The moonlight girl; Chandni Begum by Qurratulain Hyder reviewed by Anusua Mukherjee

Hyder’s final novel defeats the conventional sense of an ending

Published - December 09, 2017 04:00 pm IST

Beautiful Teenage Girl of Indian Ethnicity Standing near brick wall wearing casual clothing & looking at Camera Portrait Close up.

Beautiful Teenage Girl of Indian Ethnicity Standing near brick wall wearing casual clothing & looking at Camera Portrait Close up.

This is one of the few novels I have read where the character who lends her name to the title has an itsy-bitsy part. Chandni Begum, the naïve, bespectacled girl from the mountains, who silently endures the jibes of the people she is put at the mercy of and prays and sews alone in a room, like a Cinderella without a fairy godmother, is killed off unceremoniously in a fire even before we are midway through the novel.

But such unpredictability is not unusual of Qurratulain Hyder, who lived her ideas in her work. The laws of dialectical materialism seem to direct her plots — nothing is sacrosanct: what exists must necessarily come an end.

So Chandni Begum is gone even before she can realise her possibilities. She is remembered after her death with fondness, with contrition, by characters who had treated her with scorn when she was alive. One could have said that characters are redeemed when they look back at Chandni and see her for what she was — pale, unobtrusive, like the moonlight she is named after, yet having a quality that few possess, goodness of heart.

Momentary redemption

But Hyder would not allow of such sentimentality. Redemption, if that state exists at all, is only a momentary feeling, crumbling away even as it takes shape. Besides, being remembered as good doesn’t do any good to Chandni, who only suffered in life. Moreover, in the memories of a dying Safia Sultan, one of Chandni’s torturers, Chandni is merged with Bela, who has been Chandni’s antithesis in terms of personality. If they had anything in common, it is that both of them had been wronged in different ways.

But hadn’t Safia been wronged too? All three are as culpable, or as blameless, as the other – indeed, as all of us. Hyder keeps taking us back to King Lear’s hard-won wisdom, “None does offend — none, I say, none.”

But if every human being is alike at the unaccommodated plane, at the more mundane level of quotidian living, differences do exist, rubbed in and perpetuated by those enjoying the advantages of division.

And division is what Hyder has militated against in her fiction, speaking as she did as one who lived through the anguish of Partition. In Chandni Begum — which spans decades before and after India’s independence — two families from India spread their branches into Pakistan and the U.K.

The post-Partition generation, which populates the second half, can joke about nationality and identity with the benefit of hindsight: “…ideological bigotry is confined to those wise ones who are still living in their country. Abroad, in order to earn money and to compete with the whites, the interests of the NRPs [Non-Resident Pakistanis] and NRIs [Non-Resident Indians] are almost the same. Except at the time of cricket matches…”

The light-heartedness here and elsewhere helps lighten the blackness of stubborn prejudices — of nationality, class, caste, religion — but is incapable of erasing them.

An anglicised Urdu

Hyder is supposed to have insisted that only she can produce English versions of her fiction. While being rooted to the Arabo-Persian milieu she grew up in, Hyder wrote an Urdu which was often criticised for being Anglicised.

Translating her special brand of Urdu into English must be a formidable feat. Saleem Kidwai labours at it, not always successfully. A village performer calls customers to his tent “holding a fog horn to his mouth”. He must be speaking into the conical handheld loudspeaker familiar to Indians, not a fog horn. The narrative also seems dismayingly confusing at times, but that may partly be a contribution of the original.

Chandni Begum is Hyder’s last novel: she is obviously not in her best form here. The novel is too discursive to hold the reader’s interest till the end. All the character ‘types’ found in the rest of Hyder’s ouvre — the failed Communist, the intelligent, cynical female protagonist, the lively subaltern expert at survival — seem to have been called to the stage for the curtain call.

Still, the book deserves a read, not the least for the way in which Hyder defeats the conventional sense of an ending. Safia dies, and with her is erased one of the last vestiges of an opulent feudal past.

If there is no regret, there is also no joyous looking forward to change. In the novel’s eternal present, the broom of one of the household servants goes on sweeping, “sar sar, sar sar.”

Chandni Begum; Qurratulain Hyder trs Saleem Kidwai, Women Unlimited, ₹450

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