At Home in India: Stories, Memoirs, Portraits, Interviews
By Qurratulain Hyder
Edited and translated by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai
Women Unlimited
ISBN: 978-93-85606-44-1
446pp.

In Urdu literature, the stature of Qurratulain Hyder is so lofty that an anthology of her works is bound to garner interest. Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai, editors and translators of At Home in India, are academics in Lucknow. For the English language reader who has been unacquainted with the works of Hyder, the anthology they have compiled provides a good introduction to the author and her life and times.

At Home in India is divided into four parts: Stories, Memoirs, Portraits and Interviews. The first section opens with ‘Sherbet Wali Gali’ [Sherbet Street] a simple story peopled by one-dimensional characters. ‘The Secretary’, the second story, has more depth. It revolves around a rani [queen] who deals with old age, widowhood and the loss of her son by hiring good-looking secretaries. A Western backpacker is the hero of ‘Awaragard’ [Wanderer] who, like many others of his ilk, roughs it out as he travels the world. ‘Nazzaara Darmiyan Hai’ [The View Is Within] is an engaging tale about a scheming woman who becomes the recipient of karmic justice.

The last and longest story in this section is ‘Jilawatan’[Exile]. This is a thought-provoking narrative about belonging. Hyder, who has translated it into English herself, calls it a prose nazm. According to her, the vagaries of historical events such as Partition make people view themselves and others differently. But she points out that, “We are condemned to live within the walls of our own skulls.”

The second section of the book, Memoirs, contains two accounts of Hyder’s childhood, ‘Dalanwala’ and ‘Jugnuon Ki Dunya’ [The World of Fireflies], and then long excerpts from ‘Kaar-i-Jehan Daraz Hai’ [The Cosmic Arc Is Long], which is an autobiographical, non-fiction novel. ‘Dalanwala’ has been written from the point of view of the child that the author must have been when the gramophone was familiar but the radio was still considered an innovation.

An anthology of Qurratulain Hyder’s selected works translated in English is a good introduction to the doyenne of Urdu literature for the present generation

‘Jugnuon Ki Dunya’ creates the uncomplicated world of a happy childhood. The author thrives as she spends her vacation with a bevy of cousins. But that time, when everything is fun and attainable, is as fleeting as youth itself.

The passages from ‘Kaar-i-Jehan Daraz Hai’, when taken as a whole, paint a comprehensive picture of Qurraulain Hyder’s antecedents and achievements. Her maternal and paternal families were landowners from Uttar Pradesh (UP) for whom education for both genders was of supreme importance. Hyder’s father, Sajjad Hyder Yildram, was the registrar at Aligarh Muslim University and was well-known as a writer and poet. Her mother, Nazar Sajjad Hyder, was a novelist, short story writer and committed feminist.

Nazar Sajjad Hyder came from a devout Shia family. The traditions of Muharram, as practised by her folks, were upheld annually. In relating these customs, the text is peppered by a lot of names, even famous ones, and the ramifications of familial relationships. Rather than become overwhelmed by this barrage of personalities and titles, it is advisable to let the feel of a bygone era wash over one and be entertained by the obvious eccentricities and quaint customs.

The advent of Qurratulain Hyder’s writing career and the death of her father are all part of the excerpts from ‘Kaar-i-Jehan Daraz Hai’, as is her process of choosing a university. She disapproved of Aligarh Muslim University because women could not attend lectures with male students, except from behind a curtain. The University of Delhi she labelled as boring. She finally settled on the University of Lucknow for herself.

The editors of this anthology do not elucidate the logic behind making their selections. It cannot have been easy to choose from the large body of work that Qurratulain Hyder has left behind. As it stands, At Home in India provides a good insight into the art of Urdu literature’s doyenne.

Some portions of ‘Kaar-i-Jehan Daraz Hai’ lament the loss of friends and relatives. The author compares the length of temporal life to a goat’s sneeze. Other passages extoll the beauty of the Terai region, especially of Nehtaur, Hyder’s ancestral town, and recall, with nostalgia, her Tajik origins.

Qurratulain Hyder
Qurratulain Hyder

The third section of the anthology is Portraits. Rashid Jehan is the subject of ‘Jhoprray Ka Khwaab Dekhnay Wali’ [The One Who Dreamed of Shacks]. The title refers to Rashid Jehan’s communist leanings, which spurred her to care for the plight of the poor, even though she herself came from privilege. ‘Darvesh-Mizaj Bibi’ [The Dervish Woman] is about Anis Kidwai, who wrote with aplomb and humour despite not having had any formal education. The Times Group of Newspapers is the ‘Old Lady of Bori Bunder.’ Here, Hyder writes of Wajida Tabassum, a demure, young woman who wrote soft porn and of Kushwant Singh, the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, who had a penchant for Pakistan.

In ‘Khadija Mastur Ke Maraaslay’ [Missives From Khadija Mastur], Hyder favourably compares the letter-writer to Jane Austen. ‘Naye Hindustan Ki Ustoori Hasti’ [The Mythical Being of New Hindustan] is Attiya Hosain Habibullah, author of Sunlight on a Broken Column. Hyder comments that, before Independence, incoming British officers were told not to miss seeing the Taj Mahal and meeting the beautiful Attiya Begum. The last portrait, ‘Ek Ahd-Saaz Adakaar’ [An Era-Defining Actor], relates to Nargis. It discusses Nargis’s integrity and her self-confidence, which is evinced in never denying or concealing her origins.

The last section of the book is composed of two interviews of Qurratulain Hyder. Shahryaar and Abul Kalam Qasmi are the interlocutors in the first one. A telling observation on Hyder’s part is about Urdu and Farsi. She points out that these languages had been important under British Raj but, after independence, they have been sidelined and replaced by English.

In the second interview, Hyder reminisces that music and musical pursuits have always been acceptable to her family. This departure from the norms of Muslim convictions of the day permits her mother to play the sitar and Hyder to spend years mastering the piano.

The editors of this anthology do not elucidate the logic behind making their selections. It cannot have been easy to choose from the large body of work that Qurratulain Hyder has left behind. As it stands, At Home in India provides a good insight into the art of Urdu literature’s doyenne. However, it is perplexing that there is no mention of her most famous novel, Aag Ka Darya [River of Fire], and the controversy it sparked.

The anthology is easy to read. It constitutes a welcome addition to English translations of notable Urdu works. Women Unlimited are to be commended for publishing this book, so as to keep the works of Qurratulain Hyder current for the present generation.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehley: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 23rd, 2024

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