Qurratulain Hyder, fondly known as Annie Apa, seems to be so present in her different characters in the novel Chandni Begum that meeting them in the novel brings back fond memories of her. Particularly in this novel in its English avatar, that emanates the Lucknavi ambience she understood so well. My interactions with this genius of an author were always bilingual. Switching from one language to another was more or else a norm. When the conversation rotated around western literature or philosophy, English was inevitably the medium but talking about Indian literature or culture, specifically Urdu or Hindi, we veered towards Hindustani. And all in all, we spoke in the language of translation; while English clearly carried within its folds a strong Hindi-Urdu sensibility, our Hindustani reflected our familiarity with western cultural traditions.
Saleem Kidwai’s excellent translation of Qurratulain Hyder’s original Urdu novel Chandni Begum into English actually seems to me like an extension of those conversations. The translator has achieved a charming bi-culturality which I see as a gain in translation while I am sure some would always lament the inevitable loss of cultural nuances in translation. It is known that the process of translation calls for a negotiation between cultures and between languages. In the bargain there are bound to be losses as well as gains.
Hyder’s magnum opus, the novel Aag Ka Darya (translated as The River of Fire) had traced the evolution, as it were, of composite culture in the Indian subcontinent over several centuries. What had motivated her to write this novel was the ‘civilizational’ rupture caused to the Ganga-Yamuni culture by the Partition of India in 1947. Aag Ka Darya was one of her earlier works. Chandni Begum was Hyder’s last novel demonstrating her great love for Lucknow and the knowledge she possessed about its Muslim cultural ethos. In the earlier novel, the author offers a macro vision of civilizational forces at work in the subcontinent and later in the other novel her vision is confined to a smaller space and period in history, that of Muslim life in the post-Independence city of Lucknow.
Chandni Begum is completely seeped in the acclaimed and distinctive cultural context of Lucknow and the vivid descriptions in the novel exude Hyder’s deep understanding of the society that has traditionally thrived in the city along with its beliefs, language and behaviour patterns. Present in the novel are those prominent shadows of the old-world feudalistic structure of the nawabi class in its society on the one hand and on the other, one witnesses the crumbling of the same in the post-Partition era when industrialization and modernity begin to puncture the romance inherently present in the city of Lucknow.
The novel draws us into the story through a detailed and vibrant description of Red Rose, the haveli popularly called Lal Kothi, which is then present as a haunt throughout the narrative with a sense of intrigue around it. At the outset we are introduced to Qamber Ali who is a Leftist young man, the son of the affluent Shaikh Azhar Ali, a successful barrister always with a Havana cigar in his mouth. In presenting the contrasting picture of these characters of two different generations, the novel is in effect showcasing a shift in the socio-political and cultural ethos of the city. The questioning of the status quo was growing stronger, specially amongst lower classes and women. For example, Qamber Ali’s mother, we are told, used to give speeches on women’s rights.
In the first few pages of the novel itself one is caught and enchanted by the witty utterances of Al Hamdu, the personal maid of Bitto Baji. When kababs are made in the house, for instance, she would mutter ‘philosophically’, ‘Ah, the fate of this dumb animal! Saints meditate sitting on its hide; poets compose verses about its eyes, but the poor beast ends up being scorched into kababs!’ Such kind of wit in everyday life is typical of Lucknavi households across class and gender.
It is very interesting to note that the central character by the name of Chandni Begum makes a rather late entry into the narrative and is present in physical terms in very few chapters of the novel, but her presence looms heavy throughout the story. Even in her absence, her spirit lingers in the atmosphere as well as over major incidents. When Qambar Ali is led into marrying Bela, the reader is quite conscious of how Qambar Ali actually had been committed to Chandni Begum for marriage. And later, when Chandni Begum comes to lay her claim over Qambar Ali the second time, the author dexterously brings out the emotional turmoil in each of the three characters. From jealousy to anger, love to apathy and from impassioned reactions to suitable restraints…all of these emotions are displayed deftly. Each of the three characters in Red Rose was doomed with an unresolvable situation and the fire that breaks out accidentally takes them all into its fold and they die. But Chandni Begum’s spirit remains present till the end.
Chandni Begum attracts attention when alive and is almost like a mystique, both when living as well as when dead. Qurratulain Hyder’s storytelling skills keep this character alive till the very end of the novel when Safia Sultan merges with the spirit of Chandni Begum in death. The author excels in building internal dialogue, or shall we call it the interior monologue, within the character and plays with the stream of consciousness style in the narrative here. In that is revealed the inner scape of the character, making it visible to the reader and not to the other characters in the novel.
What is remarkable is that while the novel presents the author’s extraordinary eye for detail in her various realistic descriptions, she also creates a strong interiority of the characters in the novels. Hyder is known to have possessed a formidable sense of history as well as a deeply philosophic bent of mind. The insights interspersed in the novel bear witness to the author’s perceptions and convictions grown out of her diverse knowledge. References to the social and political history of her own times speak for her alertness to how that fed into the cultural ethos of the city.
Needless to say, the novel Chandni Begum in English translation would have fallen flat but for a sensitive and competent translation by Saleem Kidwai, who himself seems to have a passion for the city of Lucknow, its language and culture. By retaining several words and idioms from the original or by fully understanding the original and then finding appropriate equivalents in English, the translator has vibrantly carried much of the original cultural flavour of the novel into its translation. A pleasure to read!
Sukrita Paul Kumar, a noted poet, translator, and cultural activist was born and brought up in Kenya. Till recently, she held the Aruna Asaf Ali Chair at Delhi University. Her latest collections of poems are Dream Catcher, Untitled and Poems Come Home (with Hindustani translations of her poems by Gulzar). Amongst her other books are Ismat: Her Life Her Times, Narrating Partition, Conversations on Modernism and Speaking for Herself: Asian Women’s Writing (Penguin India).