally dressed. However, she allowed me to include her in a video of a family wedding in Noida in January 2007.
She was quite obdurate when it came to letting people translate her work and preferred translating her work herself. Perhaps she feared being misinterpreted by translators and, consequently, misunderstood by readers.
I think that was a mistake, as she remained unknown in the West for many years since her work was available only in Urdu.
She would let me rummage through her papers in Noida and I read some of her articles published decades ago in various Indian journals and newspapers, and found them to be wonderful reads – humorous, informative and in polished English prose.
Aini Apa was famed for the skill with which she could recreate an environment and infuse a living, breathing atmosphere into it.
When my sister, Naushaba Burney, asked her to write an introduction for our mother’s short collection of poems – which we were about to publish posthumously – she not only introduced the book, but also breathed into it a magic that turned the introduction into a thing of beauty and depth.
She also suggested a title for the book, which was taken from the title of one of Jigar Muradabadi’s ghazals – “Mera Paighaam Mohabbat Hai” [My Message is Love].
The following is a translation of some excerpts from her introduction to my mother Nafisa Husain’s collection of poems, “This collection of Nafisa Apa’s poetry has three sections. Just as Ikebana, or the Japanese art of flower arrangement, represents the finest sensitivities of the fair sex, so our women have expressed themselves nobly in Urdu poetry. But in the halls of literature, they had to remain hidden behind a screen to recite their work, this being a cultural requirement of the time.”
I remember that, in my childhood, a small boy would come to the area hidden by a screen on the Qaiser Bagh pavilion in Lucknow, during the mushairas that were held there, and hand a microphone to the poetesses who would then gratify the audience with their poetry. Gradually, at least in our parts, the mushaira turned into show business.
She wrote, “One day, brother Itaat Husain [my father] said he would like to see the Muslim Hostel (during a visit to Allahabad) where he had stayed in his student years. All of us went to the river and sat in a boat. I began to think, ‘For how many thousands of years has the Ganges been flowing at this same speed? Emerging from some far-away, unnamed, snowy region in the Himalayas, it travels thousands of miles to go fall in the Bay of Bengal, quite oblivious to who lives, who dies, or who goes away. Meanwhile, human beings, whether they are great kings, military commanders, or scholars, all complete the short voyage that is their lifetime and vanish forever.’”
The thinker of those thoughts, Qurratulain Hyder, completed her own voyage 13 years ago and vanished forever, but still comes vividly alive on the pages of her books.
The writer is the managing director of Lightstone Publishers.
This article first appeared in Dawn.