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Forgetting my own people

books Updated: Oct 17, 2010 00:15 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times
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Where is her grave? Next hill? I’m looking for Qurratulain Hyder, an Urdu writer, who died three years ago at a hospital in Noida, a Delhi suburb. I have never read Hyder. Yet I’m in Jamia Nagar’s Muslim graveyard. This morning, while going through my Shakespeare hardbound, I came across an old yellowed cutting from Hindustan Times. It was a 15X9 mm column on Page 2. I had saved it in the book and forgotten all about it. The clipping’s headline was: Urdu Novelist Hyder Dead.

An old man in a green kaftan is digging a grave. I ask him if he can direct me to where a writer was buried in 2007? The man gives me an empty gaze.

Wanting to feel a fellow writer’s camaraderie for her, I walk down the hill, stumbling over unknown graves, and walk up another hill. Two boys are flying kites. Goats are scampering around.

Reaching the top, I sit under a neem tree, and take out the newspaper cutting:

When this great figure of Urdu literature took her last breath, she had no friend or relative with her in the hospital. Her neighbors in Sector 21, where she had been living alone since many years, had no inkling of having close proximity to such a celebrated writer. Hyder had never married.

I refold the cutting. There is a freshly-dug grave nearby. I sit beside it and unfold the cutting again:

Called 'Aainie Aapa' by friends and admirers, Hyder’s most famous work is Aag Ka Darya, a magnum opus, which explores India’s history from the 14th BC to the subcontinent’s partition.

For a moment, I look up —up at the sky. A crow is soaring high.

Despite being reserved and even moody, Hyder was not an intellectual snob. “She didn’t appear at all as the high-priestess of Urdu fiction,” Urdu journalist Mehmood Ayubi recalls.

Taking a handful of mud from the unknown person’s grave, I clutch it in my fist. The cutting, lying on the ground, blows away with the breeze.

I’m thinking of my reading life. How fortunate to feel at home with England’s Jane Austen, America’s Pauline Kael, and Canada’s Alice Munro. These are writers, who belong to places I have never visited. Yet, they are so familiar. How did I fail to read this author who belonged to my land? Hyder, like me, hailed from Uttar Pradesh. We probably ate the same arhar daal and smelled the same heeng. She is long dead and I haven’t read her yet. I should be in mourning.

It’s my loss.