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She was one of a kind
Raju Bharatan
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Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder passes away

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August 22, 2007

Which publishing house but The Times Group could flaunt, on its staff, 'Raman, Laxman and Bharatan' -- in that order? If that sounds a lark, then the intellectual confrontation between Qurratulain Hyder and RGK, in the editorial sanctum of The Illustrated Weekly Of India, was something worth viewing for the depth of erudition with which the debate between the two was carried out.

Qurratulain ('Annie' as we knew her) -- the last word word on Muslim lore. RGK -- upholding each tenet of Hinduism in tones so persuasive that Annie just could not be abrasive with the man. Yet the two were great friends to the extent that each deeply respected the other's penetrative intellect. The two invariably agreed to differ. Each had a scholastic point of view there was no real rebutting. If Annie brooked no equality, RGK admitted no superiority. Such was their conviction of mind and heart that Khushwant Singh just left the two to slug it out.

Annie was the only personality I met who, even while serving under the Sardar, minced no words in telling off even Khushwant Singh. Once, in the editor's cabin, she seemed to have overreached herself when she said to Khushwant: "What's it you Sardars ever did except flatter the British?"

Khushwant, being Khushwant, took it in his stride. To be accurate, Qurratulain Hyder was brought on The Weekly roster (sadly, as a mere sub-editor) by Subroto Banerjee, when he was acting as editor. Status and position never did matter to Annie, I doubt if she really knew in what stature-diminishing capacity she was joining The Weekly.

The popular perception among The Weekly editorial team was that Qurratulain Hyder was being brought in as competition to Raju Bharatan. "Watch out, Mr Bharatan," they said, "here comes an expert on films. Your niche in The Weekly cinema section faces an active threat."

Annie materialised as only she could. She was given the Readers Write section to sub and finalise. She let a real howler on Mahatma Gandhi [Images] pass. There was a departmental face-off. Khushwant was genuinely worried about reader reaction, but the crisis somehow passed. To no one did it -- even after such a ruckus -- occur that Annie was made for things far bigger than Reader's Letters.

Annie took over the Short Story section and made a noteworthy success of it. She was well versed in avant-garde cinema. She was also greatly interested in mainstream cinema. But she had no real grip on mainstream cinema detail. When she saw me produce, off-hand, a 15-line caption on B R Chopra � encapsulating that movie stalwart's life and times � she did a spot namaste. "You mean to tell me you put all that down from sheer memory?" she wondered. As I just grinned, I knew that, from that point, Annie would be referring every single mainstream cinema point to me.

It was arranged that I would continue, overall, to be in charge of the Cinema Page, while Annie would do The Weekly film reviews. It is a measure of her genuine humility that Annie always brought her film review to me for once-over. "I'm at best a student of cinema," she would say. "I'm likely to slip up while reviewing a commercial film. I know you would correct any such mistake I might have made."

She knew no pride, betrayed no sense of achievement. Yet she had only to be challenged on a matter in which she was an authority and she would get back at you like a terrier. Her range of interests qualified her to be editor, not merely sub-editor. My cosy colleague, Fatma Zakaria, always felt Annie tended to go overboard on matters Muslim.

There was an India-Pakistan hockey final and we --- Fatma, Annie and I, among others � were listening to the running commentary. Now the commentator kept referring to a Pakistan player called Islah. Annie, near inevitably, heard it as Islam. "Yes, there's a player called Islam in the Pakistan team!" I chivvied Annie. "Enlisting a player by the name of Islam is Pakistan's way of galvanising her team to its mightiest effort against India. Aag Ka Darya � that's what an India-Pakistan hockey final is!"

As Fatma Zakaria smiled away, Annie really came to believe that there was a player called Islam in the Pakistan team. "Surely not in mere sport?" she burst out. Then I let her know that the player was Islah, not Islam --- Islahuddin, the wizard in the Pakistan forward line.

"Bharatan, tum ne to hadd kar dee!" Annie said at the end of it all. This was another terrific trait in her multi-faceted persona � her ability to laugh at herself. She discussed Hindustani cinema at every available opportunity. Leaving me with the distinct impression that, for all her intellectualism, she enjoyed seeing this calibre of performer being Bollywooden as Bollywooden could be.

She loved it each time I referred, to her, a doubt about the Urdu wording in a song. Problems arose only when she insisted upon amending Mughal-e-Azam to Mughal-i-Azam. This was the only time I was prominent in her vocabulary. In the matter of erudition, even while displaying a rare grip on the grammar and composition of the Urdu language, Qurratulain Hyder never ever adopted a superior air. If she could be brashly aggressive, she could also be charmingly simplistic. For all that, she never gave an inch to Bachi Karkaria. The two were pals for all their verbal jousts.

It was a scene to watch as Annie invited us to her digs for lunch. RGK trooped in last. To the end, he did not touch a morsel of food in Qurratulain's humble abode. This after Annie had made every effort humanly possible to rustle up a pure-veg meal for RGK.

Annie was the object of keen observation in The Weekly portals as the India-Pakistan war broke out, end-1971. Qurratulain Hyder felt all the more awkward, as she sensed that each one, who was around, was keenly watching -- and absorbing -- her reaction to each Indian strike. On the day Pakistan surrendered to India, for the first time during her six rewarding years in The Weekly, Qurratulain Hyder just disappeared from The Weekly scene. Otherwise � and herein lay her exemplary submission to department discipline � she always made it a point to seek my permission whenever she wanted to leave early.

Indira Gandhi's [Images] Emergency was another time her response was eagerly awaited. "It's been a smooth takeover, what do you say, Raju?" she observed. Here, Annie was but toeing the line of the intellectual left. She was a bundle of contradictions. But delightful contradictions.

She presented the aspect of a sturdy spinster, yet there were times when the mask dropped. But it swiftly came on again. Throughout, her battle was with herself. To me, she was a good friend all along the line. Did they say she came to marginalise me? If anything, she near embarrassingly submitted to my knowledge and background on mainstream cinema. She never ceased to wonder how I found time to deal with the nitty-gritty of cricket and films at the same time. When she beheld me also setting a cryptic crossword puzzle, she just gave up on me. "You know," I said to Qurratulain, "that the five letters of Annie could be rearranged into the five letters of inane?"

Annie laughed as never before. She was capable of being many things. But inane she was incapable of being. Bye, friend, it is sad that you should have lived to see Urdu no longer flowering in India the way it did in your heyday.

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