Exiled in her kingdom

At Home in India is a wide canvas of Qurratulain Hyder’s stories, previously untranslated memoirs, and pen portraits, as well as her life in Pakistan and her eventual return to India
Firangi Mahal, Lucknow. For representational purposes only.
Firangi Mahal, Lucknow. For representational purposes only.

In an informal conversation with Qurratulain Hyder in 1987, when acclaimed Urdu poet Shahryar, and Abul Kalam Qasmi—Urdu poet, scholar and critic—asked her about the techniques she employed while writing her magnum opus Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire, Women Unlimited), she responded: “Aji, there was no technique, I just wrote it.”

Hyder’s legacy is as timeless as her most critically acclaimed multi-generational novel. The Times Literary Supplement described the book as Urdu’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. For Hyder, writing was both a means to register as well as process her reality. Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai—editors and translators of At Home in India (Women Unlimited), a sprawling new anthology—resurrect from the annals of history a chronicle of a life richly irrigated by a deep engagement with the written word, and the multiplicity of the human condition.

Talking about the fascinating anthology of six short stories, excerpts from Hyder’s previously untranslated non-fiction autobiographical novel Kaar-e-Jahaan Daraaz Hai, pen portraits and interviews, Rizvi notes how the book “help(s) us locate her in her milieu…. We see her as a woman recording her past, a fiction writer and a woman talking about her work life experiences and literary and familial background—we see a large variety of her work and the changing yet consistent registers across these styles…”.

Born in 1927, Qurratulain Hyder was an Indian Urdu novelist and short story writer
Born in 1927, Qurratulain Hyder was an Indian Urdu novelist and short story writer

The experimentalist

Hyder is known for her experimental linguistic style and register. Her sentences often play with syntax and language. Rizvi suggests that it was Hyder’s cosmopolitan education and her multicultural outlook, which informed these experiments: “Hyder was not herself when she was not experimenting—whether it was with the idea of time and narrative styles and genres.” Rizvi, however, says she struggled instead with the fact that she “could not take any liberties with the text…. Her language is replete with multicultural linguistic usages. At times she was probably thinking in English and writing in Urdu”. Rizvi cites the example of a short story in which Hyder coins mohabbat geet, to refer to a love song!

While Hyder’s short stories and novels have previously been translated, At Home in India presents intimate excerpts about Hyder’s childhood, adolescence and maturity from Kaar-e-Jahaan Daraaz Hai for the first time for English readers. Here, Hyder is candid and graceful, and plumbs through her life history with a genuine curiosity.

She traces her lineage to 18th-century Islamic scholar Shah Waliullah Dehlavi, and Nawab Muhammad Amir Khan, a distinguished military general of the early-19th century Maratha empire, and deftly connects these pasts to her present as an exilic writer in search of home and belonging in a post-Partition 1960s India, to which she returned after spending the 1950s in Pakistan and London.

Rizvi suggests that the memoirs are unparalleled in the history of Urdu literature: “They give us an idea of all that was essential to the making of the writer…. It’s not a mere cataloguing, it’s a deep psychological, intellectual and political engagement and analysis that we find in this book. It’s not only limited to her personal and familial history but also the public history. It’s a huge, panoramic canvas—and she is consistently selecting ideas and locating her texts in situations which cover large areas of interest and which may also appeal to a large range of readers”.

At home in the world

“Merging the Indian with the Western is very dear to her. She also values greatly the syncretic Indo-Muslim cultural traditions and this is unselfconsciously promoted in all her texts—the essential oneness of both the cultures, even in the language that she uses,” Rizvi says in a comment on Hyder’s uncompromising secularism.

“As a person who valued her syncretic Indo-Muslim cultural traditions deeply, and who was forced to leave behind everything she loved and migrate to another part of the world, she was perturbed and anxious…. But in spite of the violence, there was much that troubled her in Karachi and she decided to come back to India. She continued to believe in an essential solidarity that characterised humanity,” says Rizvi.

Hyder’s women

Despite her phenomenal genre-defying oeuvre, Hyder was criticised by the Progressives, especially Ismat Chughtai. Rizvi offers a nuanced argument in Hyder’s favour. “There was a time when not only Urdu literature but literature in practically all Indian languages was swayed by Progressive ideals. At that time, Hyder held her ground and wrote about what she wanted to write about.

For Chughtai, who was an absolute realist, the body, the bodily and the tactile are very important, but Hyder’s women are almost disembodied selves…. Her women are more analytical and individual.” Hyder was always interrogating her place in the matrix, but simultaneously etching her own. Her work speaks to the universal experiences of our lives, creating communities across time and space.

At a time when our differences are exploited by autocrats, the voice of Hyder becomes all the more relevant. A staunch feminist and secularist at heart, Hyder’s life and work across forms and genres is a testament to a lost culture of interrogation and truth-seeking. Rizvi suggests that Hyder’s “panoramic canvas and scope is so large, with multiple perspectives feeding into each other, that it is impossible to categorise…. Her works must be appreciated for the spirit in which they have been written and the substance, depth and ideals they offer”. At Home in India is a timely and commendable step in that direction.

Kartik Chauhan is a Delhi-based reviewer of literary fiction

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