The cultural memory of a generation
Born in 1927, Qurratulain Hyder is one of the most important authors writing in Urdu. Her novels and short stories trace human destinies in the whirlpool of history, especially in the tension between different cultures like Hindu and Muslim, Indian and European, and between private wishes and public demands. She has created some very impressive female figures and shown in her choice and treatment of themes a lasting willingness to experiment and to make innovations.
Qurratulain Hyder is often said to be the grand old lady or grey eminence of Urdu literature. Plainly this towering figure of 20th century Urdu literature is acknowledged and admired but also viewed from a distance. She comes from a family of notable writers including not only her parents but also an aunt, and has a nearly photographic memory enlivened by a streak of fantasy.
Qurratulain Hyder let her first stories appear in literary periodicals in the 1940s then rose to fame in 1948 on the wings of her first novel, which is about the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan only a year earlier. Pakistan was meant to grant Indian Muslims a homeland free from administration by a Hindu majority but proved to be problematic. On the one hand the loyalty of Muslims who preferred to remain in India was doubted by Hindus, and on the other hand the division hampered the cultural interaction which had for centuries typified North Indian life. These important themes have preoccupied Qurratulain Hyder for the rest of her career.
Both the public and literary critics have taken her novel Ag ka darya (River of Fire) from 1959 to be typical of her work as a whole, though this has prejudiced the perception of her later works. Ag ka darya was translated into many Indian languages and then into English by Qurratulain Hyder herself in 1998. In this remarkable epic, a certain number of characters reappear in changing guises to embody Indian cultural and spiritual life through four politically distinct eras.
The story begins in India in the 4th century AD with the spread of Buddhism and moves into the era of early Islamic rule, then into colonial times and finally into India of the present day. The youthful heroes of the last era experience the division of India as a human and civil tragedy, and the novel ends by deploring the existence of a separate Islamic nation and by accepting the secular Indian state. The story’s continuity is ensured by the reincarnation of the main protagonists in each era and by the river of fire, meant both literally and as a symbol of society and time.
The main conflicts serve on various levels as leitmotifs, showing mainly the relationship between knowledge and power in the various eras. To show the nature of knowledge in each era as well as the syncretism of Indian culture, Qurratulain Hyder quotes liberally from Sanskrit texts, folksongs, mystical hymns, modern poems, dramas and other texts. Despite certain weaknesses in characterisation and some imbalance in the course of events, the result is a work of unique breadth, actuality and skill, said rightly to be a milestone in Urdu literature. Though intellectually demanding, it sold like hot cakes.
Her later novels show the fate of Indian Muslims before and after the struggle for independence, as values and customs change in the wake of capitalism. Qurratulain Hyder is a feminist author in the strict sense of the word and has always been against dividing literature into gents and ladies. The women in her books are as able as the men and are often more persistent though hampered by lack of opportunities. In her recent books some of them manage to break through to professional success and financial independence, though the price be the loss of partnership, as in Qurratulain Hyder’s own life.
Qurratulain Hyder’s important family saga Kar-i jahan daraz hai (The Businesses of the World last long, 1977-9) traces her family history since the 18th century and is based on family documents and numerous other sources. Its episodic structure and anecdotes, dramatic or amusing, bear witness to not only a vanished era but also to a vanishing tradition of storytelling.
From her early works on, events in her protagonists’ minds often overshadow events around them, and montages often bring together texts of dissimilar nature. The former deepen the characterisation, and the latter broaden the literary, cultural and historical framework. All in all, her works have a unique texture.
Qurratulain’s questionable habit of idealising her protagonists and putting them in melodramatic scenes is more than offset by her zest in storytelling, her sense of irony and the breadth of her vision. In India and Pakistan she is virtually a literary icon, and though she is viewed warily by younger readers, her rank as an epic storyteller and mistress of words is beyond question.
She died August 2007 after a prolonged illness.
Author: Christina Oesterheld
Qurratulain Hyder was born in 1927 in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh in India. She grew up in various towns in northern India and accompanied her brother to Pakistan after the division of the subcontinent in 1947, but in 1962 after a stay in London she returned to India and lived in Bombay and then Delhi.
For years she worked as a radio and magazine journalist and has taught at several universities in India and the USA. She has translated works of world literature from English into Urdu, and some of her own works into English. Her books have been crowned with many awards, including the Jnanpith Award - the highest Indian award for literature. She died on August 21, 2007.
My Temples, too
Novel. Women Unlimited: New Delhi
A Season of Betrayals
Short stories. Kali for Women: New Delhi
River of Fire
Novel. Kali for Women: New Delhi
The Street Singers of Lucknow
Short stories. Sterling Publishers: New Delhi
The Sound of Falling Leaves
Short stories. Sahitya Akademi: New Delhi
Fireflies in the Mist
Novel. Sterling: New Delhi
Gardish-i rang-i chaman
A Woman´s Life
Novel. Chetana: New Delhi
Akhir-i shab ke hamsafar
Kar-i jahan daraz hai
Stories from India (edited by Qurratulain Hyder)
Short stories. Sterling Publishers: New Delhi
Short story. PEN: Lahore
1967 Sahitya Akademi Award
1969 Soviet Land Nehru Award
1985 Ghalib Award
1989 Jnanpith Award
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(25 April 90 - 29 April 90)