Qurratulain Hyder, the foremost fiction writer of the subcontinent, passed away on August 21, 2007, aged 80 in a Noida hospital after a protracted respiratory illness. Fondly known as Aini Aapa, she was recognized as the grande dame of Urdu literature. Born in Aligarh, she strode like a colossus across the Urdu world for nearly six decades, producing novels, short stories, travelogues, and an autobiography, in addition to a large body of journalistic writing.
A recipient of numerous accolades, she was conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 1967; the Soviet Land Nehru Award in 1969; the Ghalib Award in 1985; and India's highest literary honor, the Jnanpith Award, in 1989. A celebrated writer par excellence, Qurratulain was also conferred the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for her contribution to Urdu literature.
As a child, she received a liberal education that was a happy blend of the best of Indian, Islamic and Western cultural values. She was witness to her parents - who were also authors - rubbing shoulders with stalwarts of the time such as Muhammad Iqbal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the Raja of Mahmudabad and scores of other political leaders, social activists and men of letters.
Come 1947 and Qurratulain, having lost her father earlier in the decade, migrated to Pakistan along with her mother and brother. Once in Pakistan, she published her first novel, 'Mere Bhi Sanamkhane' (My Temples, Too), at the tender age of 19 and made waves in the literary circles of the subcontinent, dominated at that time by the Progressives (The Progressive Writers' Movement was a literary movement in pre-Partition British India that contributed to some of the finest pieces of fiction and poetry of Urdu literature.) The novel, published in 1948, was on the trauma of the partition of India, a theme that would recur in several of her works.
She went on to write short stories and another novel, 'Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil' (The Barge of the Heart's Agony). However, it was her 1959 magnum opus, 'Aag Ka Darya' (River of Fire) - which she later transcreated into English - that established the erudite author's literary career. The novel, spread over 3,000 years of Indian civilization, revealed Qurratulain's ability to encompass contemporary life with a stupendous breadth and depth. Through 'Aag Ka Darya', she depicted rare vision and her ability to see things in a universal perspective. Her concept of time and sense of history being uniquely her own, imbued her writing with a genuine and deep-rooted concern for humanity at large.
Returning to India, via a brief period in the UK, the prolific writer was Managing Editor of the magazine, 'Imprint', and also worked at the 'Illustrated Weekly of India', all the while etching images and tales with her prolific pen.
From 'Aag Ka Darya' to 'Aakhre-Shab Ke Humsafar' (Travelers Unto the Night) - for which she received the Jnanpith Award - to 'Chandani Begum', Qurratulain depicted women from all classes with a rare finesse and artistry - delineating their strengths and weaknesses, their fads and foibles.
The following excerpt - the monologue of a female character from the short story, 'Yaad Ki Ek Dhanak Jale' (Rainbow of Memories Lit) - sheds light on Qurratulain's penchant for social realism. The excerpt raises many questions about the helplessness and exploitation of women:
"It's a woman who wails, weep and prays in temples, places of pilgrimage, dargahs, mazaars, imambargahs and gurudwaras... why are women so devout and worshipping? Because they are weak and in need of help. Because in their brief life span they love a lot of people and they want some unknown power to intercede. Why are they forever anxious and concerned about the future of their children?"
Such images from Qurratulain's writings are legion - living on in her novels, novelettes and short stories. On the basis of such portrayals, can one venture to call Qurratulain a feminist? Her writings do help our understanding of women's movements across the world. On the other hand, while Qurratulain cannot be confined to the feminist mode, it is difficult to ignore her concern for the predicament of women in several of her works. She has deliberately portrayed the destiny of women and their exploitation. Then again, she has also tried to comprehend human exigencies, through their helplessness.
Qurratulain's female characters neither rebel against the persecution they suffer at the hands of men, nor do they crib when they are at the receiving of male high-handedness. Yet, these very characters affect the readers, simply because of the skill of their creator, who depicted the female sensibility so very effectively.
In some of her novels, Qurratulain portrayed a gamut of the facets of a woman- from time immemorial to the contemporary world. In her historical canvas 'Aag Ka
Darya', the character of Champa is the embodiment of the Indian woman. If in ancient times, she is Champak, the daughter of Ayodhya's Rajguru - who is made to marry a Brahmin much against her wishes and despite her intellectual and sensitive qualities; then in the medieval age, she becomes Champavati, who falls in love with Abul Mansoor Kamaluddin from the Middle East, only to lead a lonely life - forgotten by her man in his bliss of martial conquest. In a later period, the same Champa then becomes a commodity in a brothel and craves for an identity in Lucknow. In modern times, she dons the mantle of Champa Ahmed who, despite being a successful entity, cannot reveal her feelings to her ideal, Amir Raza. As a consequence, eternal loneliness comes her way. Destitution, loneliness and slavery to the strict and inhuman rules and regulations promulgated by men become her fate.
Another character that amply illustrates the author's sensibilities is that of Deepali Sarkar in 'Aakhre-Shab Ke Humsafar', protagonist Rehanuddin Ahmed's right hand woman. The depth and steadfastness with which Deepali's character has been portrayed actually makes her central and pivotal to the novel.
Also turning the spotlight on the injustice and helpless in a woman's life are her long short stories, 'Agle Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijiyo' (Don't Make Me a Daughter in My Next Birth) and 'Sita-Haran' (The Abduction of Sita). However, along with the gender injustice are images of women who stand tall and make every effort possible to achieve their avowed goals ('Aakhre-Shab Ke Humsafar'), unlike the male characters who betray their ideals.
While exploitation of the womankind is certainly all-pervasive in the eras that Qurratulain Hyder dealt with in her works, the illustrious writer did tremendous justice to her craft by giving a powerful expression to the psychological, emotional and social concerns of women.