MEHRU JAFFER | 7 DECEMBER, 2019
Ship of Sorrows is about hope in times of extreme loss. It is about the shattering of a syncretic way of life and about a high culture left to die. The saddest part of the story is the disconnect of characters with the reality around them.
Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder wrote Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil in 1959 that is now available to readers in the English language as Ship of Sorrows.
The story tries to capture the tragedy of a subcontinent divided, families separated and souls lost in the debris of shattered dreams. This sad story is narrated so poetically that reading it thrills the heart, even in English.
When those in power decide to partition India in 1947, they do so at the cost of the aspiration of numerous Indians who wanted to live in a united country. Partition created not just Pakistan but a heart breaking distance of thousands of miles between fellow citizens, and the soil in which some were born and buried. Partition made foreigners of many in the place of their birth. For that reason the characters in Ship of Sorrows feel utterly worthless as they are unable to preserve the culture of living together inherited from their elders.
The narrative builds up to the politics of the day that gives birth to two countries in a country that was once one. While land is easy to divide, what about attempts to divide hearts and the soul?
Can hybridity be partitioned? This is a question that puzzles the author and causes her much agony.
The writer was about 20 years old when India was partitioned to create Pakistan in 1947. Hyder witnessed friends and families separated from each other. People were divided. The partition in 1947 tore the syncretic world of the writer asunder, leaving her to figure out what is possible to divide and what is not. Can politics divide culture? How is it possible to partition emotions and ideas shared by people for generations?
Ship of Sorrows is a poetic take on hybridity. Having grown up in a home with many books and in a family that travelled frequently even in the 1930s, Hyder was aware that hybridity is a common feature of all civilisations. It is as natural as breath. How can hybridity be denied? How can it be overlooked by those who know only to divide and to segregate?
Hyder was fluent in several Indian and European languages. She was familiar with Persian, Turkic and European cultures and had knowledge of traders and conquerors who have always borrowed foreign ideas since ages. River of Fire is Hyder’s magnum opus from 1959 and is a brilliant collection of features that are common to all civilisations from pre-historic, to present times.
It is no secret that many Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans saw hybridity as the spice of life. All the world is hybrid from the Greeks to the Romans. Every society has borrowed liberally from other civilizations, in particular from the Egyptians and Persians to create colourful local cultures.
Spoil sports plague all societies and are against the coming together of people but individual hearts will always reach out to other hearts to find out more about the different ways of life practiced in different parts of the world. The Greeks were once prevented from mingling with other human beings who were called barbarians by them. However it was none other than Alexander, Greek emperor who eventually succumbed to the charms of the Persians. And no amount of cultural chauvinism of the Roman Empire could prevent Rome from becoming one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
Somewhat similar is the fate of the characters who are aboard the Ship of Sorrows. This is a group of well educated young men and women living in Lucknow, a city that has encouraged the confluence of many cultures for long, making citizens take the Ganga-Jamni way of life practiced here for granted. The group of friends in the book is unprepared for the turmoil that partition brings into their privileged lives. They watch helplessly as family bonds and friendships linking generations are blown away overnight like grains of sand in a storm. Hyder tells her story against the background of India between 1928 and early 1950s.
Due to partition a considerable chunk of Indians are left feeling vulnerable. Some have withdrawn, some have ballooned into highly strung citizens in the midst of others who have grown belligerent, hateful and filled with revenge.
Hyder was born in 1927 at a time when poetry ruled the realm of Urdu literature. European influence was beginning to inspire some prose writing in Urdu. There were attempts to write short stories, and Umrao Jan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa was the first novel in Urdu in 1899.
Hyder took to the pen at an early age. Her writing was different and she was both criticised as well as praised for it. Her readers were fascinated to find the writer imagine the inner dialogue of her characters, making that great shift from tradition to modernist forms. Hyder is hailed as a pioneer of experimentalism in Urdu literature.
That long ago when most women still observed purdah Hyder confidently introduced herself into the novel as a character. Anne is part of the Ship of Sorrows gang and resembles Hyder. Like Hyder, Anne is conversant with world literature. She paints, plays music, loves theatre and broadcasts on the radio.
Anne’s sense of history is shattered when she is confronted with communal violence just like Hyder was. She feels lost. Her dreams are betrayed and family divided yet she is not willing to give up hope. So she writes.
Ship of Sorrows is translated by historian Saleem Kidwai as poetically into English as it was originally written in Urdu by Hyder. It is a must for all those who love to read for the sake of reading.
Ship of Sorrows by Qurratulain Hyder is published by Women Unlimited, 2019.