[Reader-list] Obit: Quratulain Hyder

yasir ~ yasir.media at gmail.com
Thu Aug 23 13:44:59 IST 2007


Quratulain Hyder, Urdu's greatest novelist

Quratulain Hyder (1927-2007) passed away at the age of 80 in New Delhi
and was buried at the cemetery of Jamia Millia Islamia University
where she had taught for a while. Many will claim the status of Urdu's
greatest novelist for her, and those who contest it will only offer
another woman candidate, Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991). Quratulain came
to Pakistan at Partition but returned to India fearing intellectual
oppression, some say, after being persuaded by the Indian prime
minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; Ismat never came to Pakistan.

India treated her far better than Pakistan had done, given her prickly
temperament. She won the Jnanpith Award in addition to Sahitya Akamedi
Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Ghalib awards. The Urdu Academy
in Delhi conferred upon her the Bahadur Shah Zafar Award in 2000. She
was also a former member of the Upper House of the Indian parliament.
She worked for a while at The Illustrated Weekly of India under the
editorship of Khushwant Singh and later at The Times of India and the
journal Imprint. The other talent that fled back to India was Ustad
Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the great classical singer. Quratulain wrote the
bestselling book on him in 2004, probably her last work.

Quratulain Hyder became famous for her novel Aag Ka Darya, describing
an inclusive composite Indian culture that encompassed the Muslim
community; she leaned to pluralism rather than the exclusive ideology
that Pakistan had begun to nurture soon after its establishment. She
found herself being misunderstood and attacked by the enthusiasts of
the Pakistan Movement, just like short story writer Saadat Hassan
Manto on different grounds. Before her demise, she bequeathed to Urdu,
12 novels, several novellas, a number of short stories and numerous
editorial and introductory articles of great stylistic value.

Few realise that her greatest work apart from the novels was her
monumental family chronicle Kar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai where she displayed
an ability to change her style according to the ambience she was
describing with the help of carefully collected family documents. She
was descended from one Ahmed Ali who lost all his property after the
1857 rebellion against the British because he was found guilty of
taking part in it. Ahmed Ali thought that the rebellion failed because
the Indians who arose against the East India Company were not educated
enough; he therefore decided to send his sons to Aligarh, the
school-college set up by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Her father was the most dominant influence on her. Sajjad Hyder had
been influenced by Haji Ismail Khan, a friend of Sir Syed who loved
Turkey and its progressivism and defiance of the British. Sajjad Hyder
learned Turkish and translated many works from Turkish to Urdu, in the
process developing a distinct style that made him staple for Urdu
textbooks in Pakistan. He was a dragoman (tarjuman) in the British
consulate in Baghdad from 1904 to 1907. Quratulain's great-aunt Akbari
Begum initiated the tradition of writing among Muslim women with a
novel in 1898. Her mother Nazrul Baqar, home-educated in English as
well, became an editor of Phool, a children's magazine, thus providing
Quratulain the literary background she needed as a young girl.

The cities of Ghazipur and Dehra Dun, dominated by an easy-going
Muslim aristocracy, were the early influences on her, which was
reflected in her fiction, but her view of culture was intensely
pluralistic, explaining Muslim culture too in a "transmigratory"
technique in her big novel Aag Ka Darya. The Pakistani public paid her
a back-handed compliment by making her books bestsellers in Pakistan;
but most of them were pirated, meaning that someone other than her got
rich selling them. She was always a chronicler, a kind of Tolstoy in
Urdu that our critics have ignored. When someone asked her in Bombay
to write about the Iran-Iraq war she naturally began with the Arab
conquest at Qadissiya.

In her story of her family, Dastan-e-Ehd-e-Gul, the dates are
meticulously put down and footnotes supplied as she follows the spoor
of her family's tortuous journey through history. Father Yildrim was
an extraordinary man ambushed by passivity, as Quratulain says
elsewhere, but his story is exciting in the telling. Yildrim wrote a
new kind of Urdu, quite palpable in his famous translations, and
Quratulain was definitely his daughter, endlessly gifted and
different. She kept pointing to the "strangeness" of women writers of
extraordinary originality in a culture suffocated by unoriginal men.

Just take Quratulain and Ismat together and you don't have two men to
equal them. Among the few men who were good Quratulain counted
novelist Aziz Ahmad, wondering why he had been brushed aside. She
recalled with great fondness the pioneer women writers of the order of
Muhammadi Begum who got her mother interested in writing and whose
inspiration came down to us in the last of the good writers, Hijab
Imtiaz Ali, whose stature she insisted had yet to be decided.

Whenever Quratulain visited Pakistan she had to defend herself — at
times not too politely — against critics reading her work as
autobiography. She wrote a dirge on the obstinacy of incomprehension
of her novel, Chandini Begum, on the part of Pakistani critics. She
made fun of the hidebound progressive writers who thought she was
"bourgeois and feudal" and pushed her out of the pale of literary
appreciation; and she wondered what kind of infertility assailed the
critic in our times of religious anti-intellectualism.

What people missed because of "the death of the ear" in Pakistan was
her capture of the music of the Rohelkhandi or Pichchva Urdu, Bihari,
Rampuri Muradabadi Urdu, and the accent of Amroha, that kept alive the
language of Mir and Sauda. She always said that Muslims in India
didn't feel like a minority because of the memory of Muslim rule. She
maintained — right or wrong — that Pakistan got it wrong when it
presumed for reasons of state that the Muslims of India were suffering
under Hindu Raj. With her passing, Urdu has lost a great — if not the
greatest — contemporary writer. She had predicted she would die on the
19th of August; but she died on the 20th. *

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