NEW DELHI, Aug 21: Celebrated Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder, 80, died here on Tuesday following complications from an old breathing problem. A throng of grieving admirers laid her to rest at Jamia Millia Islamia cemetery in Delhi, where she once taught Urdu literature as professor of the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair.
“I don’t have a great mission in life and I never thought it was necessary for a writer to have one,” she said in an interview to Doordarshan recently, which was shown on Tuesday. “Unless you think that being a good neighbour is a great mission,” she smiled.
For the last several years, Ms Hyder had lived in a small flat she bought in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, with her maid Mary.
She enjoyed having visitors, but appeared mildly depressed after suffering a stroke three years ago that left her writing hand paralysed. But she continued to dictate her memoirs to a few helpful former students.
That effort all but ended three weeks ago when she was hospitalised for a breathing problem.
Ms Hyder was born in 1927 in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh. Popularly known as “Annie Aapa” among her friends and admirers, she was the daughter of the famous writer, Sajjad Haidar Yaldram (1880-1943). Her mother, Nazr Zahra (1894-1967) was also a novelist.
Ms Hyder migrated to Pakistan in 1947, but soon left for England and returned to India in 1951.
She began writing at an early age at a time when the novel had yet to strike roots as a serious genre in the poetry-oriented world of Urdu literature. Admirers say she purged Urdu novel of its obsession with fantasy, romance and frivolous realism.
But critics, including those belonging to the Progressive Writers’
Association, a group she never cared to indulge, much less join, never endorsed her romance with the jagirdari (feudal) order, and her apparent empathy with a new Muslim elite who studied abroad and joined the colonial civil services.
Her legendary contemporary, Ismat Chughtai, was one such unsparing critic.
Ms Hyder explained and perhaps accepted the criticism without rancour. For example, in a recent book dedicated to Ismat Chughtai, with contributors reading like a who’s who of modern Urdu writing — Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander, Qurratulain Hyder summed her up very well as “Lady Chengez Khan, because in the battlefield of Urdu literature she was a Chughtai — an equestrian and an archer who never missed the mark”.
Ms Hyder, of course, wrote so from experience. Ismat had used her for target practice in an essay entitled “Pom Pom Darling”, a reference to Ms Hyder’s elitist duck-shooting characters.
A prolific writer, Ms Hyder wrote a dozen novels and novellas, several collections of short stories and has done a significant amount of translation of classics.
Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire), her magnum opus, is considered a landmark novel that explored the vast sweep of time and history. The story of Nilambar Gautam, a forest university student who travels the country at the time when Buddhist ideas were sweeping through India is revered as a masterpiece in India and Pakistan alike.
The magnificent description, the vast continuum of time and the canvas of the novel won international acclaim for Ms Hyder years later, but only after she translated the book into English.
She received India’s highest literary award, the Jnanpith Award, in 1989 for her novel, Aakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar (Travellers Unto the Night). Other awards included the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 1967, Soviet Land Nehru Award, 1969, Ghalib Award, 1985, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for her outstanding contribution to Urdu literature.
She served as a guest lecturer at the universities of California, Chicago, Wisconsin, and Arizona and was managing editor of the magazine, Imprint, Mumbai (1964-68), and a member of the editorial staff of the Illustrated Weekly of India (1968-75).
Her other books include Patjhar ki Awaz (‘The Voice of Autumn’, 1965); Roushni ki Raftar (‘The Speed of Light’, 1982); the short novel Chae ke Bagh (‘Tea Plantations’, 1965); and the family chronicle, Kare Jahan Daraz Hai (‘The Work of the World Goes on’).
Literary critic Zamir Ali Badaiyuni ranks Ms Hyder as an exceptional writer, ahead of Ismat Chughtai and Rajinder Singh Bedi, as one who successfully touches the ground of high modernism and post-modernism.
Ms Hyder, he wrote, “is neither a philosopher nor a metaphysician. She is a novelist in the truest sense. Her concept of time is literary and cultural. Marcel Proust, French novelist; Virginia Woolf, an English fiction writer, and William Faulkner, the author of Sound and Fury, is an American novelist. Time is the major theme in their works and Qurratulain Hyder, inspired by them, chose time as a major theme in her novel, but her concept of time is purely cultural and historical.”
In a message on her death, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was deeply grieved. “She was a great teacher and scholar famous in India and abroad. She was one of the most celebrated and prolific writers of Urdu literature. Aag Ka Dariya, her magnum opus, is a landmark novel that explores the vast sweep of time and history. In her unfortunate passing away the country, especially Urdu literature, has lost a towering literary figure. She will be truly missed in literary circles in the country.”
KARACHI: Quran Khwani for Qurratulain Hyder will be held on Wednesday between Asr and Maghreb prayers, at 66, Khayaban-e-Bokhari, Phase VI, D.H.A. (near the intersection of Khayaban-e-Shujaat and Khayaban-e-Bokhari) for women, and at Masjid Ali, Khayaban-e-Muhafiz, Phase VI, D.H.A., for men.