“Ship of Sorrows” by Qurratulain Hyder


Part memoir and part fiction, Ship of Sorrows, translation of the modernist Urdu novel Safina e Gham e Dil by Qurratulain Hyder, is a complex take on the representation of  the Partition. Hyder uses the historical event to dwell on the intellectual and artistic angles of the act of living in an era that writers normally use as a backdrop for human drama. 

Set in the two decades or so leading to Partition, the book does not have a plot or storyline in the conventional sense of a progression of events leading to a climax. It is peopled by young men and women from elite (primarily) Muslim families and the ties they share with their friends from similar Hindu and British families in three cities in North India. While the characters—Anne (the author-narrator), Ali, Fawad, Riyaz, Rahil, Arun, Mira, and Elmore—struggle with ideas about love, ideals and ambition, Partition happens, yet without any great attention to  historical facts or depictions of bloodshed. There is none of the trauma, violence, or trains full of corpses that typically fill novels set during this period. It’s not that the characters don’t comment on the events or their consequences, but they do so from a distance:


Nineteen forty-seven is another future towards which we want to go by building a bridge across. But the bridge has been blown apart by one single blast. The ulema don’t understand their own arguments. Politicians and philosophers are busy playing bridge with swindlers. I am back under the green trees. We have no experience, and we are so young. The flowers that bloom, protected; the ill-fated leaves that will fall tomorrow; my voice in June.


Ship of Sorrows, Qurratulain Hyder, Saleem Kidwai (tr) (Women Unlimited, 2019)
Ship of Sorrows, Qurratulain Hyder, Saleem Kidwai (trans) (Women Unlimited, 2019)

Hyder is one of the few modernists in Urdu literature. She was well-versed in modernist experimentation with style. She had also translated Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral into Urdu. Her experiments in the stream of consciousness or surrealism tend to make it difficult to identify where an interior monologue ends and the narrator’s voice begins, especially in English where ‘I’ does not have gender. Characters come and go in the pages without clear demarcation:


He came out of Laila’s garden onto the river bank and parked his car on one side. Cast a glance at the indifferent water and felt reassured.
      Until now I was an idea, now I am Fawad again. I will now turn you into an idea and consign you to the shadows. Between us, there was only a strange bridge of coincidences which, because of another coincidence, I have allowed to collapse.
      The leaves in the trees continued to rustle, taking no notice of his thoughts.


These are privileged people aspiring to become professional writers, dancers, or singers; Partition influences the decisions they make. In this exploration of the life of mind, choices related to what to make of art and how to live life are the ones that take centre-stage:


Look … with what resolve, conviction, and pride we have held on to our ideals. We incorporated them into our dance, the colours of our pictures glowed with them, they created the magic in our words. What use will Mira’s poems be? There is no art here, Ernest Brummell, only mistakes. The compulsions and excesses of life. We are different personalities. You are German and I, a Musalman. Mira is Hindu, Elmore, British. Where is the place for art? There are no souls, no immortality.


Hyder’s own struggle with and ambition of writing is not absent from this account.


The book opens with a fairly detailed introduction by translator Saleem Kidwai. That Hyder has been compared with Virginia Woolf, and has translated her own novels will help readers make better sense of the work, the author, the context of the title (which is taken from a poem by the South Asian poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz), and the challenges of translating this piece. This was her second novel and was published in Pakistan. While her first and third novels, among several others, have been translated into English, Safina e Gham e Dil (which dates from 1952) had escaped attention. The objective of this translation is to introduce “her experiments with style and form [to] non-Urdu readers.”

Readers familiar with Partition literature will see in the novel a peculiar literary interpretation of the time in which it was published (1952). It was a time when she was yet to write her magnum opus Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) which became so controversial in Pakistan that she re-emigrated to India. Hyder wrote Ship of Sorrows after migrating to Pakistan: her treatment of the Partition as a way of externalizing the conflicts internal to the characters is hard to miss: it does not remain a political or historical affair; it becomes a milestone in personal journeys of coming of age.

In contrast, readers unfamiliar with Partition literature may miss the context but grasp her (poetic) prose complete with references to Wagner, Schumann, St Augustine, or Noel Coward. They are very likely to cherish Hyder’s focus on psychological realism and the connections between art and life.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.