Realism Books

Leaving on a Dakota: Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘Ship of Sorrows’ reviewed by Harish Trivedi


Partition barely causes a ripple in the lives of Hyder’s privileged set

This early novel by Qurratulain Hyder, published in Pakistan in 1952, reshuffles her first novel which she had completed before migrating in December 1947. Both depict the privileged lives of several young cousins and friends living it up in Lucknow until Partition happens and catches them unawares.

Partition here is not at all as represented by Manto, Bhisham Sahni or Yashpal. We see nothing remotely like rape or bloodshed, and these scions of the Muslim elite of Awadh cross the border by taking a private flight “from Kanpur to Lahore in a Dakota, piloted by a Polish girl.”

In fact, migration causes barely a ripple in their lives. “From one Gymkhana to the other — Mohammad Bagh Club [in Lucknow], Lahore and Karachi Gymkhanas — life was proceeding very smoothly.” The tone here may hint at irony but the action belies that hope, for the characters do indeed go on living the same insouciant lives.

As for the land they have left behind, they hardly spare a thought. The one Hindu family they knew were the Rajvanshs, who were Kayasths, and “the Kayasths of Awadh,” we are told, “are considered to be half Muslim” anyhow. A stray line from a bhajan can be heard once or twice and the Hindi journal, Hans, is mentioned in which a Rajvansh girl publishes a poem.

Also mentioned are two Turkish journals from the library of “Abbajan,” the paterfamilias who once lived in “Constantinople”. He writes poetry in Persian and goes off to Tehran just for “a change of air”. This older pan-Islamic affiliation gives way in the next generation to a Westernised cosmopolitanism which takes the younger characters, some brought up by an Irish governess, to London, Cambridge and Paris. The “syncretic” culture or tehzeeb here is not so much Ganga-Jamuni as Gomatian-Bosphorian-Thamesian.

Oddly, this charming evocation of the languorous lifestyle of the haute bourgeoisie and their brittle brilliance gives no inkling of what was to follow. Only seven years later, Hyder produced her masterpiece, Aag ka Darya (River of Fire), which is a grand synoptic vision of the Indian civilisation, extending from the 4th century BC to the 1950s and encompassing Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and the British alike in one epic sweep.

The writer is former Professor, Delhi University.

Ship of Sorrows: A Novel; Qurratulain Hyder, trs Saleem Kidwai, Women Unlimited, ₹550

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 9:33:10 AM |

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