Qurratulain Hyder is among those writers of Urdu fiction, who continue to influence every generation of writers in South Asia, and is credited for introducing a unique narrative technique into the vernacular novel and short story.
She departed this world in August 2007, but continues to live on in her fluid writings since then.
After Partition, Qurratulain had migrated to Pakistan and lived here for a few years before deciding to return to India; eventually, she took up Indian citizenship.
It was during her stay in Pakistan that she penned her masterpiece novel Aag ka Darya (River of Fire). With the critics, it is a long-running debate on whether it is a novel or a book documenting the history of pre-partitioned India.
The story spans over centuries, and the protagonist Gautam Nilambar apparently personifies the cultural and social changes taking place in the subcontinent.
Those who have read the novel would vouchsafe that Qurratulain Hyder writes more like a historian than a novelist when she unearths the history of several centuries. She treats the ending of the novel with unparalleled dexterity.
This is how she describes Gautam Nilambar as he passes by a 'shamshan ghaat' (open air crematorium):
“He climbed up the high peak of Gaurishankar, wrapping himself in clouds. On the top, he sat down, bending his knees. He looked around to find vacuity everywhere, and he realised that he was alone as usual, the eternal and everlasting human of the earth, tired and vanquished, rejuvenated and hopeful; the human who found himself in god and who was himself a god.
“Smilingly, he descended and opened his eyes.
“Hail the awakening of those awoke; hail the rule of law; hail the asceticism of those who have found peace, Shankia Mani said.
“He climbed down from the brink, took a deep breath, and slowly walked towards the village.”
Critics on Aag ka Darya
Muzaffar Hanfi, in one of his essays, both censures and praises Aag ka Darya, saying that notwithstanding some minor flaws, the work is an important milestone in the history of Urdu novels.
He says that it is a patent fact that in response to Aag ka Darya, a number of great novels in Urdu have been written, including Udas Naslein (translated into English by its author as The Weary Generations), Sangham, Ali Pur Ka Aili, Khuda ki Basti (translated into English as God’s Land), and Lahu Ke Phool, as if Hyder, by writing Aag ka Darya, had opened a door to the fourth dimension for other novelists.
Aag ka Darya, he says, is charged by explosives that would go off when touched and lead to several blasts, killing everyone devoid of sagacity and prudence, and leaving the survivors mourning for the rest of their lives.
Akhtar Zaman Khan in Chand Tabsiray (A Few Commentaries), a collection of his critical essays, declares that in her earlier writings, Qurratulain Hyder exhibits typical English romanticism. Her prose, he says, is racy, fresh, and innovative, and her novels have been woven into beautiful dreams.
Commenting on Qurratulain’s masterpiece, Khan says, “Aag ka Darya, however, is completely different from her previous works; it shakes the readers out of their sleep and leaves them wondering as to why Qurratulain Hyder had written such a long novel.
“I am unable to comprehend the decision to write Aag ka Darya while living in Pakistan. Right from the beginning to the end, the novel portrays Muslims as weak in their character and ideology. It is next to impossible to know what Qurratulain wants to say.”
‘But what lies behind this sinister campaign?’
Qurratulain herself records the Pakistani response to her masterpiece in her autobiography Kar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai (The Affairs of the World Go On). On pages 689–692, she writes:
“On a Sunday morning, Jamiluddin [Aali] rang me up, ‘Have you seen today’s Jang and Morning News?’
“‘I don’t get these two newspapers. What’s going on? Is everything all right?’
“‘Well, I am coming over.’
“A few minutes later, he arrived. In both of the newspapers, a man, completely unknown to me, had published a long piece of trash about Aag ka Darya, the novel which had been published only three months ago. The simultaneous publication of the same piece in both Urdu and English languages in two newspapers was a matter of concern. I read both of the articles.
“‘I wonder who this man is and who’s hatched this conspiracy,’ Aali said.
“‘What harm have I done to anyone? There is no conspiracy. People like him must be ignored,’ I said.
“‘No, it could be dangerous. You should be aware of sinister campaigns.’
“‘But what lies behind all this sinister campaign?’ I asked in bewilderment.
“‘I’ll serve him a notice on behalf of [Pakistan Writers’] Guild. You have just skimmed the piece; please read it carefully,’ Aali told me.
“The next day, the remainder of the article appeared in Jang. It created ripples in the city and the country. Friends and well-wishers, who thronged the Garden Road [Karachi], began to guess the motives behind the piece; their varying analyses were quite sensational. Mukhtar Man was there to offer his legal advice. Everyone was anxious and infuriated. A friend called from Rawalpindi to inform that in the past, the writer had been a P.R.O. to a provincial minister and had blackmailed a few people.
“Aali consulted Kamal Ahmed Farooqi (alias Bobby, who had returned home after studying law in London and who now practiced as a barrister), and got a protest note from the Writers’ Guild published in Jang. He also served a legal notice on the writer of the article.
In response, the man published a few letters — which had either been sent in by some other people on his request or he had himself authored under pseudonyms — in Jang to claim that the guild was being controlled by a few authors as their personal property.
“It was a bizarre piece, which also claimed that the communist and atheist comrade [Ms] Rasheed Jehan was related to the novelist, being her real maternal aunt. On 7th of May however, the very man prepared a statement of apology addressed to the novelist and presented it to Jamiluddin Aali, publishing another copy in Jang.
“That afternoon, Aali arrived with an air of victory. ‘A descendent of the Mughals,’ said Mirza sahab, ‘lives up to the promise he makes. Do you remember what Humayun had done for the Rajput Rani.’
“‘May God reward you,’ I meekly uttered, ‘that’s why this humble being has always been an admirer of the feudal values.’”
Qurratulain goes on to write:
“That episode finally came to an end, but gradually, and not long ago, a myth surfaced about the novel in India and Pakistan.
“In one of the chapters I had written only two words, ‘Hindustan 1947’. It implied that this terse expression had deeper meanings. But one of the self-righteous commentators wrote, ‘The Martial Law administration has censored out a complete chapter about Partition, leaving only one sentence in tact.’ The most troubling rumour that made the rounds in India was that the Pakistan government had banned Aag ka Darya.
“One renowned literary critic, a professor, in his appreciation of the novel, went on to produce such an exaggerated praise that it irked me. I requested Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi, who had included this piece in the upcoming issue of Saqi, to not publish it. Poor Sahid sahab agreed. He made one of his men re-open all the bundles of Saqi and tear away the pages containing that particular commentary.
“Two months later, that ludicrous piece appeared in Jang, and since the renowned critic had seen the tide turn against Aag ka Darya, he had incorporated some variations in this piece. If he was overblown in praise of the novel in the previous version, he became over-pedantic in this latest version. Shahid sahab again discussed it with me. I told him to publish this version; hence, the piece found a place in Saqi.
“As a corollary of general indifference for allusions and symbols, various journals offered bizarre interpretations, claiming that the author believed in reincarnation, that she was a Buddhist or a Hindu, or that she was a Zionist.
“Another tale concocted in India said that the novelist had been persecuted in Pakistan after the publication of her work, so much so that she had to flee to India. It is still believed in India that the novel had been banned in Pakistan.
“On the other hand, a myth emerged that the author was rolling in money having received the royalty for the book. The remorseful reality is different. From December 1959 to this date, Maktaba Jadeed Lahore has published several editions without paying a penny to the author; it has also printed 18 deluxe editions, priced at Rs16 per copy. In India, from 1961 onwards, several pirated editions have been printed from Lucknow, Jalandhar and Jammu, and no one involved in the piracy has been arrested. In the history of modern Urdu literature, it is the first widely published novel for which not a penny was paid to the author as royalty.
“By the by, in an interview, the author of Udas Naslien has said that he does not count this poor creature among mentionable novelists. Contrary to this statement of his, it is rather strange that several chapters in Udas Naslien have been written in the same vein as Mere Bhi Sanam Khane, Safina-e-Gham, Aag ka Darya, and a few short stories from Sheeshe Ke Ghar; even entire sentences and paragraphs have been plagiarised with slight variations. However, in Pakistan and India, no one has noticed this or has alluded to this except the Pakistani satirist Mohammad Khalid Akhtar. Isn’t that male chauvinism?”
Why did she leave Pakistan?
In Pakistan, Qurratulain Hyder’s decision to leave Pakistan and settle in India has just one explanation: Aag ka Darya had caused it. But Hyder remained tight-lipped over the issue and nothing ever came out of her pen either. She has left not a single public comment, spoken or written, on her return to India.
Before settling down back in India, she had visited England. Discussing her journey to England, she writes on pages 700-701 of her autobiography Kar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai:
“On a beautiful morning at the No. 61 D Garden, the gardener Shamsuddin was watering the flowerbeds, when standing in the balcony, I decided in a moment that Amma should be taken to England for medical care, and it would not be wrong to stay there permanently.”
Ultimately, Qurratulain went to India and reclaimed her Indian citizenship. Qudrat ullah Shahab touches upon this issue in his memoir Shahab Nama; writing under the heading “Ayub Khan and Literary Writers” on page 700, he says:
“With the declaration of the Martial Law, newspapers came under heavy censorship. It was a crime to spread rumours. Soon after the Martial Law had been declared, one early morning Qurratulain Hyder came to me, with dishevelled hair, a crestfallen face, and worried eyes. She quickly asked, ‘What is going to happen now?’
“‘What is going to happen about what?’ I asked.
“‘I mean, it has become a crime now to have loose talk while sitting in literary ale houses.’
“‘Yes,’ I said, ‘gossip could be easily construed as rumour and one might be taken to the task for it.’
“‘So now one is not even allowed to bark.’ Annie was in pain.
“When I went on to explain the consequences of barking under the Martial Law Regulations, Annie’s eyes brimmed with tears. To hide the emotions, she put on a brave smile, sighed and pretended not to care, ‘Oh dear, who wants to bark every day; it is just a sense of being free to bark that matters.’
“I believe it was then and there that Qurratulain Hyder’s subconscious decided to quit Pakistan.”
Years ago, researcher and writer Hamza Farooqi told me that Qurratulain Hyder had rebutted Shahab’s claims. Talking to Farooqi at the Urdu Centre London she had said that Qudrat ullah Shahab’s claim was unfounded and that she had never made such a statement.
A ‘well-guarded secret’
Akhtar Zaman Khan, who, in his criticism of Aag ka Darya, says that he failed to understand why Qurratulain Hyder had written such a long novel, attempts to link elements in her novel to the author’s decision to settle back in India. This is what he has to say:
“I believe although Kamaal migrates to Pakistan, he leaves his heart in India. Here he finds himself insecure. It is the Pakistan of 1957. Migrants do not feel themselves at home. They are living in this region but their minds go to their ancestral homes.
“Qurratulain Hyder excellently paints this spiritual vacuum. It appears that the same spiritual vacuum took her to India. Her [character] Kamaal Raza returns back after visiting India, but she was left there like her heroine Champa Ahmed.”
Renowned literary critic and writer Dr Asif Farrukhi and his family were very close to Qurratulain Hyder. I met him to know the circumstances around Qurratulain Hyder’s return to India.
“It is a well-guarded secret,” Dr Farukkhi told me, “Annie never spoke a word about it in her life. Nonetheless, whenever and wherever I met her, she talked about Pakistan very affectionately.”
Dr Farrukhi revealed an interesting fact. He said that even after Qurratulain's death, her work is being censored in Pakistan. She had published an essay “Sarod-e-Shabana” on Faiz sahab’s poetry in India. Dr Farrukhi reprinted it in Dastan Taraz in 2008.
Soon after, the same essay was included in the official literary journal Maheno. After the issue came out, renowned writer and columnist Intizar Hussain informed Dr Farrukhi that major chunks from the essay had been edited out.
This is what Dr Farrukhi told me, but the main question lingered on: Why did Qurratulain Hyder go back to India?
A senior writer and columnist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me that it was not only about Aag ka Darya. He said Annie was beautiful and unmarried; she worked at the Writers’ Guild and other offices, and on all those places, some of the officials expressed a desire to marry her; Annie would not accept.
Marriage was a thorny issue for Qurratulain Hyder because both her parents belonged to different sects of Islam, and any discussion about her marriage would involve the question about the faith of the would-be groom. Similarly, she skirted all questions about her decision to go back to India.
Apparently, it was the uproar over Aag ka Darya that forced Hyder to quit Pakistan, but it is also a fact that she had found herself in a patriarchal society, which has set a single gender role for women, regardless of their natural talent.
Translated by Arif Anjum from the original in Urdu here.