(1927-2007) Quratulain Hyder is regarded as one of the most distinguished writers of the subcontinent. With an immense body of work in her repertoire, Ainee Apa’s (as she was endearingly addressed) published works included novels, novellas, short stories, travelogues, literary criticism, and translations of works from English literature into Urdu as well as translations of her own works into English.
Born on 20 January 1927 in Aligarh, in a family where the appreciation of literature was a given, Quratulain Hyder wrote her first story at the age of eleven. Her father Sajjad Hyder Yildirim was a strong influence on her and her mother Nazre Sajjad Hyder, who was the editor of Phool, a children’s magazine, provided her with literary influences very early in her life. Her great-aunt Akbari Begum initiated the tradition of writing among Muslim women when she wrote a novel in 1898. (1)
Quratulain Hyder also wrote for Phool very initially in her career. She describes the atmosphere in her household as very literary where she grew up familiarised with literary journals such as Nairang e Khayal, Aalamgir and Humayun and met many distinguished writers who interacted with her parents. (2) Her father, Sajjad Hyder, was an enlightened man who expounded his liberal views on the education and welfare of women in essays and stories, and also through various organizations. He was a pioneer short-story writer in Urdu. As an undergraduate, he was the Assistant Editor for a magazine Ma’arif in Aligarh. Her mother Nazar Sajjad, was an equally liberal and socially concerned person who firmly believed in promoting education among Muslim women. She was a writer of fiction and wrote novels and short stories. (3)
“If both your parents and one great aunt have been eminent writers of their time, you grow up in an interesting kind of household. If you also have a near-photographic memory and almost total recall, and a lot of imagination, you can’t help but write, and go on writing for the rest of your life…” (4)
Rakhshanda Jalil describes Quratulain Hyder’s first collection of short stories, Sitaaron say Aagey, (published in 1945), as a work that established two singular qualities about her; “her steadfast refusal to write only on “womanly” subjects and […] her ability to consistently produce […] polished, lyrical prose at a time when poetry held sway. Despite the criticism she faced from the Progressive Writers, she steadfastly pursued her writing with an individuality that dismissed current trends in literature. (5)
Quratulain Hyder attended the Isabella Thoburn College (Lucknow) and graduated from the University of Lucknow with a master’s degree in English Literature. After her father’s demise in 1943, she moved to Pakistan with her mother in 1947. Here she worked on documentary films for the Department of Advertising, Films and Publications, and then went to England where she worked for the BBC. She moved to India in 1961 and worked in Bombay as the managing editor of Imprint and later as the Assistant Editor at the Illustrated Weekly of India. During her illustrious career, she held teaching posts at the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia. (6)
A glance at her works will yield a series of well-known publications that include Mere bhiSanamkhanay, Safina-e-gham-e-dil, Sita Haran, Housing Society,Patjhar ki Awaaz, Agale Janam Mohe Bitiya Naa Keejo, Gardish-e-rang-e-chaman, Fasl-e-gul Aaye ya ajal aye, Kaar-e-jahan daraaz hai and Akhir-e-shab ke humsafar. Her last major work in Urdu, Chaandni Begum was published in 1990 and was followed by her translation of Hasan Shah’s novel The Nautch Girl (1992) and her own My Temples Too (2004). It was her seminal novel Aag ka Darya (1959) that propelled her career as she received tremendous recognition for it. The novel “traces the trajectory of the Indian people from the Mauryan period to modern times. Putting four sub-stories into one gigantic whole, this magnum opus portrays an immense and complex smorgasbord of cultures and identities while remaining true to the spirit of liberal humanism that was the hallmark of both her writing and her personality.” (7) Aag ka Darya has been translated into fifteen Indian languages, including an English translation, River of Fire, by the author herself. (8)
Hyder received numerous awards for her work during her lifetime. These include the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968 for her collection of short stories Patjhar ki Aawaaz, the Padma Shri in 1984, India’s highest literary honour the Jnanpith Award in 1989, the Sahitya Akademi fellowship in 1994 and one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Bhushan in 2005. (9)
As Rakhshanda Jalil succinctly sums up, “In her ceaseless exploration of the human predicament, past and present, ancient and modern, she was not just the teller of tales and presenter of facts; she was the eternal seeker. Time, for her, was a molten, flowing river, in which she would dive again and again for the grains of mystical truth.” (10)
Quratulain Hyder died in New Delhi on 21 August 2007.