ePaper

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The line runs through us

  • Print

Amitabha Bagchi depicts the canvas of the painful partition, uses humor to weave a story of land and loss that unveiled by the author

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 civilizations. Perhaps crucially, it also leads to the realization 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 behavior 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 behavior 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 sub continental 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 color 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.


The reviewer is a Delhi-based novelist. The write-up has appeared on  www.indianexpress.com

More News For this Category

Writings on the 1947 Partition

| By
Nausheen RahmanI have just finished reading "Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition", and I feel that my day was truly well-spent. This
Writings on the 1947 Partition

The game comes to life in this cinematic experience

| By and Zarin Rafiuddin
Tomb Raider (2018) is a reboot film to the franchise, which once starred Angelina Jolie as the titular character of Lara Croft.  Alicia Vikander is the new, younger
The game comes to life in this cinematic experience

Pops by Michael Chabon: A quiet look at fatherhood and writing

| By and Mark O\'Connell
Pops, the American novelist Michael Chabon's new collection of essays on parenthood and related matters, begins with an anecdote about attending a literary gathering at the beginning of
Pops by Michael Chabon: A quiet look at fatherhood and writing

A movie dealing with the failures and dreams of growing up

| By and Zarin Rafiuddin
Lady Bird (2017) is a different kind of coming-of-age story directed and written by Greta Gerwig. The eponymous Lady Bird, or Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is
A movie dealing with the failures and dreams of growing up

Last Stories by William Trevor: A final treat

| By
A few years ago, a friend gave me a two-volume, hardcover edition of William Trevor's The Collected Stories as a Christmas present. It's one of the most treasured
Last Stories by William Trevor: A final treat

Rampage movie adaptation is one fun movie

| By and Zarin Rafiuddin
Rampage (2018) is a movie where giant creatures clash at one another as they are endowed with rage and aggression. The movie stars as Dwayne Johnson (The Rock)

Why Ruth Ware's new thriller is a classic

| By and Maureen Corrigan
Why Ruth Ware's new thriller is a classicMaureen Corrigan A classic never goes out of style. Consider the confident simplicity of the dry martini, the Edison lightbulb and

Beyond the Breakwater by Catherine Foley: A humble memoir

| By
Pat McCabe has a lot to answer for. The class messer of Irish literature has altered forever how we read rural Irish memoirs. His evisceration of the central

Deadpool 2 full of graphic humor and adrenalin

| By and Zarin Rafiuddin
Deadpool 2 (2018) is the direct sequel to the Deadpool (2016), featuring the mutant Wade Wilson, also known as Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). The movie was directed by David
Deadpool 2 full of graphic humor and adrenalin

Black Star Renegades is a loving homage to Star Wars

| By
Stop me if you've heard this one before. A young man discovers that he's destined for greater things in the galaxy, joins a mysterious, semi-religious order that act
Black Star Renegades is a loving homage to Star Wars

© 2018 The Asian Age