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My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder.

June 20, 2014

My Temples, Too, by Qurratulain Hyder.  Kali/Women Unlimited (2004), Paperback, 188 pages.

SOUTH ASIAN WRITERS

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A brilliant novel written by a major Indian writer about the daughter of an elite Muslim family in northern India during the turbulent years between World War II and the Partition of India.

My Temples Too introduced me to a world I never knew existed; the world of elite Muslim families living on hereditary estates in northern India in the mid-twentieth century. At the center of the novel is Rakshanda, or Roshi, the daughter of such a family and one of a group of bright young people who defined themselves as idealistic and nationalistic, rational and liberal. Although their families are nominally Muslim, religion has little meaning in their lives. Women were not secluded or veiled, and no one offered daily prayers. The young people took part of both Muslim and Hindu festivals. Class was more important than religion or ethnicity. Roshi felt guilty enjoying her ancestral home built by the labor of starving peasants.

They were anti-British and passionately believed in Hindu-Muslim Unity, and discussed how the bourgeoisies of both the Hindu and the Muslim communities had conspired to keep the Masses down.

Roshi and her friends knew that their world was changing, and they intended to be part of shaping what came next. Like young people worldwide after the war, they gathered in coffee houses and dreamed of a better future. They published a progressive magazine. They flirted and fell in love while their mothers tried to arrange their marriages. The young women worked to collect money for the victims of the riots that had begun in the cities, but they still seem to exist in their own safe isolation. As members of their group left the region, they meditated on the transitory nature of life and beauty, yet they were unaware that the destruction and violence of the Partition would descend on them. Even though religion was unimportant to them, it invaded their lives and threatened all that they had known and loved.

Although Roshi and her “Gang” remain central to the book, Hyder has created a large cast of other characters allowing readers to understand how widely different people experienced the changes. Roshi’s father no longer understood his children, who move like masked and hooded figures through their ancestral home, and so he relied on his old British and Hindu friends. Roshi’s cousin disappeared when he joined the Communists and went underground. A strident Muslim belittled their group and pushed for ethnic separation. When Hindu soldiers came, they include a man who had risked his life in war and arrived home to have his sister raped and killed by Muslims. He is out for revenge, but has trouble figuring out which people are Hindu and which are Muslims.

Although My Temples, Too is not explicitly autobiographical, Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007) lived through events she includes in the book. Her family were Muslims, and she would have been about Roshi’s age when she moved to the newly created Pakistan in 1947. This book was her first novel, published in 1949, shortly after the Partition. She soon returned to India, however. She resided there most of her long life, writing numerous books in Urdu.

Despite my lack of knowledge about her, Qurratulain Hyder (1927-2007) was a major figure in world literature. She was influential in introducing the novel into the largely poetic Urdu literary tradition. Her style is somewhat fluid and modern, demanding that readers wrestle with her words. For me as an outsider to her culture, there was a larger problem. Words and places in the book were unfamiliar to me. The names of her characters and their endless variations left me struggling to figure out who was who and what was happening. I loved the book, but I have never felt as frustrated because I lacked the ability to understand a culture that was not my own.

As can be expected from a book about the Partition, My Temples, Too is essentially a tragedy. The destructive power of Partition is most clearly seen as the characters in the book face the destruction of their homes and lifestyle and the deaths of those they loved. Hyder expresses the sense of loss and chaos.

The mind refused to work any more. God the Merciful, the Beneficent, had either gone off to sleep or, being a Muslim, had Himself been killed in the riots… Surely all this couldn’t happen in a world ruled by the Almighty God of the Quran.

I knew before I started reading about the violence and hatred of the forced separation of Hindus and Muslims. What I had never understood was how deeply the people forced out of their homes had been intertwined. I knew that Hindus and Muslim had been enemies for centuries, but over those centuries, they had also learned to tolerate and share many aspects of their lives. Hyder describes some of the problems. The refugees were pouring into their town, arriving “with only their memories and their hatred and their shattered lives.” They were Hindus who had nothing but religion in common with the local Hindus. Muslims sent to the newly created Pakistan faced the same problem, missing neighbors with whom they had shared everything except their religion. One of Roshi’s friends went to Pakistan where she lived in a luxurious house which retreating Hindus had left behind. To her life seemed good, except for having to cope with the people of Punjab.

The forced removal of Hindus and Muslims was a disaster, and yet we still have political leaders advocating partition as a way to deal with conflict. Yet to separate people on the basis of one aspect of their life is to ignore all that binds us to each other despite our differences. There are no quick answers to cultural conflict, and we need to stop pretending that partition is a viable solution. Arbitrary national boundaries only intensify the destruction. With all the ethnic violence in world today, Hyder’s book is still a plea for sanity.

Because Hyder is a fine writer, her story of the Partition is not just about a particular time and place and even about a particularly misguided policy. My Temples, Too is about the essential brokenness of the world, and the way in which political leaders contribute to that brokenness.

This is an important and moving book. I recommend to all. It is not an easy or accessible book, but it is a rewarding one.

Thanks to Elen @ South Asia Book Blog for recommending it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 22, 2014 7:42 pm

    I have never heard of Hyder, either. Sounds like a great book.

  2. June 23, 2014 12:49 pm

    I think she may be little known because she is a Muslim, writing in Urdu and living in India. Not exactly part of the literature of anywhere. I expect you’d not find the book as difficult as I did, and I do think it is worth reading. I am looking for another of hers now.
    Can you recommend any of the Indian classic myths for me to read in an accessible version or translation? I am curious and don’t know where to begin.

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