Qurratulain Hyder

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Qurratulain Hyder

Celebrated novelist Qurratulain Hyder dead

By Jawed Naqvi


Qurratulain Hyder

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.”

Quran Khwani

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.

Qurratulain Hyder II


August 26, 2007

ARTICLE: The diva of Urdu fiction

By Asif Farrukhi

Qurratulain Hyder

‘QH passed away in New Delhi last night. Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai’ flashed the SMS on my mobile just as I had started the day’s work. It was with utter shock and disbelief that I stared at the message, hoping against hope that it would not be true. Only a few days back Sajjad, her nephew (and my brother-in-law) had told me that Aini Apa (as she was known to us all) was better and out of the hospital.

Admiring her to this side of idolatry, even the news of her ill health was enough to give one a feeling of dismay. She seemed so precious, so much ingrained with our lives, our sense of who we were and what we set out to be, it seemed incredulous to even try and imagine that she is no more. Throughout the day, I could not concentrate on anything else and bits of Iqbal kept reverberating though the eerie silence in my mind. Iqbal, and parts of Eliot.

Perhaps she was to Urdu fiction what Iqbal was to Urdu poetry; as towering a presence for the second half of the 20th century as Iqbal had been for the first half. She was a great writer who brilliantly captured the an entire civilisation in transit. It is not merely the loss of a favourite or much liked writer but somehow she was in a class by herself — she had made herself to be part of the fabric of our lives, the very texture that it hits you as a personal loss. With her an entire epoch has died and in her books remains alive something which is a precious part of ourselves.

It would be an over-simplification to say that she took Urdu fiction to dizzying heights. Her larger-than-life works of fiction managed to convey a feeling of history as lived experience. Her sense of history was unique as was her perception of time and in her fiction the great tide in the affairs of men becomes a powerful and living metaphor. Aag Ka Darya — literally the river of fire — was her most memorable creation. More than a partition novel, it portrays events that cast a long historical shadow and how history determines the fate of people. In the last part of the book, the emergent and upstart society of Pakistan is vividly portrayed. It seems that she could foresee the shape of things to come. While it went on to become one of the most widely read novels in the language, controversy dogged the author as objections were raised against the novel on one ground or the other. This may or may not have contributed to her irrevocable decision to return back to India, but it almost certainly led her to develop a love-hate relationship with the monumental novel.

When I complained in a review that she had not treated the novel well in her self-translation (nobody else but her could be so disrespectful to this modern classic) she reprimanded me, saying that I was stuck on this book as I had not read her subsequent works. Nothing would convince her that I had in fact devoured almost everything that she had written, but still it remained my favourite. It may have been the greatest novel in the Urdu language or even the best post colonial novel in any South Asian language, but for her it represented a stage that she had passed through, a footstep in her – to quote Ghalib — dasht-e-imkan.

The few years that she remained here, she enriched Pakistani literature with tales like Sitaharan, Housing Society and Chai Kay Bagh. Nobody has captured the effervescent moods of the burgeoning city of Karachi like her. The changing face of Indian society engaged her attention in Gardish-e-Rang-e-Chaman and Chandni Begum, but before that she embarked upon the great feat of recapturing times past in Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai, in which her personal search for roots becomes intertwined with collective memory. Stories such as Patjhar Ki Awaz and Roshni ki Raftar reflect her mastery of the form.

Her larger-than-life works of fiction managed to convey a feeling of history as lived experience. Her sense of history was unique as was her perception of time and in her fiction the great tide in the affairs of men becomes a powerful and living metaphor. Aag Ka Darya — literally the river of fire — was her most memorable creation.

However, this is no time to assess or evaluate her contribution to literature and persons better qualified than me will undertake such tasks. I can only offer a small personal tribute to the great and commanding presence she was. It was a privilege to know her and a treat to engage in conversation with her. I recall a visit to her home in Jamia Nagar, New Delhi during which I mentioned that I was going to visit Lucknow the next day, for the first time in my life. She immediately brightened up and started talking of things I should do and places I should see. She was a fascinating conversationalist and had could make distant times and different people come alive. It was no fault of hers that the city that became alive in her description was infinitely richer than the physical reality of the city that I saw with my own eyes.

More than once, I also had the privilege of being chided by her in no uncertain terms. Once I wrote a rejoinder to a critic who had put her down for having ‘an incomplete experience of life as she had remained single’. Far from being pleased, she lashed out when she saw me in Delhi. ‘Why did you not ask me before writing about these things? How can you mention my name in the same breath as Miraji’, she fumed.

Urdu criticism has not even come up with the vocabulary to evaluate your work, I mumbled and when I explained that I found this critic’s premise to be faulty, she took me task again: ‘What else do you expect from him as he was a Triple M?’. I asked her to explain what the term meant. ‘male, Muslim and middle class’, she said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye and started laughing. She had made her point. Laughter aside, she had her own strict rules. She kept her personal space and did not allow any intruders. Journalists would invariably ask her some predictable questions, and she would get annoyed on being asked as to why she left Pakistan and why she chose to stay single. She took her reasons with her to the grave.

Once, when I showed her the collection of her non-fiction that I had edited, she asked me in mock-serious tone if it was all really her writings. She kept her humour and her zest for living till almost the end. Last year in Delhi, she invited some us for lunch and with the keenness of a child, asked Kishwar Naheed to tell her some ‘good gossip’. By that time her phenomenal memory was beginning to fail her. Saying goodbye, when I said that I was going back to Karachi the next day, she asked with great surprise if I had also migrated to Karachi.

She had been keeping poor health and time’s winged chariot was drawing near. Still nothing could prepare us for the loss. The frail old lady with flaming henna-dyed hair, whom I last saw in Delhi seated on a wheelchair, has returned to the dust she came from. Qurratulain Hyder will live as long as there are people reading books in Urdu.

Qurratulain Hyder III


The Queen is dead, long live fiction

By Mustansar Hussain Tarar

Qurratulain Hyder

I happened to be at Qamri Pass, an altitude of 13, 400-feet, at the junction of Baltistan and Kashmir, when Quratulain Hyder breathed her last. The guns were silent after the ceasefire. One of the Indian posts here has been renamed Madhuri by the romantic Pakistani soldiers comparing the beauty of the hill top with the actress.

The Pakistani soldiers and officers, unlike their seniors living lavishly in the plains, reside in miserable hovels where even a self-respecting mule would hesitate to spend a night –– one wonders where the immense defense budget goes. However, at that abominable height we spent a comfortable night despite the sub-zero temperatures because the officers had vacated their dingy stone cell along with their high altitude sleeping bags and music systems for our trekking team.

Then the morning came and according to Homer, the Sun god’s pink chariot chased away the darkness of heavens and in that ethereal light we saw the great Nanga Parbat rising from the clouds and if there was a sun god, the poor fellow would have felt ashamed of his Venus or Diana as the majestic beauty of Nanga Parbat surpassed the charm of the goddesses.

The killer mountain, when viewed from a height of 13, 400 feet, is indeed a rare sight. Whenever one comes across a beautiful sight during the mountain wanderings, one thinks of those who make life worth-living. On that morning, viewing the Nanga Parbat, I also thought of Quratulain Hyder – who had been a permanent source of happiness for one through her writings – oblivious at that point that she had stopped breathing and become part of this very nature.

The descent from Kamri top was an extremely hazardous affair – our horses tumbled and slipped and at times the team was lost in thick forests of Birch trees littered with wild Alpine flowers. One also had the unique honour of falling from the horse and was declared a shahsawar.Finally battered and bruised, the team arrived in Halmat, the last village of Azad Kashmir, which reminded us of Hamlet. Col. Asif, the commandant of the local army encampment, invited us inside the simple mess to view the idiot box thinking that after such a long absence from civilisation, one would be hankering for the television screen. How could he know that one of the main purposes of this trip was to escape from the monstrosities of television, radio and newspapers.

We were refreshed to see Madhubala, the queen of silver screen, blinking her beautiful eyes while rendering ‘Ayega aanewala’ from her film Mahal. Underneath her melancholy face, a moving ticker of latest news was being flashed. One’s heart missed a beat as the ticker displayed Aag Ka Darya, Gardishe Range Chaman, Sita Haran, Kare Jehan Daraz hai — one immediately knew why these names were appearing on the screen; Annie aapa was dead. Babar Nadeem, a widely read person, looked at me and said “Sorry Tarar Sahib.”

One cannot claim that one knew her intimately or she was a friend; how can a giant be a friend of a lilliputian? She was a prima donna of Urdu fiction, she was moody, short-tempered, arrogant and at times unbearable; however, queens are supposed to be arrogant and if they choose to ignore or even insult their subjects then that is the trait of true royalty.

When she came to Pakistan on a prolonged visit, the writers of Lahore fell over each other to invite her to their homes and normally she obliged. At times she would phone the scribe and ask: “Mustansar who is this funny looking person who is pestering me all the times to accept his invitation for dinner, he says he is a writer, do you think I should accept his invitation?” That funny looking person may happen to be a well-known writer, and when I would vouch for his credentials she would say: “All right, I will accept the invitation provided you are also there.”

During her stay in Lahore, one can safely say that she did not spare anyone, specially if one just mentioned Aag Ka Darya her wrath would be monumental: “Haven’t you people read anything else, I am sick of this reference, go and educate yourself and then talk to me.”

Prior to her arrival in Lahore, one had met her in Islamabad where she was staying with some distant relatives. It was bad luck that when one went to see her, some members of the family were waiting and they promptly took some pictures and requested for autograph. I obliged sheepishly much to the displeasure of Annie aapa: “You seem to be quite famous around here.”

“Annie aapa, any idiot who appears on the idiot box becomes famous.” She patted her flaming red hair, checked her lipstick with a vanity mirror and smiled: “You cannot be much of an idiot if you have written Undalus Main Ajnabi and Des Huey Pardes.”

I was stunned that she had read and liked Des Huey Pardes, which had gone unnoticed in Pakistan. When she found out that Abdullah Hussain was a very dear friend of mine she started fuming, I kept my mouth shut because in the battle of bulls the frogs are always crushed.

There was yet another party in her honour when I complained to her: “Annie aapa, I have requested you repeatedly to visit my home for a meal and meet my daughter whom I have named after you.” She looked at me and said: “Look Mustansar, these people invite me to their homes because they want to get famous and I oblige them. You are not like them, are you? I will come to your house when I feel like it, so do not pester me again.”

And then on one of those listless days, when life seems totally senseless, the door bell rang, one went out adjusting the pajama strings and opened the gate. There stood a smiling – and growling at the same time – Quratulain Hyder, holding a huge cake in her hands. “Now where that daughter of yours, this cake is is for her.” This was one of the most memorable and privileged moments of my life.

She immediately befriended my wife Memuna, started playing with my kids, showing special attention to my daughter Annie and then asked to be photographed with them. This was the real face of Quratulain Hyder – a kind and gentle soul who loved her privacy as a ordinary human being.

A couple of years back, during the Saarc Writers Conference, my only agenda in Delhi was to meet Annie aapa. She invited some of us to her place for lunch and sent me a threatening message that I better be there. As luck would have it, at that very moment a driver was waiting for to take me to Agra for a visit to Taj Mahal. I sent apologies to Annie aapa saying: “I have seen the Taj Mahal of literature already but I have not seen the other Taj, hope you will understand my predicament.”

I never thought that Quratulain Hyder could also die. Now I realise that a terrible mistake was made when I opted to go to the other Taj which was not going anywhere and missed seeing again the Taj that has gone for ever.

Qurratulain Hyder IV


September 2, 2007

REVIEWS: Into the sunset

By Intizar Husain

THE passing of Qurratulain Hayder has saddened those in the literary circles and the reading public in general. There is a valid reason for it. Qurratulain, with her charming personality and equally charming style of writing, captivated the minds and hearts of her readers and admirers, who are large in number. It was not the style of her writing alone. Her novels had an altogether different disposition, opening new chapters in the history of Urdu novel.

It was her new mode of expression, which was hitherto unknown to Urdu novel. I am talking here specifically about novel as a genre. The situation of short story has been different from that of the novel. Of course for both these forms of fiction we are indebted to the western tradition. In both cases we took our first lessons from the realistic fiction of the 19th century. In that early period under this influence we achieved much more in the novel than in short story.

But during the 1930s and ’40s Urdu literature came under the sway of two important movements, the progressive writers’ movement and that unleashed by modernism. Under these two influences, Urdu literature absorbed waves of new ideas and ideologies and acquainted itself with some new modes of expression. So we had modern poetry in free and blank verse as its medium of expression.

In the realm of short story, writers like Ahmad Ali, Krishan Chander, Muhammad Hasan Askari and Mumtaz Shirin employed those modern techniques in their stories which were the hallmark of the 20th-century western fiction. But, unfortunately, our novel lagged behind in this journey to modern sensibility and expression. Should we blame the modernist story writers for this shortcoming of Urdu novel? None of those mentioned showed the ambition to turn to novel, which offered a wider field for this kind of experiment to carry Urdu fiction to new heights. In fact, novel during these years was an ignored form of expression.

Such was the situation when Qurratulain Hyder came to the rescue of the Urdu novel. Making her appearance in the mid-’40s, she soon turned from short story to novel. She came out with her first novel Mere Bhi Sanamkane in 1949. It was a novel with a different flavour. But it was unpalatable to the progressive writers. Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi asked her to decide immediately whether she was on the side of the emerging labour forces or the system of ‘dacoits’ which was on its way to decline.

But Qurratulain had her own views about literature. In response to her progressive critics she said: ‘I don’t agree with those who treat romantics as escapists. The canvas of an artist is wider than that of red morning.’ A few years later she brought out her new novel Aag ka Darya, and it was again a major break from the traditional novel. One may well say that from Gao Dan to Aag ka Dariya, Urdu novel has revolutionised.

Usloob Ahmad Ansari regards this novel as a unique achievement in the world of Urdu novel. He is of the opinion that unless we try to understand the meanings of modern, western novel as cultivated by Henry James, Proust and Joyce, we cannot understand the meaningfulness of Qurratulain’s novels. In the modern novel, he explains, there is a shift from external reality to the internal reality and the writer in order to have access to this reality is required to employ newly devised methods such as an interior dialogue, a free association of thinking and the technique of stream of consciousness.

By choosing to write her novel in the modern mode of expression, Qurratulain managed to provide a wider perspective to the theme of partition. Progressive writers and other writers writing under their influence had treated this theme as a human tragedy, which may be seen as a direct outcome of the socio-political conflicts of those times. Hence it remained to be seen and understood in the present framework alone.

Qurratulain did not toe this line of thought. Instead, she chose to treat the theme as a great event in the history of the subcontinent, pregnant with deeper meanings, which need to be probed after being put in the wider context of history.

Even if one has one’s reservations about this perception of the event, while raising questions, the opposing opinion will have to be kept in the context of the entire debate.

Qurratulain Hyder V


The grand dame of Urdu literature

ONE: Arguably the biggest name in Urdu novel, Qurratulain Hyder died last month at the age of 80. She authored 12 novels and novelettes, all outstanding pieces of literature, and some highly readable short stories, including one, which can be called a long short story. She had a stroke a few years ago, which hampered her movements but couldn’t dampen her brilliant mind. What curable disease did she die of?

TWO: Qurratulain Hyder was born in Aligarh in 1927 with a literary spoon in her mouth, so to speak. Her father Sajjad Hyder Yaldram and mother Nazre Sajjad were literary figures of no mean repute. She was named after the famous poet Qurratulain Tahira. In what language did this lady express herself?

THREE: Qurratulain Hyder spent her formative years in Lucknow, where she was exposed to the Lucknawi culture as also to the Western lifestyle. A widely read person, she wrote her most well-known novel Aag ka darya in a literary technique of which James Joyce and, to a certain extent, Virginia Woolfe were the high priests. Name the technique.

FOUR: Qurratulain Hyder’s great aunt, who wrote under the name Walida Afzaal Ali (the mother of Afzaal Ali), authored a handbook on etiquette for Muslim ladies. That was in the 19th century. About the same time a novelette was written by someone called Hassan Shah. Qurratulain translated it into English towards the end of the 20th century. Its title?

FIVE: After Partition Qurratulain, Annie to her friends and Annie Apa to her juniors in age, migrated to Pakistan, where she worked for a government department. In 1960 she moved to the BBC and then returned to India. It is said that like a great vocalist she too settled down once again in a neighbouring country, to use a term once quite a favourite with the PTV. Incidentally, she joined hands with a music aficionado, Malti Jilani in writing a biography of the musical genius. Who are we referring to?

SIX: After migrating to India she won several awards, apart from the state award. They include Jnanpith, Sahitya Akademi Award, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Ghalib Award and the Urdu Academy’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Award. Everyone had expected that she would win the prestigious Adamjee Award for her great novel Aag ka darya, but the award was jointly won that year by Shaukat Siddiqi’s novel Khuda ki basti and Ghulam Abbas’ collection of short stories Jade ki chandni. Why was the book of greater literary merit not given the award?

SEVEN: Incidentally, the novel that won her recognition, before Aag ka darya made its appearance, was Mere bhi sanamkhane. The Progressive writers were not very charitable in their assessment of her literary worth. Ismat Chughtai making fun of her depiction of an anglicised society and called her Pom Pom Darling. What nickname did Qurratulain give to Ismat?

EIGHT: With one high priest of the Progressive Movement in Literature – Ali Sardar Jafri, Qurratulain authored a slim but invaluable volume on Ghalib in English. With another she was romantically linked. He too remained unmarried all his life. The man we are referring to was a short story writer, journalist and filmmaker. Name?

NINE: Khushwant Singh, who was the editor of a magazine, which you have to name, wrote of Qurratulain, his deputy, “She was the most erudite woman I have ever met. She had immense knowledge of English, Urdu and even Hindi literature. She was an all-rounder.” He went on to say, “As her boss I suffered her and she suffered me.”

TEN: Qurratulain didn’t give permission to anyone to translate her works. She rewrote them in English. She was in particular very possessive of Aag ka darya, which she recreated a few years ago. What is the title of the English version?


(1) Pneumonia (2) Persian (3) Stream of consciousness technique (4) The Nautch Girl (5) Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (6) Qurratulain was on the panel of judges so the novel could not vie for the award (7) Female Changez Khan (that depicted the authoritarian traits in her personality, and also because Chughtai was a Mongol clan) (8) Khawaja Ahmad Abbas (9) The Illustrated Weekly of India (10) River of fire. Compiled by Asif Noorani

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