Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007)

Famous Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder died a few days back. I can't find any obituary on the internet but a news report on bbc here.

I have read parts of River of Fire (the English translation of Aag ka Dariya). It was there in our college library. I did struggle with it for some time but couldn't finish it in end and left after being awed by her erudition and also the scope and ambition on display in the book. One needs to be an expert in Indian history to really get hold of all her references and allusions. What I gathered from my own limited reading of the book was that she wanted to show the continuity in Indian culture and history right from its origins thousands of years ago to the present, modern age. In this way I think she challenges other interpretations of Indian history which find breaks, specially the most pernicious of them all which divided India into hindu, muslim and british epochs (the original orientalist classic by James Mill). I am saying this all in retrospect and from my memory, at that time it didn't make much sense and I have never got a chance the read the book again.

The book is available in the US through the excellent New Directions Publishers. Amazon link here.

A review from times literary supplement here and another from complete review, which understandably finds it "sometimes obscure." Extracts from the book available at Google Books.

Pankaj Mishra has this to say about it:

Qurratulain Hyder, who shares Chugtai's North Indian Muslim background, wrote, while she was still a teenager, what is considered one of the best novels about the partition of India. A later best-selling novel, Aag Ka Dariya (originally published in Urdu in 1959, and recently translated by the author as River of Fire), has a magisterial ambition and technical resourcefulness rarely seen before in Urdu fiction. River of Fire traces the history of India from the achievements of the classical age in the fourth century BC through the Muslim- and British-dominated centuries to the tragedy of the post-partition years. The two main characters, Gautam and Kamal, whose names don't change but who play different roles, live through these historical periods as Buddhist monk and Central Asian conqueror, North Indian aristocrat and Bengali intellectual. Hyder employs diverse genres—letters, chronicles, parables, journals—to present her melancholy vision of the corrosions of time.

In confidently writing about India's Buddhist and Hindu past, Hyder, a Muslim by birth, also provides an example of the secular literary culture of the subcontinent that has largely remained untainted by sectarian tensions.

I am a big fan of "melancholy vision of the corrosions of time" but I don't remember feeling it while reading the book. I should definitely take it up sometime again soon.

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