About 30 years ago, when I plunged into the ocean of Urdu fiction with the enthusiasm of someone learning to swim, I asked Qurratulain Hyder if she had a story she thought I should translate for a commissioned anthology of post-Partition Urdu writing.
She thought for a minute. “‘Ek Makaalma’ [A Dialogue]. It captures the spirit of Pakistan in the ’50s. It’s in my collection Patjharr Ki Awaaz [The Sound of Falling Leaves].”
I was lecturing part-time at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) then and retrieved a copy from the library. It hadn’t been borrowed for 20 years. I read the story she’d recommended. As the title suggests, it was a dialogue between two men, named merely A and B, in an elegant Karachi club, and ranged from gossip to the political situation in Pakistan and in the world, intertwining existential ruminations with nightmarish revelations.
I wasn’t quite ready for its dark mode, so I turned to the beginning of the book and immediately recognised the first story, which I’d heard Hyder read in English and Urdu a few years before. I was enchanted by its musical prose and the whimsical evocation — part autobiography and part wonder tale — of one summer in Dehradun. A passage early in the story boldly gives away all its important events:
“Resham broke her leg. Miss Zohra Derby, the Daredevil, arrived in town. Diana Beckett was declared the Ravishing Beauty of London. Dr Miss Zubeida Siddiqi saw a black dog the size of a donkey at two in the morning. And Faquira’s sister-in-law became a sparrow.”
It is not the tale that — from a child’s perspective — captures the reader in a magical net; it’s the virtuosity of the telling. Beginning with the arrival of Anglo Indian sitar teacher Simon at the narrator’s doorstep, it swirls humorously through the events — deaths and accidents included — in the lives of the hill station’s summer population of Christians, Muslims, Garhwali peasants and Hindus, culminating in Simon’s unutterably poignant, solitary death by hypothermia, the loneliness of Resham the cat he befriended, and the hyper-religious Zubeida’s marriage to ‘H’.
But nothing here prepares the reader for the power of the following narrative, ‘Jilawatan’ [Exile], an obvious rehearsal for the London sections of Hyder’s magnum opus Aag Ka Darya [River of Fire]. I had read the story in its English translation by the author earlier.
Revolving around an acrobatic shift of time and place from India in the last days of colonial rule, to a bleak winter in post-war, postcolonial London, the story juxtaposes the exilic thoughts, words and memories of its multiple protagonists, all dispossessed by India, with a haunting, epiphanic scene of Eastern European refugees leaving cathedral after Mass.
Kishwari, who has left India but hasn’t yet found her way to Pakistan, muses: “Old testaments have been cancelled. We will not go on living like this, we will not let ourselves perish. Our exile will be over. We have before us today’s dawn, the future, the new creation of the entire world.”
This stirring switch to guarded optimism is not echoed in other stories. The title story — which to this day is the single story that I admire most in any language, narrating an entire life in about 18 pages — is a masterpiece of ventriloquism.
Told in the voice of Tanveer Fatima, a young Syed woman who drifts through a series of unfortunate affairs, randomly finds herself teaching science at a girls’ school in provincial Punjab and then ends up as the drab wife of a dance teacher in a dingy Lahore side street, it presents a protagonist completely unlike her narrator.
“I am not the literary type,” says Tanveer. “In my opinion, reading literature is a waste of time … I have studied science since the age of 15 … I had no time for poetry or philosophy, nor do I have any now.”
And later still, haunted by the memory of her first, violent Hindu lover, Tanveer tells us:
“Science has revealed to me so many secrets of this world. I have read countless books on Chemistry. For hours and hours I have thought. But I get scared. On dark nights I get very scared.”
This angst characterises most of the collection, particularly the stories set in Gen Ayub Khan’s Pakistan — the period in which Hyder left for London and then to India. The remarkable narrative economy of the shorter fictions is also evident in the brief novel Housing Society, included in the collection, with its move — characteristic of Hyder’s early works — between a rural, feudal India described with painterly skill, and its shifts of perspective between three main characters: a celebrated woman painter, a nouveau riche businessman and a young secretary, and their contrasted destinies in Karachi.
Much of it centres on the absence of the heroic, leftist Salman. He is the brother of one of the two female protagonists, the abandoned lover of the other and, in a chilling denouement at a drink-fuelled party, dies offstage. The revelation of his death is made without a name, until the news of his murder in prison is disclosed in a newspaper headline at the end of the story.
Housing Society is brilliant, too, in its interleaving of external affairs and personal destinies, with Hyder’s deft use of intertwined destinies. Identities are unmasked at the conclusion with the tension of a thriller, though we have been aware throughout of the characters’ connections.
Though at first Hyder’s sympathy for fallen aristocrats denotes a scornful attitude to those who reached the top by falsifying their humble origins, it is, in fact, the artist Surayya — an erstwhile peasant girl from a village near Kanpur — who, when faced with the multiple unveiled hypocrisies of a single night’s events, emerges at the end as the strongest presence.
I never translated ‘Ek Makaalma’, but the power of Patjharr Ki Awaaz — both story and book — encouraged me to put all else aside to concentrate on writing fiction and completing my own first collection, which was published, much to Hyder’s pleasure, in 1993.
The stories mentioned here all appeared in 1995 in a translated collection, The Sound of Falling Leaves, most of them done by the author herself. But if I ever asked her why she left the translation of two of the book’s most powerful pieces — ‘Patjharr ki Awaz’ and ‘Housing Society’ — to other hands, I don’t remember her response.
The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2022