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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Qurratulain Hyder

In the Lucknow of the forties, Qurratulain Hyder was a Phenomenon. My father, a student at the King George’s Medical College and a near contemporary, used to regale us with stories of going across to the Lucknow University often simply to catch a glimpse of the exotic-looking young woman, already a celebrity. In one version of a rather convoluted tale, one young man upset a whole row of bicycles causing them to fall like clattering dominoes as he craned his neck and stood on tiptoe for one last look! With her bobbed auburn hair and her printed chiffon saris, she was not just unlike other women of her age and time, she was also so unlike the conventional Urdu writer of popular imagination.

Born in 1927 to illustrious writer parents, Qurratulain (or Aini or Aini Apa as she was called) was destined for early fame and lasting name. Her death on 21 August 2007 after a prolonged illness brought the curtains down not just on a life well lived but on a world where understanding and compassion reigned over change and chaos. Adept at portraying crumbling social orders and lives in flux, she herself remained an impartial observer, a bit like a one-woman Greek chorus to the many tragedies that kept unfolding before her.

Her seminal novel Aag ka Darya, published in 1959 and still regarded as the most well known Urdu novel of all time, catapulted her to lasting fame. Her later short stories and novels spawned a generation of wannabes – women writers who wrote on history and mythology, mixing fact and fiction but lacking the breadth of her erudition and her intuitive grasp of both history and contemporary affairs. While much of her work is documented and recorded, her personal life has always remained a bit of a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Possibly because Qurratulain Hyder allowed few to cross the threshold of her real self and hear her Inner Voice. Few knew Qurratulain Hyder for the Sufi she truly was at heart. Fewer still fully appreciated the deeply metaphysical strain behind much of her historical and social consciousness.

In her ceaseless exploration of the human predicament, past and present, ancient and modern, she was not just the teller of tales and presenter of facts; she was the eternal seeker. Time, for her, was a molten, flowing river, in which she would dive again and again for the grains of mystical truth. Some she has revealed in her writings, others she has taken with her on her long journey into the night. May she find maghfirat (forgiveness) and rehmat (mercy)!

-- Rakhshanda Jalil
Rakhshanda Jalil has edited a collection of essays entitled Qurratulain Hyder and the River of Fire: The Meaning, Scope and Significance of Her Legacy, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2011 and Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2010.)

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