With her aureole of crimson hair framing an intelligent aristocratic face shadowed by brooding thoughtful eyes, Qurratulain Hyder, or Aini Apa as she was fondly called, was a silent, daunting figure in public. In private, when she allowed the formidable persona to drop, she could be witty and inquisitive, girlishly loquacious and charmingly gossipy, warm and humane. Never much of a public speaker, she preferred to speak through her pen, her steady companion of over seven decades. Married at an early age to Urdu adab and Urdu tehzeeb, she chose to sacrifice – willingly and happily by all accounts – some of the tastes and savours that life would surely have offered her. However, given her diverse interests and many accomplishments, she remained till her dying day a woman of many parts. Trained in classical music under Ustad Bade Agha sahab of Lucknow, she retained a lifelong interest in music, painting and, yes, women’s fashions! In fact, not only could she, rather bravely and admirably, carry off a fire-engine red lipstick with her flaming mop of hair, she could dig into her bag, fish out a compact and ‘do’ her lips while sitting on a public platform. That she could do so with complete insouciance was a mark of her poise and equanimity rather than conceit or vanity.
Born with an impeccable literary lineage – her father was Sajjad Hyder Yildirim and her mother Nazre Sajjad Hyder, both early and vigorous proponents of Urdu fiction – Qurratulain Hyder wrote her first story at the age of 11. Her first collection of short stories, Sitaron se Aage, published in 1945, established two singular qualities about this rising star on the Urdu firmament: one, her steadfast refusal to write only on ‘womanly’ subjects; and two, her ability to consistently produce reams upon reams of polished, lyrical prose at a time when poetry held sway. Even in the face of rude heckling from the often-rowdy bunch of Progressive Writers, (Ismat Chughtai wrote a disparaging essay about her called 'Pompom Darling'), she persisted in plowing her own furrow and wrote of things and people she knew rather than follow current literary fads and trends. Over the years, she produced a formidable array of travelogues, translations, novels, plays, novelettes and short story collections, each more liltingly – and evocatively -- titled than the other: Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil, Agale Janam Mohe Bitiya Naa Kijo, Gardish-e-Rang-e-Chaman, Fasl-e-Gul Aaye ya Ajal Aye, Patjhar ki Awaaz, Hamin Chiragh Hamin Parwane, Kaar-e-Jahan Daraaz Hai, Akhir-e Shab ke Humsafar, among others.
A prolific writer, she painted with broad sweeping strokes across a panoramic canvas taking in generations and civilizations, large swathes of peoples and cultures and studding her narratives with jewel-like cameos and memorable characters. Aag ka Darya, written in Urdu in 1959 and 'trans-created' into English by Hyder herself some 40 years later, traces the trajectory of the Indian people from the Mauryan period to modern times. Putting four sub-stories into one gigantic whole, this magnum opus portrays an immense and complex smorgasbord of cultures and identities while remaining true to the spirit of liberal humanism that was the hallmark of both her writing and her personality. It was this ability to knit together diverse threads and narratives into a seamless whole but illuminate each individual strand with her vast and prodigious reading that marked Qurratulain Hyder as an excellent social historian. These qualities are amply illustrated not just in Aag ka Darya but in the body of work that follow this early success.
Hyder went away to Pakistan briefly but returned, disillusioned, in 1961. She worked with the Imprint and Illustrated Weekly of India, enjoyed spells of Visiting Professorship at the Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia but all along reading and writing remained the mainstays of her life. Accolades and honours were bestowed upon her in ample measure; chief among them being the Bhartiya Jnanpith in 1989, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1967, the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1969, Ghalib Award in 1985 and the Padma Shri followed by the Padma Bhushan in 2005. Her last major work in Urdu, Chandani Begum published in 1990 was followed by her translation of Hasan Shah’s novel The Nautch Girl (1992) and her own My Temples Too (2004) as well as an album of family photographs entitled Kafe Gul Farosh (2004).
Named after a character from one of her early novels, Mere Bhi Sanamkhane, and having spent several pleasurable hours talking to her, I mourn not just the passing of a great literary figure, a champion of women’s rights and a woman of remarkable convictions. I mourn, equally, the loss of one of the last of the living embodiments of our secular nationalist heritage and a vocal proponent of composite culture. Imbued by an all-consuming Nehruvian idealism, Qurratulain Hyder remained, till the very end, a profound scholar and aesthete, and the high priestess of pluralist inheritance.
-- Rakhshanda Jalil