COLUMN: MOONLIT SAGA

August 27, 2017

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In August 2007, when smartphones and social media ‘connections’ weren’t ubiquitous, I returned to London from Andalusia to the news that Qurratulain Hyder had died a day or two before, at the age of 80. To me, the loss was not only of one of the greatest writers of our era, but of the loving family friend I’d known since childhood as Annie Khala. I’d last seen her at her house in Delhi in early 2006, not knowing we’d never meet again.

Until the early ’90s, though I spent hours with her at my parents’ home where she often stayed, listening to her talk about history and writing, I’d never read her work seriously because I didn’t read Urdu well enough. Then, knowing of my developing interest in modern Urdu fiction, she signalled me towards her collection of short stories, Patjharr ki Awaz. By the time she sent me a copy of Fireflies in the Mist, her own English version of the Urdu Aaakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar, which I reviewed for The Times Literary Supplement, I’d come to love her work in both our shared languages.

In the months that followed her death, I immersed myself in writing about her — an obituary, and then introductions to Fireflies (as she had wanted me to do) and a collection of short stories. These were reissued the following year and her fame increased both nationally and internationally. In the 10 years since, I’ve returned often to her writings.

To the surprise of younger friends who rated it highly, I’d never completed the last of her Urdu novels, Chandni Begum — I’d read the same few chapters over and over and been interrupted. Annie would laugh at this: I’d also read the Urdu version of Fireflies after the English. Now, two decades on, I’ve repeated the performance with a new English translation of Chandni Begum which is the first of her full-length works to be translated by another hand — Saleem Kidwai’s. I’m now working my way through the Urdu original to see how well his style matches hers. (Unlike the author, he’s denied the privilege of rewriting entire passages, as she often did, to reach a different readership.)

He’s mostly done a good job of it. Chandni Begum is, in many ways, the most urgent of her novels — the prose is swift-footed in its narrative sections, interlaced with swathes of dialogue and passages of internal monologue that break its relentless pace. Only occasionally, in Hyder’s succinct evocations of landscape and architecture, do we come upon her characteristic lyricism.

It’s an unusual book. The first half, set at the cusp of the ’60s, is divided between two families of Shaikhzadas — once the original rulers of Lucknow, where the story unfolds — and a troupe of wandering players whose destiny is linked to one of the families by an unsuitable marriage, that of the leftist journalist Qambar with the actress Bela who soon manages to appropriate all his assets.

The eponymous heroine enters the scene as an intruder: once Qambar’s designated bride, she’s now orphaned and, when she comes to seek shelter with him, she’s unceremoniously dumped with the neighbouring family in Teen Katori House by Bela, her rival. Here she meets the members of the other Shaikh family: the handicapped Safia, unmarried and a teacher; her sister Parveen who has married and migrated to Pakistan; and their brothers Binky and Vicky, one a smooth-talking Westernised aristocrat, the latter an unworldly idealist seen by his family as a madman. The sisters treat Chandni as a servant, delegating to her the task of sewing and even plotting to marry her off to Vicky. But when their plans go awry, Chandni runs back to Vicky with tragic consequences.

Chandni Begum has been called the most enigmatic of Hyder’s novels by some readers, and by others her most accessible.

Chandni, Bela and Qambar disappear from the proceedings halfway through the story, which flashes forward 27 years. Though the inhabitants of Teen Katori are alive and thriving, their place is taken for several pages by their offspring. It’s largely through the younger generation that we see a picture of upper-class Muslims in the India of the late ’80s (the time when the novel appeared), with its conflicts of identity, politics of compromise and the rise of Hindutva and Shia-Sunni rifts. In a long set-piece that serves as both a travelogue and a paean to the syncretic history of Awadh, the Indian characters take their visiting Pakistani relatives — with whom they occasionally have uncomfortable exchanges about roots — to the sites where Ghazi Miyan, the progenitor of the Shaikhzadas, is venerated as both hero and saint by the locals — a cult figure who brings together Hindu and Muslim peasants on his feast days.

There’s a point halfway when we feel we’re reading a freestanding sequel to the first half. But after a long digression, the ghosts of Chandni, Bela and Qambar return to haunt the narrative. The older protagonists feel ashamed of the way they treated Chandni, the young ones remember her with affection. Vicky, now rehabilitated, married and the oral chronicler of Awadh’s mystic and pluralist traditions, and Safia, exceedingly eccentric, are the two who remember her best. (In a characteristic Hyderian pun on Chandni’s name, Safia names a school St Mooney’s Convent in her honour.)

Chandni Begum, an intriguing and sometimes dizzying blend of satire, social commentary, cultural history and wistful near-tragedy, has been called the most enigmatic of Hyder’s novels by some readers, and by others her most accessible. It’s a maze through which the reader can trace multiple pathways that all ultimately converge in another death. I’ll take some time to find my way through all its detours. Though it won’t displace my favourite works by Hyder, it’s a significant example of her style, with its fierce debates about current affairs and its subtle metaphors of division, partition and reunion that still resonate nearly three decades after its publication.

For me, the book has a particularly poignant effect as we reach the 70th anniversary of independence: in its reflections I can hear Annie Khala’s voice predicting — as she so often did in our conversations — the shape of things that were to come.

The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 27th, 2017