‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ is an Indian women-centric short story penned by modern Urdu fiction writer Qurratulain Hyder in 1970. The story centers on upper-middle-class women in pre-Independence India in the hill stations of Dehra Dun. The story highlights feminist themes of Indian Muslim women, certain North-East tribal women, educated Muslim women, Anglo-Indian women all written humorously in the subtle craft of Hyder. The short story also tackles other sub-themes like superstitious practices, comedy in the hills of India, the hypocrisy of the upper-middle class townsfolk of Dehra Dun, and the status quo of women in pre-Independence India. The story centers on the narrator’s neighborhood and home in Dalanwalla and how the narrator, a precocious child, spends one eventful winter with the eccentric characters of her peculiar neighborhood before she finally grows up or grows older and wiser. The narrator is not named in the story. But it is through her eyes, the eyes of a precocious child with a great sense of humor, that we see the upper-middle-class Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans of Dalanwalla. Quarratulain Hyder published this story titled ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ in the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’ and highlighted the changing lifestyle and values of Dehra Dun just before Independence. Hyder penned this story first in Urdu and then translated it into English herself. Hyder is considered one of the best Urdu fiction writers of the twentieth century.
Hyder’s short story titled ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ is mainly the coming of age of the narrator who witnesses five major events one particular winter in Dalanwalla before she grew up and became a wiser young lady. Most of the narrator’s experiences center on the way women were treated in her home and neighborhood. This, therefore, makes the short story a testament to early pre-Independence Indian feminism. We read that women in this period were educated but were still bound by society’s rules, which primarily centered on marriage. Baji and Dr. Zubeida Siddiqui are two young women who are highly educated and have a lot of prospects open for them. However, where Siddique is concerned, because she is in her thirties and still unmarried, she is ready to take recourse to superstition and seek the advice of a Muslim shaman to get a husband of her choice. This is despite the fact that she is a scientist. Due to being unattractive, she lost out in the marriage market with the Muslim gentleman she cared about. The second young lady Baji was a ranker and had just finished her B.A. from Aligarh University. She was twenty-one years of age and had become a Leftist after her stay at her college. Yet, because she was young, belonged to the privileged upper-middle-class section of Muslim society, and was doted upon by a loving extended family, she was already engaged to be married to a Muslim gentleman Muzzafar whom she used to write letters to. Despite both Baji and Siddique being educated, as one goes through the story, one feels that they disregarded their education and preferred to have a man in their lives to validate their existence. This is especially seen in Siddique’s case. She was ready to pray and fast for forty days at a stretch despite it not being Ramadan and recite a special couplet or charm to actualize her love life magically. She fails to do so because she sees a black dog the size of a donkey on the last day of fasting and praying and collapses, thus rendering the spell useless as per the shaman’s words. The reason for her collapse was that she was hallucinating about the black dog because of constant and rigorous fasting. Adding to the comic effect of the superstitious scientist’s story is the irony that ultimately, that very same winter, she marries a Hindu gentleman Mr. Uppal on the rebound which scandalized her hypocritical and narrow-minded community friends, relatives, friends, and well-wishers from Dalanwalla.
Baji is a highly opinionated but talented, beautiful, and most companionable person in the narrator’s home. Baji is the symbol of the young Muslim educated woman of pre-Independence India who seeks to educate herself still further in the country’s arts and so takes to playing the sitar, even though at that time, Muslim women were not allowed to study or indulge in music, especially not Indian music and dance. However, times were changing with India’s cultural and educational evolution during the freedom struggle period. So we notice in this story that most of the idle upper-middle-class people, especially young ladies of Dalanwalla, took to music and art as cultivating hobbies. They were taught these crafts by lower middle class but educated masters who tried to eke out a living in this manner to keep poverty at bay which pained the leftist sentiments of Baji. Another reason why the people of Dalanwalla took to Indian music, art, and dance was that a rich cultured Calcutta woman named Mrs. Jogmaya Chatterjee had newly come to the town and was very much interested in the arts like most Bengali families were during the early twentieth century. The young ladies took to the skills not because they were interested in the arts but because they wanted to imitate Mrs. Jogmaya’s family, added to the fact that they had the money to spare and idle time on their hands. The socialist aspect of the upper-middle-class Muslim community of Dehra Dun is highlighted in this story titled ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ by Quarratulain Hyder.
Where the other women in the story are concerned, we notice that they are from different sections of that part of the world. Where Jaldhara, the tribal widow from the North-East of India was concerned, she was practicing polyandry. She had two coolie husbands who both suddenly died simultaneously under highly suspicious circumstances. However, she was not fazed by the loss because she was having a rollicking affair with her youngest brother-in-law, who was unmarried and was devoted to her. Jalandhar was much older than her brother-in-law Faqira, but because of their healthy and carefree sexual relationship, they did not care to hide the fact that they were a sort of skewed mother-son and elder sister-younger brother as well as wife-husband duo from the hills. Jaldhara dies of a mysterious disease at the end of that winter. It was probably due to STD because it was almost impossible to find a way to cure her. We see Faqira, a vibrant and lively young lad mourn for his dead lover-cum-mother-cum-sister-in-law, which Baji, the narrator, and the rest of the family find very much of a novelty. Baji admires Faqira’s naive belief in the superstition of his village, where it is believed that if an animal footprint is made upon the ashes of a cremated loved one, it means that the loved one has taken the form of such a creature. In this story, Faqira foolishly believes that his lover Jaldhara had come back to him in the form of a sparrow. It is highly entertaining to read how he tries to prevent Resham, the cat, from killing the sparrows in their vast home.
Then there are the outcast women, namely Diana Rose and Miss Zohra Derby. To a Muslim Indian, being an Anglo-Indian or a European and being extremely poor meant that such a person was not looked upon with respect in society. Where Diana Rose was concerned, she was a poor Anglo-Indian of Dalanwalla. She was ostracized and ridiculed for her poverty, skin color, and the fact that she was earning her keep, and her Anglo-Indian father was impoverished. Mr. George Becket was Diana’s father, and he got no support from the Indians or his British European counterparts. He was still stuck in the past when the British were looked upon with respect and fear in the country of India before the Indian Freedom Struggle. He now carried a hangover of the good old days while his poor daughter had to earn a living. Diana was a victim of society, was ridiculed by children, eve-teased lewdly by a teenage boarding school lad Swarn, and was desperate to earn money. She is so desperate that she ultimately joins the circus that had come to town and due to an accident loses her two legs and is confined to the wheelchair forever. In her desperation for money and respect in a fast-changing society, Diana Rose loses more than she thought she ever could. We see how Swarn, who was the main culprit who forced Diana Rose to join the circus because of the ragging and constant eve-teasing, does not even mourn for her long enough and tries to erase his guilt as quickly as possible in a vigorous game of football with his cronies. If Diana Rose was the pariah or outcast Anglo-Indian, then the situation of the fearless daredevil Miss Zohra Derby was worse. She was a circus stunt artist who rode the motorbike in a dangerous contraption called the Well of Death. She is a novelty and a freak of society and nature who wears breeches like a man and does stunts on a motorbike which was not seen then on the streets of Dalanwalla. She is independent, manly looking, and the lover of two men from the circus. Her character seems to ooze out with hidden sexuality yet a very prophetic type of semi-modernity. She is knifed and brutally stabbed by one of her circus lovers because of a fight. She is replaced, without the batting of an eyelid or any remorse or mourning on the part of the circus owner Dr. Shahbaz, by the timid and frightened Diana Rose, who is not even a shadow on the daredevil, the beautiful but mysterious Miss Zohra Derby. There is every indication that Miss Derby was a Muslim because Diana is called the European or London beauty and not Zohra in the advertisement bills. Miss Zohra Derby was what Baji, Jaldhara, and the narrator could never be despite being from the same community because of social and economic circumstances.
The last few women who have prime roles in this story are Ghafoor Begum, a married, backward, superstitious maid and companion to Baji, and the women gossipers of Dalanwalla. Ghafoor Begum was married but cheated by her husband over a younger and more beautiful girl. Instead of turning over a new leaf, due to her backwardness and clinging nature she yearns to be reunited with her wayward husband. For this purpose, she is even willing to get magical spells to cast on her husband from the sexually potent Jaldhara. Ghafoor Begum admired Jaldhara for her sexual domination of Faqira and wanted to know the secret of their relationship. She is astounded by Jaldhara’s free spirit and frankness as she slept with a younger boy who was once like her son and marvels at the freedom of the tribals of the North-East. She envies Jaldhara but continues to stick to her old orthodox Islamic ways. There are many ironies concerning this because we realize that although Ghafoor Begum and the other Muslim women consider Jaldhara to be backward and decadent, it was the other way around. Indeed, the upper-class Muslim and Hindu community was backward because of their restricted norms and codes of behavior that reeked of patriarchy that defined the urban town society of India even in the pre-Independence period. Hyder indicates this fact subtly and humorously.
There is ample evidence to prove that this short story was mainly focused on women’s lives in urban India. However, the narrative is highly humorous and, at times, sadistic. We notice the sadism in the way the Persian cat Resham is thrown by the carefree and careless narrator into the hedge, where the cat almost loses its leg by being injured by the wire mesh. The whole incident is highly dramatized to exaggeration, which is very witty and makes us laugh aloud until we realize that the poor animal was seriously hurt! We notice the comedy building up to a crescendo which ends in an anti-climax when the narrator mentions that she ‘grew up’ after that most eventful but bizarrely funny winter. The comic timing of Hyder is superb, making it a mix of Wodehouse and Leacock along with a dash of the sadism of Dahl. The narrator herself is a loner of sorts whose only friends are two girls living in the neighborhood who are of her age but not as precocious or intelligent as her. The narrator is a silent observer of how the family and neighborhood make a fool of themselves mainly because of their narrow-mindedness despite the changing world in which they were living. The narrator is candid, honest, and delicate in her language, making her the smartest of the women or girls mentioned in this story. Her wisdom and broad-mindedness define the young future Muslim women of the latter half of twentieth-century India. The story ends with her final take on the winter events in Dalanwalla.
I shall tackle some minor textual references, after which I will conclude with my analysis.
- Mr. Simon was so thrifty that he never even covered himself with the only blanket in his house to save himself from the cold of the Dehra Dun winter. He, therefore, through his miserliness, killed himself. He lived a simple life that disturbed the leftist Baji. It was he who taught Baji how to play the sitar. He seemed to keep to the convention, which we realize because he never entered the narrator’s house as tutors at that time in India were not allowed beyond the front porch of a Muslim or Hindu home.
- There is a mention in the text of the prominent residents of Dalanwalla living in bungalows, who were retired Europeans living on their savings. They would stay there in Dehra Dun till 1947, after which slowly they would leave the place as India made her way towards becoming a democracy. As history tells us, most of these Europeans would have sold their homes mainly to Anglo-Indians, which would have profited Mr. George Becket and Diana Rose, if only she had to wait!
- Resham, the cat in the story, is symbolic of the upper-middle class’s easy-going and privileged lifestyle, most of whom were exotic specimens like her. She was shorn of her Persian fur just like the Europeans and Anglo-Indians would be shorn of their privileges as Independence drew near and would have to return to Britain. Towards the end of the story, she chases after a sparrow who gives her the slip, which provides a comical effect in two ways: first, that probably that sparrow was Jaldhara, and second that such tribals would outwit the Europeans who had subdued them for over two hundred years.
- The main gossiper of Dalanwalla was a certain Mr. Peter Robert Fazal Masih, who sold cloth. Like most domestic helpers and small business people in India, he catered to small clients and was a significant part of their personal and family lives.
- The movie ‘The Untouchable Girl’ mentioned in the story was filmed in 1936 and starred Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Devika Rani, one of the first actresses of Indian cinema.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by Urdu Indian writer Qurratulain Hyder titled ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’. A Braille transcript of this short story analysis is also available here. I hope to read and review more short stories by Indian feminist writers soon. If you are interested in reading another feminist analysis penned by me, you can check out my analysis of Ismat Chughtai’s short story titled ‘Quilt’ here. If you are interested in reading a humorous British classic novel, you can check out my abridgement of the Grossmith brother’s The Diary of a Nobody in my Rare Classics Series. I hope to read and review more Indian short stories in the coming days.
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