The restless raconteur | Review of Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘At Home in India’, edited and translated by Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai

The essays in this volume give us a sense of the milieu from which the Urdu writer drew inspiration for her fiction

Published - May 10, 2024 09:45 am IST

While Qurratulain Hyder was honoured with a number of awards in her lifetime, she is not discussed as much as her elder contemporaries such as Ismat Chughtai.

While Qurratulain Hyder was honoured with a number of awards in her lifetime, she is not discussed as much as her elder contemporaries such as Ismat Chughtai.

Qurratulain Hyder’s fictional world is populated by a cast of recognisable character types — the existentialist uncle, the useless dreamer (usually Marxist), the Bombay fashionista, the scholar-professor, the kindly woman (usually poor cousin) who labours silently in the household of the rich. They are surrounded by a bevy of working-class characters like street singers, cooks, ayahs, bearers, and beyond that, by nature, as manifested in expansive fields, rivers, fireflies.

The essays from Hyder’s family saga, Kar-e Jahan Daraz Hai (translated as As the World Turns in this volume), presented in English translation for the first time here, give us an inkling of the original people and places that lent themselves to her fictional universe. Since Hyder was markedly averse to discussing her literary works, letting them speak for themselves, these essays are invaluable in giving us a sense of the milieu from which Hyder drew her inspiration.

While Hyder was honoured with a number of awards in her lifetime, including the Jnanpith, Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan, she is not discussed as much as her elder contemporaries such as Ismat Chughtai. One reason behind this is the fact that much of her work — Hyder was a prolific writer — still remains untranslated. And Hyder is difficult to translate: her writing follows no rules — while being realistic, it can unexpectedly take a magic realist turn; it can take a sudden dip in history and legends; it can be solemn and tongue-in-cheek, clipped and flowery. It flows like a wild river, taking along everything that comes its way.

Considering this, translators Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai have done a superb job in At Home in India. Besides the essays from As the World Turns, the volume has two autobiographical pieces, ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ and ‘The Magic Mountain’, short stories, pen portraits, and interviews. If the language seems convoluted at times, this may have something to do with the original. Even Fireflies in the Mist, Hyder’s own transcreation of her Urdu novel, Akhir-e-Shab ke Humsafar, is confusing at places. Carrying nuances of Urdu, Hindi, English, her prose has a shifting register, making a smooth translation difficult.

Frozen in time

Another reason why she is not read as much as she should be is the fact that her non-fiction, and some of her fiction, is anchored to its time. Most of the personalities she refers to in Kar-e Jahan... must have been well-known in their days, but are just names now. They gesture at an era when the finest minds were imbued with an idealism — a belief in art, education, social equality — which might seem old-fashioned to a reader from our jaded times.

Hyder was born to a literary, progressive family in 1927. Her father, Sajjad Haider Yildirim, registrar of Aligarh Muslim University at the time of her birth, was a poet, critic, essayist and fiction-writer. Her mother, Nazar Sajjad Haider, also a writer, worked for women’s reform. It is about such liberal, learned, eccentric personalities that Hyder writes in Kar-e Jahan.

While the narrative can be chaotic, it has its moments of sharp insight, for instance, when Hyder says with reference to the migration that started with Partition: “But if these migrations had not taken place human civilisation would not have developed. History has its own determinism and its own logic.” Hyder is also clear-sighted about the things that do not change no matter what upheavals take place: most notably, the condition of the working class.

In her time, Hyder was accused of being nostalgic for a feudal past. She did belong to an old, aristocratic family but she did not live an entitled life: a single woman throughout, Hyder earned her living as a journalist and a writer. The two shorter autobiographical essays mentioned earlier, about the time she spent in Dalanwala in Dehradun as a child, paint the picture of a storied world of koi hai and chhota hazri.

But servants and masters are mentioned in the same breath, and the tales of house help such as Faqira and Jaldhara are more delightful than those of their employers. It is individuals like these who give life to her fictional pieces such as ‘The Street Singers of Lucknow’, or the novel, Chandni Begum. By giving these characters, whose lives usually go unremarked, their rightful stories, she ensures their place in the great churn of history.

At Home in India: Stories. Memories. Portraits. Interviews
Qurratulain Hyder; ed and trs Fatima Rizvi and Sufia Kidwai
Women Unlimited

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