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Qurratulain Haider- The Grand Dame Of 20th Century Urdu Literature

Qurratulain Haider- The Grand Dame Of 20th Century Urdu Literature

“Unn byaahataon ke naam
Jinke badan be-muhabbat riyaakaar sejon pe saj-saj ke uktaa gaye hain”
-'Intesaab’, Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Qurratulain Haider, a progressive Urdu author was lovingly called 'Aini Khala' or 'Aini Apa' more popularly in the literary circles. A stalwart of the progressive Urdu literature, her short stories were published in several reputed literary journals and magazines. She wrote several novels, including the famous 'Aag ka Dariya' (River of Fire), 'Akhir-e-Shab ke Humsafar' (Fireflies in the mist), 'Chandni Begum', among others. Most of them are translated into English. Her anthology of short stories, 'Patjhad ki Awaaz' (sound of falling leaves) that I came across while as a student of literature left in me an indelible print of her as a feminist writer who touched upon the lives of South Asian women through her narratives. 

In her works, she seldom addressed Partition but it was with her stories, its characters and the backdrop has always had allusions with the Partition of 1947. An exception however being 'Aag Ka Dariya', a novel that she is well remembered for. Her writing style for this novel is more towards historic than novelistic, post its publication, it was caught in the ire of controversy. It happened so because the novel as many would agree served as a political statement. It appeared as though the author has clearly refused to accept the partition and the two-nation theory. Through powerful characters, Haider raised questions on the partition, its necessity and its adversities, that irked and made people uncomfortable with her bold thought process.

As Rakhshanda Jalil writes with the “publication of her first collection of short stories, 'Sitaron Se Aage', published in 1945, established two singular qualities about this rising star on the Urdu firmament: one, her steadfast refusal to write only on ‘womanly’ subjects; and two, her ability to consistently produce polished, lyrical prose at a time when poetry held sway.”

A Padma Bhushan awardee, Qurratulain Haider began writing during the 1940s. She was deeply influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Movement, and by the work of other women writers preceding her. Her short stories anthology 'Patjhar Ki Awaz' (Sound of Falling Leaves) was awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in Urdu in the year 1967. In 1989, Haider received a Jnanpith Award for 'Akhir-e-Shab Ke Humsafar', along with which she also has been a recipient of Sahitya Akademi’s, India's National Academy of Letters, the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 1994.

I would restrict myself while writing in context to her anthology of short story, 'Hasab Nasab' (Honour), from 'Patjhad ki Awaaz' (Sound of Falling leaves). The anthology is centred around women belonging to various classes, emphasizing on the lives of women with respect to the household, whether inside or outside of it. It houses stories like 'Hasab Nasab' (Honour), 'Patjhad ki Awaaz' (the short story), 'My Aunt Gracie' with women as protagonists, and men either as shadow characters or as a hovering patriarchal voice, albeit in the background.

Haider’s short story, Hasab Nasab revolves around Shamshad Begum who lives in a “traditional joint family, both her father and cousins were landowners”. She has been shown to be proud of her “Pathan” ancestry, and is seen taking a sense of overt-contentment in it. Begum was due to be engaged to her cousin, Aziz Khan who, much to her chagrin, arrives with ‘Miss Kallo Bai of Lucknow, Gramophone & Radio Singer’ as his wife. It is evident then that the wife faces difficulty in finding acceptance in the zenana and also as the “daughter-in-law” of the household. 

Begum who always had never stepped out of her house, ironically decides to confine herself within the house, and begins observing Purdah from Aziz Khan. As fate had it, eventually all the male members are now deceased, and Begum, too, is cheated out of her property leaving her with no option but to move out of the house and look for livelihood.

Shamshad Begum sees herself as the only remaining custodian of the ‘family honour’ and refuses to accept any money from Aziz Khan to help herself sustain. She proudly declaimed, Dhammu Khan, let it be known that I, daughter of Jumma Khan and niece of Shabbu Khan, would prefer to starve rather than accept any money touched by the inmates of brothels…” 

Her deep-seated class consciousness gets diluted in the post-1947 era when fate plays its part and she lands up in Mumbai, a bustling city as against her ancestral house, at the door-step of a brothel owner. Now, working as a house-maid for the same.

Qurratulain Haider was of the generation that experienced partition of 1947 first-hand, a trauma that perhaps shaped her writing as we read it today. It is evident from her writing that she challenges the norms of linear writing, with a robust inclination towards stream of consciousness deployed in most of her stories, much to the likes of Virginia Woolf.

In the short story quoted above she has effectively brought forward the politics that governs the lives of women, who are left at the mercy of men in the household. She externalised the concept of inferiority, with Shamshad Begum not having control over her ‘choice’ of whether to be confined to the insides of her households, or being pushed to the outsides of it, as she imagines herself to be an upholder of a proud legacy of her ancestral property and lineage.

The question here arises that does the society really passes on that agency of being the legacy-holder to its women, or are they being merely deployed as an instrument of a superficial honour that is tied to the egos of the patriarchal members of any family, implying that women have little of no agency over their lives. Well, then, the ingrained class-consciousness of Shamshad Begum is rendered superfluous as she is stuck in the quagmire of what her identity entails as an individual. A theme well-explored in this short-story from the anthology. What, then, constitutes 'Honour', with the initial letter of the word pronounced with a muted silence.

To read more articles by Ayushi Mehta: CLICK HERE!

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