The genius of exceptional writers like Qurratulain Hyder partly lies in their ability to speak to every generation, community and epoch. Often, when you read the works of such authors, you are struck with the realisation that a great deal continues to be the same old in your apparently ‘new’ world. Reading Hyder’s novel My Temples, Too (Mere Bhi Sanamkhane) is one such exercise in contemplation and comparison of political, social and ideological realities of India from the past and the present.
Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh on 20th January, 1927, Qurratulain Hyder came from an upper class Muslim family that encouraged women’s education and actively participated in literary and political activities of the time. However, following colonial India’s partition in 1947, Hyder moved to Lahore, Pakistan, and then lived in England, before eventually returning to India in 1960 and settling in Noida, near New Delhi where she also took her last breath on 21 August, 2007. Hyder is known for her scathing critique of communalism, partition and the modern nation states.
Qurratulain Hyder started writing her Urdu novel ‘Mere Bhi Sanamkhane’ in the momentous year of 1947 and published its English version, My Temples, Too decades later in 2004. The novel won her the Jnanpith Award in 1989 and she went on to receive the honour of Sahitya Akademi Fellowship in 1994. ‘Mere Bhi Sanamkhane’ was an important milestone in Hyder’s literary career as a fiction writer. It was the first novel she ever wrote and she was as young as nineteen years old when she penned it. Although Hyder is most acclaimed for her magnum opus, ‘Aag Ka Darya’ (River of Fire) which has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was ‘Mere Bhi Sanamkhane’ that made Hyder’s entry into the world of novel-writing and confirmed that she would not adhere to the conventional rules of writing and commonplace imagery that were then prevalent in the genre of Urdu fiction. Hyder wrote it at a time when Urdu novel was still struggling to gain roots as a serious genre in the poetry-dominated world of Urdu literature. It is in this context that Mere Bhi Sanamkhane becomes an important literary event.
The time period in which the novel was written is also crucial. It was the time of independence and celebration, of political disagreements and communal violence, of cartographical divisions and forceful separations, of migrations and dislocations, of shattered dreams and contesting ideologies. It was the year when India finally succeeded in gaining its political independence from the oppressive colonial rule of the British Empire and became two separate nations overnight – Bharat and Pakistan. There was the joy of freedom and the pain and horrendous violence of partition. All of this finds ample and profound expression in Hyder’s first novel.
Also read: Qurratulain Hyder: Urdu Novelist And Writer
My Temples, Too is set in Lucknow of the late 1940s. The story revolves around the lives of a group of young, English-educated, idealistic friends who belong to the upper-class strata of Lucknow society. They adore liberal values, regularly socialize within their intellectual circles, organize literary meets, discuss politics and philosophy, engage in charity work, and are writers, editors and publishers of the monthly magazine called The New Era. The protagonist of the novel is Rakshanda Begum, a freethinking young woman in her twenties hailing from an aristocratic Muslim family. Rakshanda’s world consists of her liberal-minded friends addressed as “gang,” her elite magazine, and her little projects that she undertakes in order to raise funds and arrange help for the needy. During the course of the novel, Rakshanda’s idealistic world is torn apart piece by piece as her merry gang of friends disperses to pursue their own individual paths and the communal violence after Partition enters every aspect of daily life.
My Temples, Too is a tale of Partition carefully accounting for the nationalist politics around it and the effect that this political decision had on the lives of common people. The novel presents its readers with a view of India before independence, animated by two competing nationalisms. One is represented by Rakshanda and her gang who were anti-British and passionately believed in Hindu-Muslim unity. In their monthly magazine, The New Era, they published articles espousing the values of liberalism, Hindu-Muslim unity and social reform, often quoting Gandhi and Nehru. There was, however, another kind of nationalism and nationalists who demanded the creation of a separate nation. Though they equally despised colonial rule, they did not believe in the co-existence of Muslims and Hindus in India. They believed instead in the Two-nation theory and vigorously supported the formation of Pakistan as a separate homeland for Muslims. This faction of nationalists is represented by the characters of Syed Iftikhar Ali and Rahmatullah Khan in the novel.
Hyder highlights the futility and hollowness of both kinds of nationalism, and the utter meaninglessness of nationalist symbols in the face of misery and death. At various instances in the story, the reader is compelled to think, “What good is any idea of nationalism really?” Hyder would, of course, laugh with a scorn at the jingoism displayed by populist groups of the present day. Her treatment of nationalism in My Temples, Too suggests unequivocal rejection of the same as a useless, abstract concept that is totally incapable of doing any service or justice to India’s syncretic heritage and its common people. Hyder depicts that people who emphasize such abstractions to find faults in other groups and communities push their societies towards violence and devastation.
Above all, in the novel, Hyder laments the loss of a hybrid, composite culture and the shared experience of living together by delineating the Hindu-Muslim harmony that existed in India before Partition. Mohd Asaduddin makes accurate observation about Hyder: “She takes the whole of India’s past as her heritage, and she regards the Indo-Muslim encounter as one of the most significant civilizational encounters in human history, having touched every sphere of Indian life.” Today, when rewriting of Indian History and deletion of India’s syncretic past by Hindutva forces are underway, Hyder’s project of highlighting communal amity and critiquing state-sponsored violence against minorities makes all the more sense.
The novel is also a scathing commentary on political activism in India. During her childhood and youth, Hyder witnessed the politics of both the Left-wing and Right-wing, and various socio-political struggles. While My Temples, Too is a harsh critique of communalism and the right-wing politics, it also blames the Left for being too idealistic (like Rakshanda) or alternately giving up their ideals and political activities for personal reasons (like Peechu). Clear sarcasm and mockery are apparent in Hyder’s tone when she describes left-wing nationalists: “Their chief occupation was day-dreaming.” Hyder envisions a liberal political activism that understands class realities and the concerns of the common masses. She was suspicious of elitist upper class and upper caste political activists immersed in intellectual debates to such an extent that they failed to educate, understand, connect with, and engage the common folks.
Towards the end of the novel, the communal violence in the country reaches nightmarish heights and the characters in the novel are personally affected by it. Hyder demonstrates what happens when people reject the country’s centuries-old truths of multiculturalism and peaceful co-existence in favour of politically inspired processes of exclusion, othering and communal distrust.
My Temples, Too has still not received the kind of attention it deserves in scholarly circles and book reading clubs. Nonetheless, it remains an important literary account of Partition and the nationalist discourses of twentieth-century India. Some of the recurring themes and concerns explored in the novel are colonialism, nationalism, family and kinship ties, communal violence, tradition, feudalism versus the new world order, idealism versus pragmatism, identity politics and gender relationships. In times of parochial nationalism, hatred and oppression, literary texts can teach us way more lessons than our history books (which anyway have been fictionalised, fyi).