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Review: Ship of Sorrows by Qurratulain Hyder and translated by Saleem Kidwai

A coming-of-age story of a privileged set of six friends from Awadh that combines autobiography, fiction, and the documentation of time and place

Updated: May 29, 2020 15:37 IST

By Lamat R Hasan, Hindustan Times

Muslim League National Guards on a platform at a railway station in New Delhi, India, August 1947. They were helping with the departure of six hundred Muslim residents of Delhi to Karachi, Pakistan, on a special train, following the partition of India. (Getty Images)

316pp, Rs 550; Women Unlimited

In the introduction to Qurratulain Hyder’s Ship of Sorrows, originally published as Safina e Gham e Dil in 1952, translator Saleem Kidwai writes that he sent a “midnight mail of despair” to his publisher, saying he was ready to abandon the project. Kidwai’s translation of Hyder’s Chandni Begum was received well in 2017 and he had agreed to tackling another one of her works. In Ship of Sorrows, “the sentences were complex, complicated and entangled. Many voices overlapped, and it wasn’t always clear whom they belonged to or who they referred to.”

Readers may be daunted by this dilemma too. There are a plethora of characters in this part-memoir-part-fictional work; and then there is Hyder’s penchant for experimental writing, largely influenced by the stream of consciousness style. It’s hard to believe she was only 25 when she wrote this novel.

The author shot to fame with her third and arguably best work Aag ka Darya (River of Fire, 1959), spanning twenty-five centuries. Safina e Gham e Dil – the title taken from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz – is her second work. It was published in Pakistan, which is where Hyder moved post-Partition. Kidwai believes her “daring experimentation could be one reason” for this being one of her least read books.

Unlike Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Intizar Hussain and other celebrated writers whose Partition stories were largely written from the perspective of average men and women who witnessed its horrors, Ship of Sorrows is a coming-of-age story, without a conventional storyline, of a privileged set of six friends from Awadh – “upper middle-class Indians that had grown up with English choruses and Morris dances…(and who) thought of themselves as the inheritors of an old feudal culture and were proud of it”.



Author Qurratulain Hyder ( Jamia’s Premchand Archives & Literary Centre, JMI )

Spanning roughly three decades (1920s to 1950s), the novel, according to Kidwai, combines autobiography, fiction, and the documentation of time and place. The author debuts in this story as Anne Hyder and fictionalises her experience during the communal riots in Dehradun (“My house is on fire. Is this the night of judgement?”).

She is a part of this thinking, art-literature loving, and somewhat idealistic set of young people with deep bonds of family friendships linking generations. Groomed in the best traditions of the east and the west, with an Irish governess in attendance, Ali (Anne’s brother), Fawad, Riyaz, Rahil, Arun and Mira’s dreams are cut short, their differences accentuated as the bitterness of Partition corners them, their masks beginning to fall off.

These aspiring writers, dancers and artists bemoan the loss of the goodness of humanity, of the Ganga-Jamuni culture, and the death of the old order, which has caught them off guard.

“How does one partition the culture and ideals of an individual?”

“Who will come to your plays and our dances now? Don’t you know that new walls have been built around art, that blood is flowing in the valley and on the roads? Many have died and more will die.”

“Ever tried to measure the distance created by religion and sect between (House) Number 21 and Number 22?”

However, their crossover to the other side is smooth; in a plane piloted by a Polish girl.

There’s also Elmore Rexton, their childhood friend, and the English administrator of the region. Ali, the most idealistic of the friends, is the first to fall prey to the changed equations. “If you had told me that Ali was somewhere here, I would not have ordered the firing in the jungles of Jalanpur,” Elmore tells Anne.

Ali is made to serve a two-year prison term and is forbidden from entering Gopalpur, his ancestral village, where he sympathised with the peasants. Yet, Ali, the rebel, pines to visit Gopalpur and “sit on the cold stones on the ghat of Ramganga for some time, and listen to the bells from the Keshav temple”.

At one point, Anne, who aspires to be a writer, talks to herself. She says all her characters are intelligent and interesting and that she needs to change that in her future writing. In this book too, her characters are intelligent, arrive and disappear on a whim, almost in “surrealistic cinematic scenes”, to quote Kidwai. However, every character builds on to the commentary of that era. The six friends are able to make friends with life, after their great fall, determined “to live” – with or without masks.

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

“Politically, they (elite women, including the author’s writer-mother) all were anti-men; that is, all men are oppressive… However, in real life, there couldn’t have been more obedient wives than them.”

“…people were wary of highly-educated girls, even scared of them. The popular view was that a girl who has done history honours will lecture her husband all day…”

Hyder, known as Aini or Annie Apa, won the Jnanpith Award in 1989. She was born to writer-parents and studied English literature, first at Lucknow University and then enrolled for a short course at Cambridge University. Her first story was published when she was 11, but she had started writing much earlier. Apart from her own modernist writings in Urdu, she translated into Urdu Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady and TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. “Her command over the Urdu idiom, with its Persian and Arabic inflections, was extraordinary, but she was equally comfortable in English and a western idiom,” writes Kidwai.

Read more: A translation of Krishan Chander’s Ghaddaar that is timely, moving, vital

He believes Hyder thought in English and mentally translated into Urdu as she wrote. She would start translating her novels into English as soon as they were completed, often refusing to allow others to translate her works. She was dubbed a “bourgeois reactionary” by the leftists of the Progressive Writers Movement. In fact, Ismat Chughtai wrote a satirical piece on her titled Pom Pom Darling.

Her fiction is not easy to read and she was impatient with critics who tried to evaluate the impact of modernism and, particularly, of Virginia Woolf on her work. “Stream of consciousness – I was the first one to start this, my dear. I hadn’t read Virgina Woolf at the time. So this is one thing I started.”

The sailing for Kidwai was obviously not smooth, but after two years of struggle he has successfully anchored his ship. Yet, as he warns, this book will demand the reader’s full attention.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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