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Zamindar’s daughter

By M. Abul Fazl

I am very fond of Qurratulain Hyder’s writing. I think her Aag ka Darya is probably the greatest novel of Urdu. But why do her stories leave one sad? Why does Chhammi Begum of Ha-sab Nasab, the pampered only child of a middling landlord, end up as a white-haired boua in a Bombay brothel? Why couldn’t the story be like a Russian fairy-tale? A beautiful girl walks in her garden.

A very handsome young man on a horse comes and carries her away. She does not ask him who he is or where is he taking her? They live happily ever after.

Ah well, I know. I’ll be told stories are sad because “life is not a fairy tale.” Actually the fairy tales are written because the daily existence is so miserable, so full of deprivation, so devoid of hope. All the happ-iness, all the decencies one is denied in the real life are compensated for in the fairy tales. When the man finally overcomes material shortage and is paid according to his needs, fairy tales will no more be needed. They will pass into the mankind’s repertoire of childhood dreams.

A psychologist, and there are plenty around, would say the Russian tale tells of the historic obsession of insecurity, instilled in the Russian people by their living on an open plain unguarded by any natural barrier to stop an invader. So the girl in the story is a Russian woman without protection. The Russian chevalier is her saviour.

South Asia is also flat but it is protected on three sides by the sea and the high mountains. There are holes only in the west principally the Gomal and the Bolan. So wave after wave of immigrants and invaders have been drawn to our rich land, with its monsoons, calm, perennial rivers and endless greenery. Negrotics came first. Then the Proto-Austrians, the Dravidians, the Aryans and, lastly, the Turco-Afghans. They all came from the west. Among them, the Aryans were the most sanguinary.

Whereas the Drav-idians had found a nearly empty continent, dotted by sparse settlement of savages, the Aryans, still in the stage of the pastoral mode of production, came upon well-organised settlements of barbarians engaged in the production of food and handicraft, and proceeded to clear the land for their herds by wiping the settlements out, well, at least in the north. However, in the later stages, the Aryans composed holy books and left for us a highly developed system of music.

The Dravidians had found savages here, the Aryans the barbarians. But when the civilised Turco-Afghans came, they found themselves face-to-face with a developed civilisation. Neither of the civilisations cou-ld assimilate the other and their mutual enrichment was also a complex process. They were unable to agree upon a common script, as each carried within it a rich accumulation of knowledge.

Sohail Bokhari, speaking of the transition of the literature from the pre-Muslim to the Muslim period in his work The Urdu Daastaan, (Muqtadira Qaumi Zabaan, 1987), explains the difference between history and story (by the way there is a single word for both in French) beautifully: “There is truth in history and story both but the truths are different”, one deals with the past, the other with the future. And one can criticise only the past because it has happened. “When we say that the story also has truth, we mean the poetic truth, which expresses the subjective, not the objective world.”

It is, therefore, not surprising that our early literature is intertwined with history. The romances, in verse, are based on Arab-Iranian tales and are replete with the supernatural. But the ones in prose, which came later, draw on local history.

We can claim to have stepped into the period of civilisation, speaking of literature, only with the modern novels and short stories. For example, Qurrat-ulain’s Chhammi Begum, men-tioned at the beginning of this piece, did not really need to become a senior maid in a Bombay brothel. She could, in her youth, have become a prostitute.

(With Minto, she probably would have.) But she is the daughter of a typical small zam-indar, arrogant but lacking an adequate material basis to choose any vocation except marriage. She is as superfluous for the society as is her small zamindari. So she pays individually for the social change, which probably she did not even know had happened.

Source: The Nation