The 20th century — particularly in its last six decades — saw the emergence of quite a few towering figures in Urdu fiction. Most of them belonged or subscribed to the Progressive Movement in literature, but if there was one gigantic writing icon who didn’t have a link with any ‘ism’, it was Qurratulain Hyder. Ainee — as she was fondly called — was a multifaceted genius. She was also a journalist of no mean reputation, an accomplished writer of reportage and, of course, an occasional documentary filmmaker.

Qurratulain Hyder: Zindagi Aur Fun [Qurratulain Hyder: Life and Art] is penned by Jameel Akhtar, another notable Indian litterateur. Five years ago, he had published a book-length interview with Hyder, which he had recorded over several sessions during Hyder’s twilight years. The publication was titled Andaaz-i-Bayan Aur: Qurratulain Hyder Se Baat Cheet [A Different Mode of Expression: Talks With Qurratulain Hyder]. Akhtar is a meticulous research scholar and index compiler, whose field of interest is fiction. The author of 50 books himself, he has spent a lifetime collecting the works of his Ainee ‘Apa’ in four volumes, which includes some of her lost short stories that he had unearthed over many years. He has also traced Hyder’s family history and discovered its link with Zainul Abedin, the son of Imam Husain.

While all those interested in the history of Urdu literature are bound to be aware of Hyder’s illustrious father Sajjad Hyder Yildirim’s writings, not many would know that her mother, Nazar Sajjad Hyder, penned stories for children and also authored two novels. That was in a period when women from Muslim families were discouraged from writing for magazines and newspapers, let alone writing books. Nazar was lucky to have tied the nuptial knot with a truly broadminded person.

There is controversy about Hyder’s year of birth. In some documents, it is recorded as 1926, while in others — including the admission form for her college — the year is mentioned as 1927. Akhtar asked the lady to resolve the dispute, but she too was not sure; she presumed her father had added a year to enable her to qualify for entrance to the prestigious Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow. However, there are no two views on the place of her birth, which was Aligarh.

Thanks to her parents, Hyder went to a convent school while, later in the day, she was educated at home in religious studies by a maulvi, who also coached her in reciting the Holy Quran. Like her mother, who strummed the strings of a sitar soulfully, Hyder was also very much into music — while studying at the Banaras Hindu University, she opted for classical music instead of mathematics. She was no less interested in painting, which she pursued for self-satisfaction.

Jameel Akhtar’s book on the towering literary icon Qurratulain Hyder showcases years of diligent research

Again, like her mother, Hyder started her literary career by contributing to children’s magazines. Somehow, her writings caught the attention of the editor of a reputed literary journal called Nairang-i-Khayaal, who invited her to contribute. She wrote a skit and, on her uncle’s advice, wrote “N. Hyder” as the byline. The skit was published without any alteration. From then on, Hyder never wrote under a pseudonym.

In the context of what is indisputably the most monumental novel in Urdu literature — Aag Ka Darya [River of Fire] — Akhtar reveals that, since 1959, Maktaba-i-Jadeed in Lahore has printed it 18 times. On the other side of Wagah, Aag Ka Darya was first published two years later in Lucknow and, since then, several publishing houses in various Indian cities have brought out their own editions. This does not include pirated editions. So far, writes Akhtar, the novel has been translated into 27 Indian languages as well as English, Russian and several other foreign languages. Incidentally, this reviewer has a copy of the English version, River of Fire, occupying pride of place in his bookshelf. Hyder ‘transcreated’ her own Urdu novel, making it briefer and arguably more readable than the original work.

As for the English versions of her short stories, Hyder translated them herself and had some of them published in what was, in the preceding century, a highly reputed journal, The Illustrated Weekly of India. She was on its editorial board for seven years. That was the period when the Weekly’s editor was none other than the famous columnist and historian Khushwant Singh, author of the brilliant novel Train to Pakistan.

Because of space constraints, one cannot list the various jobs Hyder held during her years in Pakistan and, later, in India after her re-migration to what was left of Hindustan. But Akhtar, who gives all her career details, reveals that, after resigning from the post of Press Attaché at the Pakistan High Commission in London, Hyder opted for a stint as a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, where her beat was women and their activities. She also worked for the BBC’s Urdu Service.

From time to time, Qurratulain Hyder clarified that she was not forced to leave Pakistan. She had moved there from Lucknow along with her mother after Partition, then moved to London for her mother’s medical treatment in February 1961. The health problem is, strangely enough, not specified. Later the same year, mother and daughter moved to Bombay [Mumbai] which was when they got their Indian nationality.

From time to time, Hyder clarified that she was not forced to leave Pakistan. She had moved there from Lucknow along with her mother after Partition, then moved to London for her mother’s medical treatment in February 1961. The health problem is, strangely enough, not specified. Later the same year, mother and daughter moved to Bombay [Mumbai] which was when they got their Indian nationality.

Back to her writings. Hyder saw the publication of four collections of short stories, starting with Sitaaron Se Aagey [Beyond the Stars] in 1947, when she was a postgraduate student at the University of Lucknow. Publisher Sadiqul Khairi of Khatoon Kitab Ghar gave Hyder what was then a princely sum of Rs 400 as royalty in advance, the writer recalls excitedly while speaking to Akhtar.

Partition, and the chaos and bloodshed that took place in its wake, shook Hyder badly, and the same year she authored her first novel Mere Bhi Sanamkhanay [My Temples, My Gods]. Her subsequent five novels, all widely acclaimed, are Safeena-i-Gham-i-Dil, Aag Da Darya, the three-volume Kar-i-Jahaan Daraaz Hai, Gardish-i-Rang-i-Chaman — first published in Pakistan by Maktaba-i-Danyal to avoid piracy in the country — and, finally, Chandni Begum.

As for her novelettes, one can’t think of many, if any, fiction writers in Urdu who could equal her excellence. Her first published novelette was Sitaharan [The Kidnapping of Sita], which deals with the fate of a Sindhi woman after she migrated from Pakistan to India. Hers is the story of the exploitation of the weaker sex — a theme which cropped up in many of Hyder’s works in the realm of fiction. Housing Society, her second novelette, is a tale of the struggle between the haves and have-nots. Chai Ke Bagh [The Tea Gardens] was actually her first attempt at writing a novelette, but third to be published. Hyder had gone to Sylhet in then East Pakistan to make a documentary on the folk dances of the region. There, she was dismayed to find that the poor tea planters, on both sides of the Assam-Sylhet border, were exploited by officials of the two countries who had replaced British officers after independence.

Her fourth novelette, Dilruba [Sweetheart], is set in Lucknow; it narrates the plight of Muslim landowners after 1947 and the disappearance of a rich culture. Her fifth and final work in this genre is Aglay Janam Moray Bitya Na Keejo which, for a change, is about women in an economically lower class. A rough translation of the title would read ‘Oh, God, Don’t Make Me a Woman When I am Reborn’.

Akhtar also discusses Hyder’s reportages in details and shows how they rise above mere travel pieces. Sadly, the two volumes featuring them are no longer available.

Finally, Akhtar gives the long list of awards that Hyder has won, including the Jnanpith Award, India’s most prestigious accolade in literature. The only other two literary figures who wrote in Urdu to win the coveted award are Firaq Gorakhpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri. Another conferment worth mentioning is the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award.

Having gone through the volume under review thoroughly, this reviewer feels strongly that Jameel Akhtar deserves an award too, for what has been years of dedicated research and indexing of Hyder’s works, as well as for collecting and compiling the works of another Urdu writer of fiction, Balwant Singh.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Qurratulain Hyder: Zindagi Aur Fun
By Jameel Akhtar
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405022

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 7th, 2020