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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Of an upper-class milieu and how it navigates a fraught future in the build-up to Partition

Ship of Sorrows: The protagonists of this sometimes cryptic but always engaging book are a set of young people from upper-class families, some Muslim, some Hindu, one English, who are coming of age in the years leading up to Partition.

Written by Amitabha Bagchi |
Updated: December 9, 2019 8:47:50 am
The protagonists of this sometimes cryptic but always engaging book are a set of young people from upper-class families, some Muslim, some Hindu, one English, who are coming of age in the years leading up to Partition.

Ship of Sorrows 
Qurratulain Hyder (Author), Saleem Kidwai (Translator)
Women Unlimited 
316 pages
Rs 550

It is probably true that the privileged young of every generation are idealistic and narcissistic in equal parts, just like it is probably true that idealism and narcissism are two sides of the same coin. In Qurratulain Hyder’s second novel, Safina-e-gham-e-dil, published in 1952 when she was just 25 and ably translated into English by Saleem Kidwai under the title Ship of Sorrows, idealism and narcissism balance each other out in a delicately crafted work that appears to follow the artistic conventions of music rather than those of narrative fiction.

The protagonists of this sometimes cryptic but always engaging book are a set of young people from upper-class families, some Muslim, some Hindu, one English, who are coming of age in the years leading up to Partition. And these aren’t ordinary young people by any means. The men are powerful civil servants, army officers and even a genteel revolutionary, the narrator/author’s brother Ali who is hunted down and shot in the leg by his old friend, the English administrator of the region, Elmore Rexton, who then offers him a cigarette to which Ali says “thanks for the cigarette but you know Craven A is not my brand.” The women include Mira, who has danced with Uday Shankar’s troupe and has several suitors, and Anne Hyder, the writer, who the readers of the English translation of 2019 know is going to develop into a giant of 20th-century literature, her reputation sealed in 1959 (seven years after the publication of Safine-e-gham-e-dil) by the appearance of Aag ka Darya (translated into English as River of Fire in 2003).

The common thread that runs through these two books, the author’s second and third novels, is the difficulty of the choice facing the young elite Muslim at the time of Partition. On one side is the prospect of Pakistan that means various things to various people. For the less privileged, it might have been a place of refuge from rampaging mobs, but for the more privileged among the men it can be as banal as a place where their career will flourish, as it does for Riyaz in Ship of Sorrows, or, in the case of Fawad, just a place to run away to in the way a callow young man sometimes does when the demands of adulthood weigh too heavy. For the more conventional of the women, it is the place where they have to make a new life with their successful husbands, moving “from one Gymkhana to another”, leaving behind their Hindu suitors who have now become unsuitable for geopolitical reasons.

On the other side of the argument is the pull of the land and its poetry, of the songs of Gopala, of the tales of Alha and Udal, of “… Mir Anees, sitting in a deserted Imambara, reading something softly… reciting It’s the end of the night, time to praise and salute God.” Both Ship of Sorrows and River of Fire approach the question of whether to stay or whether to leave, a question the author herself struggled with, on similar terms: as a kind of choice between numbing confinement in the material everyday on one hand (“In affluent suburbs the uninteresting wealthy are preparing to die”) and ranging the vast spiritual depth of an ancient and multifaceted culture on the other.
The difference in approaches between Hyder’s second and third novels is signalled by the titles of the two books. The title, Ship of Sorrows, comes from Faiz’s famous lament ‘Subh-e-Azaadi’ where he talks of the destination that the idealistic young of pre-Independence India had sought, hoping that “kahiin to ja ke rukega safiina-e-gham-e-dil” (the ship of sorrows will find landfall somewhere). Seven years later the writer shifts her attention from the ship to the waters it navigates: “ek aag ka darya hai aur doob ke jaana hai” (it is a river of fire and we have to swim submerged) in the words of Jigar Moradabadi. For Hyder, the grand stream of history is a river of fire and it is the dramatic and all-encompassing sweep of River of Fire that makes it the more widely read of the two books.

Ship of Sorrows is in some ways a subtler novel which hints at the vastness of the book to come but also works very well if read as a story of a smart idealistic set whose smooth passage through life has been upset by the tectonic actions of history. The trouble is that it is difficult to tease out the meanings of the various hints and allusions that appear regularly throughout the book. The effect of these allusions is like that of phrases and themes in a large musical composition; they feel like specific evocations designed to create particular emotional textures. But the suspicion lingers that the reader would have to be much more well-read than this reviewer to fully realise those textures. Nonetheless, if we suspend the requirement that a novel must lasso us with narrative and pull us relentlessly towards its conclusion, if we allow ourselves to be taken by the hand and led into the numerous rich dimensions the work conjures up, Ship of Sorrows is a greatly satisfying and enriching reading experience.

And perhaps this is what is most important about this book: it makes reading into a form of experiencing the world, of making a kind of experiential sense of a world that has stopped making any other form of sense a long time ago. “Our youth are walking into fire. The old are paralyzed. Women weep silently… Priests have fires blazing in the havans and tourists are chartering planes to visit these sacred sites.” Once again we find ourselves in times where lines such as these run a finger down our spine and make our hair stand on end, so once again we must turn to Qurratulain Hyder for the unique brand of succour she provides.

Bagchi teaches computer science at  IIT Delhi and is shortlisted for the DSC Prize this year

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