When Jameel Akhtar took on the Herculean task of interviewing Qurratulain Hyder at length, her initial reaction was, ‘I don’t give interviews. I’m fed up with people. All those stupid boring questions, the same old stuff repeated over and over again, talking rot—No! No!’
Qurratulain Hyder (1927–2007) has been described variously as the eminence grise as well as the prima donna of Urdu fiction. Her best-known work Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire) has been called Urdu’s Hundred Years Of Solitude. She published five novels, several novellas and four collections of short stories and over thirty that have only been published in journals. She wrote scripts and produced documentaries in Pakistan and India and worked as a print and radio journalist in both those countries and in England. She was also literary editor for The Illustrated Weekly and Imprint. In Bombay she wrote film reviews and even dialogue for a Hindi film (Ek Musafir Ek Haseena), and taught in Universities in India and in the United States. She described herself as ‘basically a career woman’.
Controversies first arose immediately after the publication of Aag ka Darya in 1959 over issues of censorship, and again forty years later, over the book’s self-translation as River of Fire. She was interviewed extensively by critics, journalists and academic researchers, yet she continued to be an enigma. Though known to be free with her opinions with friends, she was notoriously reticent in public, easily losing her temper. She could be moody, blunt and rude and cultivated her eccentricities as a camouflage, acquiring a reputation for arrogance.
Akhtar managed to persuade her to agree to being interviewed by promising that he ‘would move away from literature’ and talk about her journalistic career, her interest in painting and music and ‘facets of her life’ not known to readers, particularly the younger ones. Akhtar does not tell us when these interviews, lasting over several months, took place, but it is possible to roughly date them to the time when she was preparing her two-volume memoir based on personal photographs, Kaf e Gul Farosh, published in 2004.
Hyder’s health was by then frail. A stroke had left her right hand unusable, and she had learnt to write with her left. She had to use a magnifying glass to read and write and her hearing too was impaired. She would tire easily, and even though her memory was still sharp, her mind would wander easily. Akhtar had to re-introduce himself every time as she used to forget his name. Her notorious impatience is apparent throughout the interviews, but Akhtar continued with the tenacity of a terrier even when she lost her temper or dismissed his questions as ‘stupid’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘pretentious’ ‘bogus philosophical rubbish’, and to ‘Skip it! It’s an old story’. Akhtar needs to be complimented for his persistence in completing this project.
Two characteristics of her work reveal themselves: One is her immense knowledge of history, and the other is her stream of consciousness technique. When Akhtar asks her about her views on contemporary Urdu journalism in India, she responds with ‘very high’ and bemoans the lack of readers. She then goes on to speak on a variety of topics including Urdu culture and other language cultures; the translation of the Bible into Urdu; painting versus photographs, and the caste system among other things. When Akhtar draws her back with ‘Apa! We were discussing Urdu journalism in the subcontinent’, her conversation again strays to a variety of topics, from a Parsi wedding she attended, to the significance of fire, the liberation of women, domestic architecture during the colonial period, class-room culture in the West, singing ladies, and priceless personal reminiscences. Sometimes one pities that Akhtar sticks doggedly to his agenda and does not ask questions that spring from her memories.
The interviews are a good example of the frustrations that can result from the conversation between an over-earnest critic and an impatient creative writer. Hyder at the outset declares: ‘Our critics don’t use their head. They just swat flies’ or indulge in ‘pseudo-philosophical talk’. Akhtar is frustrated by her dismissal of his opinions—‘You are giving all the answers yourself. Why ask me?’
When Akhtar accuses her of being too nostalgic for the past with her constant lament of ‘My past! My Past! My family…. My Family!’ she responds with ‘You have no imagination….’ And when Akhtar asks whether she is ‘anti-religion’ she retorts ‘What irritating questions you ask. I can’t stand stupidity.’ Hyder refuses to take the bait when Akhtar questions her about the criticism of her work by Progressives with a ‘What shall I say?’ But when he brings up the attitude of the Modernists her response is sharp: ‘They actually took out a wedding procession of frogs in the language of frogs!’ Akhtar intervenes editorially only in one place when he comments that she is ‘economical with the truth’. For example, when she categorically denies that she has ever faced any discrimination as a woman, he cites passages from her autobiographical novel Kar e Jahan Daraz which states that she did.
Hyder was also a prolific translator: From Urdu—the writings of Ibn e Insha, Intezar Hussain, Hajrah Masroor, Khadija Mastoor; From Bengali—Syed Waliullah; From English—T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Truman Capote. She describes her self-translation of the novels Aag ka Darya and Akhri Shab ke Humsafar (Fire Flies in the Night) as ‘trans-creation’. Did she want the original or the transcreation to be treated as the master text? This question was not put to her, so we may never know.
The translation by Durdana Soomro is workable though one wishes less editorial oversight which would have prevented nouns like Gomti, Srivastava and Tribhuvan Nath (Zaar) Zutshi being spelt as Gumti, Srivastu and Zar Zutshi or Zartushti.
Saleem Kidwai is a medieval historian, scholar and translator. He has co-edited Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (2000), a pioneering work documenting and exploring the indigenous roots of same-sex desire in South Asia; he has translated the singer Malka Pukhraj’s autobiography, Song Sung True (2004) and Mirror of Wonders and Other Tales (2012), a collection of short stories by Syed Rafiq Hussain.