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Fortnightly Focus:
“Authors, Issues, Ideas”



As our physical world continues to remain restricted, largely out of bounds, and we all look for different ways to stay connected to the people we love and the things we love to do, Women Unlimited brings your favourite authors and their writings a little closer to you, our dedicated community of readers. We present Fortnightly Favourites: Authors, Issues, Ideas, a focus on an author, an issue or an idea that we explore through our books.

We start off with the remarkable Qurratulain Hyder, or “Ainee Apa” to her friends and fans, the grande dame of Urdu literature! Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, in 1927, Hyder grew up to be a prolific and precocious writer. Her first story was published in a recognised journal, Humayun, when she was only 11, though she had been writing much before then. This wasn't surprising, given her background - both her parents were well-known writers. Her mother, Nazar Sajjad Hyder was a novelist and short story writer, whose main concern was oppression of women. Her father, Sajjad Hyder, too, was a pioneering writer of short stories and travelogues, a humorist, essayist, and playwright.

Partition provided Hyder with her favourite subject although she religiously broke the norms of accepted storytelling. According to her, her writing was “an attempt to capture the spirit of the times”. Indeed. Hyder witnessed the Partition; she crossed the border from India to Pakistan “in the wake of burning trains of corpses going into and out of both countries. Partition, for Hyder, was an almost mystical tragedy”. The shock was perhaps particularly pronounced as “the tribes, castes, and classes of peoples who knew little of politicking were carved up and apportioned between the two countries”.

Hyder returned to India in the 1960s and lived in Bombay for two decades before shifting back to the north. She is the author of four collections of short stories, five novels and several novellas. Among her works that have been translated into English are the classic River of Fire (Aag ka Darya); Ship of Sorrows (Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil); My Temples, Too (Mere Bhi Sanamkhane*; Fireflies in the Mist (Aakhir-e-Shab kay Hamsafar) ; Street Singers of Lucknow and Other Stories; and Chandni Begum.


Qurratulain Hyder has a place alongside her exact contemporaries, Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as one of the world's major living writers... eclectic, iconoclastic and versatile.…

Times Literary Supplement

Qurratulain Hyder is among those writers of Urdu fiction, who continue to influence every generation of writers in South Asia.


Hyder's deep understanding of the human psyche is unnerving. Sometimes it is served as dark humour

—Hindustan Times
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This week, here's a new excerpt from Qurratulain Hyder's final masterpiece, Chandni Begum. Spanning the period from Partition to the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi conflict, Hyder returns to her favourite themes-the impact of Partition on families in Lucknow, women entertainers, and popular mysticism and belief.

It is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and daring of her novels, as the eponymous heroine, Chandni Begum appears in only one chapter! Hyder draws the reader in with a tale that is gripping, haunting, timeless… Read on.

Far away the church bells were tolling tunefully. A bird came and sat in the window. It was just like the robin redbreasts on Christmas cards. Bela looked at it with interest.

The bird flew away. “My Baji Amma flew away like that bird, suddenly.” Bela was startled by Chandni Begum's voice, “Baji Amma had behaved very strangely. She was chopping vegetables with a rusty knife. She cut her hand, and I kept telling her to get an anti- tetanus injection. She paid no attention, just bandaged her hand and continued with her chores. The poison spread through her body. It's only been two months. I had informed Qambar Miyan about it. I'm sure he did not receive the letter, or he would have written a letter of condolence. Now there is no one else in the world except him whom I can depend upon. ” Her hands began to tremble, and she put down the teacup.

“ More than miserable.” Chandni Begum took off her spectacles and wiped her tears with the corner of her burqa. Bela noticed that she was attractive but how the thick lenses ruined her looks.

“Relax, no one will come in here.” Chandni Begum took off her burqa. Bells in the church continued to toll.

“And your Daddy—where is he?” “He went to Pakistan. From there he wrote and divorced Baji Amma.”

“Aren't there any other blood ones? I mean relatives?” “There are, but they are all selfish and vile. The good ones are all dead. My paternal grandfather…,” Chandni Begum laughed bitterly. “My ancestor was a commander of seven thousand horsemen. My great-grandfather was the governor of a province. My grandfather who had the title of Khan Bahadur was a deputy collector. My maternal grandfather was a wealthy landlord. Would they have lived a hundred years for my sake? They died when their time came. The ones who lived abandoned me. Once Abba left, they all ignored us, worried that they would have to support Baji Amma and me. Baji Amma did her BT on her own and educated me till I got an MA, B.ed. There was only Bitto Baji who wasn't even related to us by blood. She was from the same town and had studied with Amma at Aligarh School. Whenever Bitto Baji came to Zafarpur, she would always enquire about Amma.”

Bela was confounded.

“Once or twice Bitto Khala even tried to help us financially, but my Baji Amma was so proud that she did not accept a single paisa. If Bitto Baji brought a new sari or some other clothes for her, she would take them only after lots of persuasion. Three years ago, Bitto Khala came to Zafarpur and she…and she…”

Bela was now listening to her very attentively. “And she talked to Amma about something.”

“Why should I keep things from you? Even though I have stopped trusting people, you seem like a good sort of a girl. But then you are Qambar Miyan's secretary so you must be aware of his affairs. He might have already mentioned this to you.”

“He has told me nothing.” “Bitto Khala had practically settled matters about us.” Bela's throat turned dry. “Bitto Baji returned and wrote to Amma that Qambar Miyan had seen my photograph and liked me. And that he would be coming to Zafarpur soon.”

”And then?”

“Then what? First, his Miyanjan died. Then Bitto Khala, and then my Baji Amma. Parents have the bad habit of dying the moment they find the opportunity. Their children can scream all they want; it doesn't matter. After Amma's death, how could I live alone? A crumbling house, no servants or help.”…

Bela was staring at Chandni wide-eyed. “Do you feel sorry after hearing about this incident?”

“Sorry, very sorry.” Idu came into the room. “Begum Sahib, it's going on for eleven. Give me money for the provisions.”

It seemed as if lightning had struck Chandni Begum.

(Excerpted from Chandni Begum translated into English by Saleem Kidwai)


To read this book, and more Hyder:
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   Ship of Sorrows

   Chandni Begum
   River of Fire