This fascinating collection of short stories highlights the innovative genius of this iconoclastic writer as she moves from realism to the fabular, and form history to time-travel.
In the title story, woven with social satire and melodrama, and itinerant entertainer become a well-Known singer, eventually coming back to her Lucknow roots in a subdued, melancholy ending. A cast of characters entertain themselves with gossip and adultery in the lush tranquility of the tea gardens of East Bengal. At the centre is a mercurial, identify-changing adventuress, one who often appears in Hyder’s fiction. Another is the memorable Eurasian, Catherine Bolton, Who escapes her roots to achieve social success.
This versatile writer takes imaginative flight in unusual stories spanning decades, or even centuries. Her arsenal of techniques-pastiche, satire, memoir, collage-take us to the place most important to her, the human hear in all its varied seasons.
Qurratulain Hyder is one of Urdu’s greatest fiction writers. Her published work consists of four collections of short stories, five novels and several novellas. She was journalist, scriptwriter and broadcaster with BBC, as well as Producer Emeritus, AIR, and copywriter for an advertising agency. She was awarded the Padma Shri, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the prestigious Jnanpith, in 1989.
The death in 2007 of Urdu’s greatest novelist, Qurratulain Hyder, was reported in the Indian press with a fervour usually devoted to the passing of statesmen and film stars. But it was only the 1998 publication of River of Fire, a self-translation of her magnum opus Aag ka Darya, that an entire generation of the English-educated elite had been introduced directly to work of one of India’s most famous writers. Although the case of a writer being better known than her work may appear strange, it is far from uncommon in India, where writers often remain entirely unread except by their own linguistic community. But this was one who hadn’t needed to depend on a translator to make herself heard: she was English-educated, had worked in London, and apparently insisted that only she could produce English versions of her fiction. Final, with the much-belated appearance of River, the time had come to prove herself.
First published in Pakistan in the late 1950s, River had long remained inaccessible, except for the odd anthologized excerpt, to Anglophone readers. The immediate aftermath of the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence was an obvious moment to present the novel to a young audience and India’s new urban readers, as national history is its central subject. Within the next few years, sophisticated critics such as Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra and, more recently, Hirsh Sawhney, would swell the ranks of Hyder’s admirers, finally according her the place she deserved in the broader South Asian canon. Epithets such as “Urdu’s Garcia Márquez” appeared regularly in the obituaries. River was also signposted as a precursor to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (a notion which both authors would probably have vigorously opposed). More in keeping with her own project were references to her early introduction to Urdu prose of a modernist sensibility, in a style nurtured in its extreme youth by nuanced and innovative readings of Eliot, Woolf and Proust, and, in its disjunctions and historical tropes, perfectly adapted to an indigenous postcolonial reality. Yet Hyder, in one of many conversations with me over the years, claimed that she soon shed Woolf’s influence. In fact, she replaced Bloomsbury’s aesthetic aloofness with an absolutely original brand of postmodernism which, combining pastiche and brittle humour, rough juxtapositions, historical vignettes, fragmented chronologies and multiple voices, was the painful afterbirth of the struggle for national liberation and of partition. The dates of her publications prove that Anglophone subcontinental writing, innately decorous and painfully aware of its foreign readership, took quite some time to catch up with her; until the explosion of Rushdieinspired texts which appropriated another, more highly- coloured brand of cosmopolitanism, the so-called Indo Anglians look provincial in comparison to Hyder. Most importantly, a range—albeit modest—of her work is now available in English. This is mostly through the good offices of the pioneering Delhi-based feminist presses, Kali for Women and its offshoot Women Unlimited, whose editors were among the first to acknowledge the importance of translated vernacular literatures to a growing Indian readership.
Although River of Fire was not Hyder’s first English-language appearance, it was her first novel to be published in the West for an Anglo-American readership, prompting notices in the TLS, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. Western visibility, and Kali’s considerable reputation, may also have increased interest in Hyder’s work among a notoriously elitist clique of Indian readers and reviewers, thus establishing her as one of the subcontinent’s greatest women of letters. (She has long had an unequalled reputation in Pakistan, where she had lived and worked for part of the 1950s and whose post-Partition politics remained an abiding preoccupation in her writing. The much greater importance of Urdu in that country placed her works at the nerve centre of literary debate throughout her career, but there, too, the English editions of her work have found a growing readership.)
Well established as a journalist since the 1960s, Hyder had not only long published articles, essays and short stories in English, she had also, in 1994, released a version of another, later novel, Fireflies in the Mist, which went largely unpublicised at a time when Vikram Seth, and an attendant number of youngish Anglophone writers, were receiving accolades both at home and abroad and heralding the rise and rise of the Indian novel in English. There had been a strong rumour in the late 1980s that Fireflies was being sold by leading London agent to Tom Maschler at Cape. That the book never did find a British publisher and appeared so late in India remains puzzling, but is likely due to the translation being regarded as lacking in style and with a rather turgid authenticity. (Nearly a decade later, Rushdie dismissed Indian regional literatures in his fiftieth anniversary anthology on the grounds that they generally didn’t work in translation.) A volume of Hyder’s short stories, The Sound of Falling Leaves, included translations by herself and others, allowing readers the opportunity to judge them in a variety of fscinating, if uneven, interpretations. After the critical success of River of Fire, her Indian publishers released two further works—Seasons of Betrayal a collection of novellas not translated by the author, and Hyder’s own autumnal revisiting of her 1948 Partition novel, My Temples, Too. Neither of these has appeared from New Directions, which earlier published River of Fire.
It is interesting that Chaudhuri’s own anthology, which rectified Rushdie’s verdict by including some fine examples of translated “vernacular” writings, chooses to represent Hyder with one of her own translations, “Memories of an Indian Childhood”. He may be responding to a quirky, individualistic style which, regardless of the degree of exact replication of its original Urdu idiom, does convey the author’s unmediated vision. Hyder’s role as self-translator has been crucial, in my opinion, in the acceptance of translated literatures on the lists of the leading Indian publishers. Part of the series of paradoxes in her career as Anglophone writer, though, is that The Dancing Girl, the first of her books to be published in the US, was an almost too faithful translation of an eighteenth-century autobiographical novel with a prescient colonial theme, itself the Urdu version of an original Persian manuscript. Thus she was known as translator and critic to American readers several years before her fiction was available to them. More important still is the question of how good her translations are. There is no doubt about the knowledge they impart; this would, in itself, suffice to keep them in print, as would her unassailable reputation as even-handed chronicler of a pre-Partition past in which Hindus and Muslims in her native United Provinces had more in common than was later to be remembered. Her depiction of the landed classes and the jeunesse dorée, which may have accounted for a seemingly nostalgic strain in her work that she described as a “tongue-in-cheek study of a dying culture”, would appear to readers at the dawn of a new era as the only existing portrayal of an entirely vanished class of liberal and privileged Muslims, painted by a sane liberal humanist just as her community was increasingly being made by the media to signify as the terrorist or backward Other.
Her writing juxtaposes the lyrical with the discursive in a way that translation can’t dampen. Her prose, though, particularly in her use of dialogue, has been criticised by the English-speaking contingent in India for resorting too freely requent1y to the colloquialisms of a generation bred on P.G. Wodehouse, too distant from the rhythms of contemporary Indian English or the cosmetic smoothness of Creative Writing courses. Hyder does at times appear abrupt or stilled in her attempt to conserve the terse economies of Urdu, but her style is, in fact, more often brisk and bracing in narrative passages. Capable of great plasticity inherited from Urdu, it has frequent beautiful moments of descriptions which erase the distinction between word and object. (These qualities particularly evident in Fireflies, an epic reconstruction of East Bengal’s history from the point of view of rebels, radicals and dissidents, are all drawn unchanged from her Urdu style.
Some readers have found that her writing in English isn’t that of a native speaker and doesn’t quite match up to the fluency of a Vikram Seth or an Arundhati Roy; it is valuable only because it conveys the content of her writing to readers denied access to her native language. In tandem, many admirers of her Urdu claim that the author has made changes to the extent that her English versions are reworkings rather than translations. Does she or any writer (e.g. Nabokov) have the right to edit her or his own texts? And if she does, is it more acute if a linguistic bridge is being crossed, and what are the contingent implications for translators?
There are enough of us among Hyder’s readers, however, to discuss and debate the relative merits of her Urdu and her English works. What remains unchallenged is the ascendancy her contribution to Urdu. The daughter of two famous writers, the cerebral Sajjad Hyder Vildirim and the besting feminist Nazar Sajjad Hyder, her inherited command the classical idiom of her mother tongue is perfect, rooted in cultural and historical contexts and Arabo-Persian references. In the latter she was, if second to none, certainly not without peers: among others, her older contemporary, the great poet Faiz, could claim equal expertise, though his native tongue was Punjabi.
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