Book: Chandni Begum
Author: Qurratulain Hyder
Translated by Saleem Kidwai
Publication: Women Unlimited
If a good book is one that leads the reader to other books then what superlative should one employ for Qurratulain Hyder’s Chandni Begum? Now available in English in Saleem Kidwai’s very readable translation, the book leads readers not just to other books but to entire literatures, to the histories of entire civilisations. Perhaps crucially, it also leads to the realisation that while literature is understood to be contained in history, history too is contained in literature; and, that the two of these are together contained in a vast network of interconnections spanning time and space, effortlessly bridging minor separations like cultures and borders, while residing in the seemingly constricted space of the human heart.
Unlike Aag ka Darya, whose temporal span is two millennia, the main action of Chandni Begum is confined to a modest 40 years or so after Partition. It pushes off from the 1950s — marked by a compactly narrated sequence of events around the shifting marital possibilities connecting the lives of two well-off Muslim families that live across the Gomti from each other in Lucknow. The story moves on to the late Eighties where the descendants of those same families reappear in a more loosely tied sequence of events. Again, their lives are underpinned by the calamitous possibilities associated with marriage. All this action happens amidst meditations on history, literature, memory and forgetting, justice and injustice, that appear to be instigated by the upsurge in the Ayodhya movement, which burns like a fire offstage. Hyder is wise enough to know that if the fire burns onstage, the audience will be able to see nothing else, throughout the book.
Before the reader of this review begins to feel that something ponderous this way comes, let us clarify that Hyder’s style is a genre-hopping mix with the highly entertaining element of madcap picaresque in the first half of the book. The story has a variety of interesting characters — among others a family of ’50s filmwallahs, a communist landlord and his feudal boy-scout buddy, a lyricist-poet whose main talent lies in inventing names for people, and, a handyman by the name of Chakotra who transforms into a godman revered by Westerners. All of them indulge in behaviour that can only be described as slapstick, with the dialogue exchanges ensuring consistent laugh-out-loud moments (take a bow, Saleem Kidwai, for translating it so well). There are other delights too in Hyder’s cupboard: Sanskrit drama and its multi-layered conceits form an underpinning of the book, specifically Banabhatta’s Kadambari; in a brief but critical role, the stories of the supernatural by early 20th century writers like Mrs Abdul Qadir; and, of course, Hyder’s companions throughout her literary career, gems from the lions of the last century or two of Urdu poetry.
At one point in the book a character checks his mother who is lamenting the passing of the old ways by saying: “Do you know the name of your great-great-grandfather?…No?…Nor do you care. So what’s so strange if our descendants [do the same]?” A sensible interjection in a book that is nonetheless fully engaged in the quixotic attempt to remember and reiterate its own lineage, from Sufi traditions down to Abdul Halim Sharar. Perhaps the translator and publishers think, for example, that there are enough contemporary readers of English who will understand that when one character mentions some reprehensible public behaviour and another sarcastically retorts “the last example of an Eastern culture”, the reference is to the subtitle of Maulana Sharar’s classic Guzishta Lucknow, but this reviewer is anxious that they will not. This reviewer too does not know the names of his great-great-grandfathers, but if the translator, who is a scholar, knows the names of the works that Hyder cites, I will risk the charge of hypocrisy and ask him to put them into a second edition.
Hyder’s work, including this, her last novel, which appears to contain a distillation of all her most urgent concerns, has to be located in the urgent project of mid-20th century subcontinental literature. Especially the strand of it that struggled towards the creation of a resonant modern idiom. It drew on the richness of the multiple sources that this landmass has accumulated over the centuries — the Chhayavaadi poets, Girish Karnad, the great Maharashtrian playwrights are some randomly selected examples — and struggled, doubly, because of the heartrending traumas that history forced the writers of that time to live through. They are traumas whose consequences continue to flow through our lives like a poisoned stream. There is no salve for the pain, Hyder seems to say, except the stories and histories of old. And so, in the context of the conflict over a piece of land that runs through this book the way it runs through contemporary Indian history, the author offers a tradition of Rabia of Basra, who once gave a man a dirham to buy a piece of cloth. The man returned and asked what colour she wanted at which point she took the dirham and threw it into the river, saying that the moment one thinks of property, differences arise. It is perhaps the hallmark of modernity that the ringing moral clarity of a Rabia of Basra is rarely achieved in the literature of our times, but Chandni Begum by Qurratulain Hyder comes as close as possible.