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FICTION: OF HUMAN BONDAGE

December 31, 2017

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Set predominantly in Lucknow, India, and spanning three decades from the 1950s through the 1980s, Chandni Begum — Qurratulain Hyder’s final and arguably most complex novel — has been put forward by Women Unlimited in a new edition, translated into English by Saleem Kidwai. Noted for Song Sung True, his apt rendering of Malika Pukhraj’s autobiography into English, Kidwai does an equally fine job with Hyder’s work. In spite of the fact that English and Urdu are, linguistically speaking, galaxies apart, Kidwai manages to accurately convey much of the sentimentality and warmth underlying the book’s most poignant conversations.

The first half of the novel is the story of Qambar Ali and Chandni. Qambar is the scion of a wealthy family, but unlike his father who is an acclaimed lawyer, he chooses to become a journalist with leftist political leanings. His parents buy him an English news journal business; the circular is called Red Rose and he handles its Urdu and Hindi versions as well. Dreamy, good-natured and well-liked by almost everyone, Qambar displays a marked tendency to be hoodwinked by those more cunning than he. This plays a pivotal role in his romantic involvements later in the story; however, when it commences we find that he has turned his back on a childhood betrothal with Safia, the daughter of a neighbouring household who resides in an abode poetically named Teen Katori.

Afflicted with polio as a child, Safia is crippled in one arm and obliquely compensates for this by becoming one of the most educated women in the area. Holding a doctoral degree in education, she starts a convent school — much to the dismay of her intensely Lucknavi household. Rapping back sharply to their criticisms of the quasi-Christian nature of the venture, Safia correctly notes that no good Indian family will send their daughters to a school that is not a convent! Underlying Hyder’s satire is a profound sympathy for Safia’s handicap and her forward-looking feminist leanings, and though she is one of the novel’s most tragic figures, Safia remains memorable to the point of sublimity. Heartbroken at being rejected by Qambar, she moves towards spinsterhood in a manner that, while ostensibly conventional, reflects a deep and frightening inner neurosis.

The last novel written by the grande dame of Urdu literature can now be savoured by an English-reading audience

The novel then reverts to Qambar’s chaotic but comical adventures. He is trapped into marriage by Bela, the dramatic, avidly social-climbing daughter of a pair of common entertainers (mirasi-bhands) aromatically named Mogra and Chambeli. Admirable though her rise from Bombay dancer to Lucknavi chatelaine may seem, Bela’s marriage to Qambar is fraught with class issues — she has constant conflicts with the servants, screaming matches with her bewildered husband, and finds that one can only buy and rearrange furniture up to a certain point beyond which domestic boredom drives one close to madness. Hyder’s depiction of all types of women in the novel is par excellence and she does an admirable job of delineating the sad life of Bela’s talented and sensitive mother, Chambeli, a beautiful and deeply devout woman who remains a victim of class, circumstances and failing health throughout the book.

Much to Qambar’s horror, at a vital juncture after his marriage he learns that, unbeknownst to him, his mother had arranged for him to marry Chandni, the daughter of one of her closest friends. Bitto, Qambar’s late mother, had been kind-hearted but eminently controlling and was convinced that Qambar would wilt under the influence of a passionate or strong-minded wife. She had approached the bespectacled but fair and pretty daughter of a friend, and the friend was grateful for the match because of her own strained financial circumstances. After her mother’s death, Chandni turns up on Bela’s doorstep, swallowing her pride and admitting that she desperately needs to work for a living. Not fundamentally unkind, Bela takes her over to Teen Katori House where the household condescendingly agrees to keep Chandni in exchange for her performing some menial jobs for them on a daily basis. In spite of Chandni’s reduced circumstances, the fact that she is educated and “pretty in a Nepali way” leads the lady of the house into assuming that she may make an apt wife for the eldest son, Vicky, whom everyone claims to be not quite right in the head. Marriage is not Chandni’s destiny, however. Moreover, like Qambar, Vicky is a highly misunderstood individual, though this is more noticeable in the latter half of the book in which Qambar and Chandni (for reasons related to plot) become largely irrelevant.

It would be wrong to reveal more of Hyder’s intricately constructed plot, and indeed there is no need to do so. The second half of the book dwells on the younger generation of Teen Katori House, especially Vicky’s lovely niece Feroza, who is determined to marry a British man in spite of everyone else’s desire that she marry her ardent cousin who, though male, is ruefully called Pinky. It is in this section especially that Hyder goes into even deeper descriptions of Lucknow’s history, tradition and culture. Feroza’s sojourn with her family to the Nepalese border is also well described. However, these developments, plus the absence of a clear plotline, result in convoluted prose and though Kidwai’s translation holds up equally well in this segment of the book as in the first, should the publisher wish this text to be disseminated to a much wider English-speaking audience, it would be wise to have it annotated throughout. While mandir-masjid tensions and figures such as Tipu Sultan may be known to Western audiences, Hyder’s careful descriptions of classic Lucknavi religion, dress, cuisine and pre-Partition customs dating as far back as the early days of the Raj merit very close explanation and appreciation in order to do justice to the book. Her knowledge of Bombay’s entertainment industry also rings with great authenticity, but the novel is so dense that it can grow on one only with multiple close readings.

Hyder’s genius lay in her ability to make emotion actually happen within her work — too many novelists have to painstakingly recount emotional moments in order to convey feelings to the reader, but Hyder knows how to make emotion materialise with a spontaneity that is breathtaking in its originality. One comes close to weeping as the simple act of taking a slightly mad character’s shoes off results in the woman having a fatal heart attack. Rare and memorable moments such as Qambar breezily taking Chandni for a drive serve as a literal breath of fresh air for them, and an equally vital, metaphoric one for the reader. That Hyder wrote timelessly is never in doubt, and one hopes that her work may eventually transcend the numerous barriers between cultures.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Chandni Begum
By Qurratulain Hyder
Translated by
Saleem Kidwai
Women Unlimited, India
ISBN: 978-9385606113
340pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 31st, 2017