Death of Quratulain Hyder, Urdu’s Greatest Novelist
Editorial: Quratulain Hyder, Urdu’s greatest novelist
Daily Times, August 23, 2007
Quratulain Hyder (1927-2007) passed away at the age of 80 in New Delhi and was buried at the cemetery of Jamia Millia Islamia University where she had taught for a while. Many will claim the status of Urdu’s greatest novelist for her, and those who contest it will only offer another woman candidate, Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991). Quratulain came to Pakistan at Partition but returned to India fearing intellectual oppression, some say, after being persuaded by the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; Ismat never came to Pakistan.
India treated her far better than Pakistan had done, given her prickly temperament. She won the Jnanpith Award in addition to Sahitya Akamedi Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Ghalib awards. The Urdu Academy in Delhi conferred upon her the Bahadur Shah Zafar Award in 2000. She was also a former member of the Upper House of the Indian parliament. She worked for a while at The Illustrated Weekly of India under the editorship of Khushwant Singh and later at The Times of India and the journal Imprint. The other talent that fled back to India was Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the great classical singer. Quratulain wrote the bestselling book on him in 2004, probably her last work.
Quratulain Hyder became famous for her novel Aag Ka Darya, describing an inclusive composite Indian culture that encompassed the Muslim community; she leaned to pluralism rather than the exclusive ideology that Pakistan had begun to nurture soon after its establishment. She found herself being misunderstood and attacked by the enthusiasts of the Pakistan Movement, just like short story writer Saadat Hassan Manto on different grounds. Before her demise, she bequeathed to Urdu, 12 novels, several novellas, a number of short stories and numerous editorial and introductory articles of great stylistic value.
Few realise that her greatest work apart from the novels was her monumental family chronicle Kar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai where she displayed an ability to change her style according to the ambience she was describing with the help of carefully collected family documents. She was descended from one Ahmed Ali who lost all his property after the 1857 rebellion against the British because he was found guilty of taking part in it. Ahmed Ali thought that the rebellion failed because the Indians who arose against the East India Company were not educated enough; he therefore decided to send his sons to Aligarh, the school-college set up by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.
Her father was the most dominant influence on her. Sajjad Hyder had been influenced by Haji Ismail Khan, a friend of Sir Syed who loved Turkey and its progressivism and defiance of the British. Sajjad Hyder learned Turkish and translated many works from Turkish to Urdu, in the process developing a distinct style that made him staple for Urdu textbooks in Pakistan. He was a dragoman (tarjuman) in the British consulate in Baghdad from 1904 to 1907. Quratulain’s great-aunt Akbari Begum initiated the tradition of writing among Muslim women with a novel in 1898. Her mother Nazrul Baqar, home-educated in English as well, became an editor of Phool, a children’s magazine, thus providing Quratulain the literary background she needed as a young girl.
The cities of Ghazipur and Dehra Dun, dominated by an easy-going Muslim aristocracy, were the early influences on her, which was reflected in her fiction, but her view of culture was intensely pluralistic, explaining Muslim culture too in a “transmigratory” technique in her big novel Aag Ka Darya. The Pakistani public paid her a back-handed compliment by making her books bestsellers in Pakistan; but most of them were pirated, meaning that someone other than her got rich selling them. She was always a chronicler, a kind of Tolstoy in Urdu that our critics have ignored. When someone asked her in Bombay to write about the Iran-Iraq war she naturally began with the Arab conquest at Qadissiya.
In her story of her family, Dastan-e-Ehd-e-Gul, the dates are meticulously put down and footnotes supplied as she follows the spoor of her family’s tortuous journey through history. Father Yildrim was an extraordinary man ambushed by passivity, as Quratulain says elsewhere, but his story is exciting in the telling. Yildrim wrote a new kind of Urdu, quite palpable in his famous translations, and Quratulain was definitely his daughter, endlessly gifted and different. She kept pointing to the “strangeness” of women writers of extraordinary originality in a culture suffocated by unoriginal men.
Just take Quratulain and Ismat together and you don’t have two men to equal them. Among the few men who were good Quratulain counted novelist Aziz Ahmad, wondering why he had been brushed aside. She recalled with great fondness the pioneer women writers of the order of Muhammadi Begum who got her mother interested in writing and whose inspiration came down to us in the last of the good writers, Hijab Imtiaz Ali, whose stature she insisted had yet to be decided.
Whenever Quratulain visited Pakistan she had to defend herself — at times not too politely — against critics reading her work as autobiography. She wrote a dirge on the obstinacy of incomprehension of her novel, Chandini Begum, on the part of Pakistani critics. She made fun of the hidebound progressive writers who thought she was “bourgeois and feudal” and pushed her out of the pale of literary appreciation; and she wondered what kind of infertility assailed the critic in our times of religious anti-intellectualism.
What people missed because of “the death of the ear” in Pakistan was her capture of the music of the Rohelkhandi or Pichchva Urdu, Bihari, Rampuri Muradabadi Urdu, and the accent of Amroha, that kept alive the language of Mir and Sauda. She always said that Muslims in India didn’t feel like a minority because of the memory of Muslim rule. She maintained — right or wrong — that Pakistan got it wrong when it presumed for reasons of state that the Muslims of India were suffering under Hindu Raj. With her passing, Urdu has lost a great — if not the greatest — contemporary writer. She had predicted she would die on the 19th of August; but she died on the 20th. *
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