‘Ship of Sorrows’: Portraits of the Partition

(This book review was first published in The Hindu Business Line.)

Privilege is a devious thing. It makes you believe that you are immune to suffering when the truth simply is that your time hasn’t come. I cannot find a more appropriate description for the characters in Qurratulain Hyder’s Urdu novel Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil (1952), translated into English as Ship of Sorrows (2019) by Saleem Kidwai and published by Women Unlimited. Hyder (1927–2007), regarded as the ‘Grande Dame of Urdu literature’, was a prolific writer who was often compared to Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for her sheer breadth of imagination and political astuteness.

The protagonists of Ship of Sorrows are a group of highly educated young women and men leading decadent lives in Lucknow on the cusp of India’s independence from British rule. Their world is defined by hunting expeditions, exclusive clubs, matinee shows and gramophone records. We are told that “these were the sort of people who, just to create the right atmosphere, held dinner parties with candles burning in silver holders, and spent the night discussing a single couplet of Ghalib or Nasikh”. Their luxurious lifestyles are ensured by parents who are civil servants, senior police officers, successful barristers, and the feudal bureaucratic elite.

(Source: Women Unlimited)

The characters also have a retinue of service staff at their beck and call, one of whom aptly captures the fragility of this opulence and self-absorption: “With this Round Table Conference, the Non­-Cooperation Movement and the business of boycotts, everyday life has become chaotic. People have turned seditious. Huzoor, we are safe only as long as the power of the English is stable, for otherwise, one does not know what will happen.” The protagonists
cherish the syncretic Ganga-­Jamuni culture that Lucknow is known for but are also increasingly anglicised. They play bridge, read modernist poetry, and watch Greta Garbo movies.

The central conflict in the story is the watershed moment of Partition, which is like a storm altering the course of their lives in unforeseen ways, but from which they are cushioned owing to their wealth. If you come to this book holding in your mind images of caravans, hungry refugees, and trains filled
with mutilated bodies, you will be stunned by the insouciance of extravagant folks whose lives are uninterrupted even when things fall apart. “From one Gymkhana to the other — Mohammad Bagh Club (in Lucknow), Lahore
and Karachi Gymkhanas — life was proceeding very smoothly”, we are in-
formed. They cross the border from Kanpur to Lahore via a private flight.

Hyder herself had migrated to Pakistan at the time of Partition but settled in India later. The title of this novel is drawn from ‘Subah-e-Azadi’, a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose life and literary legacy were deeply affected by the Partition. Her father, Sajjad Haider — who also wrote short stories, travelogues, essays and plays — is identified in the book as ‘Yildirim’, a
pseudonym he used because of his fascination for Turkish culture.

Other luminaries from Hyder’s social circle, such as Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer, journalist and author Attia Hosain, freedom fi­ghter and politician Mridula Sarabhai and activist Rehana Tayyabji, manage to wiggle their way into the novel to lend a touch of authenticity to the setting. Also making a brief appearance is her mother, Nazar Zahra, a novelist who gave up the purdah in 1927 and who first mooted the idea of an All India Muslim Women’s Conference.

Hyder constructs this milieu with finesse, weaving in several elements from her immediate surroundings, including details about her family. A first-­person narrator in the initial pages is identified as Anne Hyder. In real life, people who were closely associated with the novelist called her Aini or Annie.

Hyder’s literary style, which is marked by experimentation — interior monologues, frequent parentheses, disjointed sentences, and sparks of surrealism — is arresting but I found it hard to relate to her characters, who seemed to be fairly untouched by the cataclysmic events of 1947. Then (and now), it’s frustrating to see how disconnected the elite are from people struggling to find hope and help amidst a communal frenzy.

In his introduction, Kidwai writes, “As the partition of the country looms, and their separation from each other and from their known worlds becomes imminent, their cargo of sorrows gets heavier. Yet, the ship of sorrows is not a doomed ship. Through a tangle of sounds, images and emotions, Hyder navigates it to a harbour that promises hope and renewal.”

Hyder may not have anticipated that the ghosts of the Partition would resurface, and that India and Pakistan would continue to fight each other 73 years after the event. Even as the people of both countries struggle to survive a pandemic, there are reports of ceasefire violations across the border and both countries prioritising defence expenditure over healthcare. It is distressing to see that human beings have not learnt from the horrors of the past; and that is why works of literature keep reminding us to hold on to our humanity.

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