If a list of ten greatest Urdu novels is made, the author of the first five novels would undoubtedly be Quratulain Haider . She was a unique writer in many ways. Her foresight, wisdom, sense of history and culture, vast knowledge, meaningful understanding of the human condition, linguistic excellence, poetic sensibilities and a beautiful style of writing truly set her apart from all other writers in Urdu. It is due to these fascinating faculties that she was able to write such masterpieces in literature. Quratulain Haider wrote her magnum opus Aag ka Darya (River of fire) in 1957 when she was 30 years old. With it, she achieved the greatest milestone in her career. Critics and readers unanimously agree that Aag ka Darya is the greatest Urdu novel ever written. From here starts the epic journey of a legendary novelist. She went on to write one great novel after the other and earned herself the undisputed stature of the Queen of Urdu fiction. 1970s and 80s was a high time for Quratulain Haider . She wrote the best of her novels post Aag ka Darya during this time. These include Aakhir-e-Shab ke Humsafar, Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz hai, Gurdish-e-Rung-e-Chaman and Chandni Begum. Before moving on to explore these masterpieces, it is important to learn about the author's background and evolution into a great writer.

Quratulain Haider was born in 1927 in Aligarh. She belonged to an illustrious family. All members of her close and extended family were highly educated and well placed in the society. Quratulain's father Syed Sajjad Haider Yildrim was a very famous writer of his time and one of the originators of Urdu short story. Apart from being a writer, Yildrim worked on various prestigious positions at Aligarh University and Indian Civil Service. Her mother Nazar Sajjad was a famous writer too. She belonged to the first generation of Indian Muslim women who came out of the veil and played an active part in the society. Together they made a home which was an institution in itself. Yildrim was very much influenced by Kemal Ataturk's social reforms in Turkey, hence the family was very modern, progressive and open minded. Their circle of friends included people from all faiths and communities. Visitors, friends and family members were all intellectuals. Quratulain spent her childhood and adolescence years in this literary, progressive and pluralistic environment. The naturally talented girl nurtured her skills and started her career as a writer while she was still in her mid teens.

Quratulain was twenty years old when the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned. People belonging to her class and environment didn't know any differences among communities. She was born and raised a Syed Muslim, educated at the convent among Christian teachers and fellow students and had a strong cultural affiliation with Hindu friends. Lucknow did not see much physical tragedy and violence but the social upheaval was overwhelming. Families were breaking up. Muslims were migrating to Pakistan. People of different communities who had lived in harmony all their lives were now growing suspicious of each other. If Partition was ruthless murder, the social impact on Lucknow's society was a slow poisoning.

This tragedy had a huge impact on the sensitive girl's mind. She wrote her first novel Mere Bhi Sanamkhanay (My temples, too) in 1947 which was a reflection of this tragedy through the mind of a teenage girl. It tells the story of how a beautiful world was lost in a wink only to be replaced by an insecure and a crueler world. Quratulain herself left Lucknow and migrated to Pakistan with her family. They started a new life in Karachi. However the difficult questions in her mind remained unanswered even after writing the novel. This led her to write Sadeena-e-Gham-e-Dil a novel similar to Mere Bhi Sanamkhanay and finally the epic Aag ka Darya.

Aag ka Darya is set on an epic scale spanning over two thousand years of Indian philosophy, history, culture and human tragedy. Characters with similar names and nearly similar circumstances appear in different eras of history to play their part of the tragedy. New characters with Muslim and later British identities are added to the story in their respective eras. Until the final age comes which is the time of India's partition and its aftermath. Beneath the thick layers of physical tragedies following partition like loss of life and livelihood, being forced to leave houses, abduction of women etc, there was a psychological tragedy as well. Characters of this novel are tormented by their identity crisis. They are in search of their place in the new scheme of things.

Aag ka Darya became controversial in Pakistan. Newspapers started writing against it. The novel was heavily criticised for portraying Partition as a tragedy, use of medieval Buddhist and Hindu philosophy and painting a rich picture of a multicultural pre-Partition Lucknow society where all communities lived in peace and harmony. It is important to note that by then Pakistan's ideology had been hijacked by the government to suit their own purpose.

Quratulain Haider , in her characteristic aloofness, never responded to any criticism. With the imposition of martial law in 1958, the government started giving its official version of how things should be and how things shouldn't be. For a creative artist like Quratulain, this dictation wasn't acceptable. She could foresee that once the government started curbing civil liberties, there would be no end to it. At this point in time, she made perhaps the most difficult decision of her life. In 1961, she left Pakistan and moved back to India.

It took Quratulain more than a decade to write her next novel Aakhir-e-Shab ke Humsafar (Travellers unto the night). All her novels post Aag ka Darya had clearly defined settings. They were either based on some phenomenon or an era in history. These novels were well researched and portrayed a highly genuine picture. Aakhir-e-Shab ke Humsafar is based in Bengal. The story starts in 1930s when on one hand the freedom movement is progressing and on the other hand communism is spreading rapidly. A bunch of comrades are working for a red revolution which will soon turn into a dream gone sour. The novel is a social documentary. From Muslim havelis to the Hindu temples and Christian quarters and from Shantinikaten to Sunderban, it paints a beautiful picture of Bengal. The narrative is so rich that you can almost smell the rains, soil and flowers of that land. Milestones of the story are political upheavals and the human tragedy which followed. The dawn of freedom which permanently partitioned Bengal, the East Pakistan years, the bloody civil war and finally Bangladesh, the characters live through these moments and sometimes succumb to them. This novel is like a jewel in Urdu's treasure.

With Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai (Matters of the world are lengthy) Quratulain introduced autobiographical novel in Urdu. At some point in time she got fascinated by the interesting and colourful history of her illustrious family. She started researching and dug out her roots as far back as 740 AD when her ancestors fled from Umayyad prosecution and took refuge in Tirmiz in modern day Uzbekistan. Some four hundred years later, they left Tirmiz and finally arrived in India. Quratulain uncovered a wealth of information in form of old letters, photographs and literary references. Thus she set out a literary adventure and started writing a family saga and her own memoirs in the form of a novel, a technique not used before in Urdu. The first volume chronicles family history and memories till 1947 and the second volume covers the years between 1947 and 1976. In her twilight years, Quratulain kept working on the third volume which was more of a Jagbeeti (Chronicle of the age) unlike the first two volumes.

Kaar-e-Jahan is a fascinating read. It’s not just the story of a family, but the story of a time and age which is no more. While sharing her memories, she is always interested in looking beyond the obvious to find a deeper meaning in life. With the curiosity of a child, she would detect links between two seemingly unrelated things and then find a universe of relation between them. Kaar-e-Jahan Daraz Hai is one of the most important books ever written in Urdu. It’s a biography, a study in anthropology, a reference book and a novel at the same time. Not to mention the wealth of information it contains.

Another masterpiece on Quratulain's credit is Gardish-e-Rung-e-Chaman (Change of the Season). Performing arts was one area in which Quratulain was always interested. She was fascinated by the lives, circumstances and hardships of performing artists. She has written many short stories and novelettes featuring nautch girls, singers, theatre artists and musicians. However, Gardish-e-Rung-e-Chaman is her greatest work in the area. The story starts with the devastating mutiny of 1857 in which two orphaned and homeless girls from a respectable family find refuge with a woman of bad reputation and start a new life with her. The story moves on to explore the fascinating tradition of courtesans, beautiful women trained in finest dance and singing, well versed in poetry and unlike household women they could take part in intellectual discussions - in short all qualities an intelligent man looks in a female companion. Their admirers were wealthy tradesmen, hereditary nobles and even Nawabs and Rajas of princely states. The story draws a heart breaking analogy of how times changed for the courtesans, blurring differences between reputable and disreputable. In the later part of the novel, theme of mysticism was introduced. By this time Quratulain was herself inclined towards mysticism.

Quratulain's last novel was Chandni Begum. It was published around 1990. This novel was her personal favourite among all her books. The story is beautifully woven around the themes of Nautanki culture (Street performers) and breaking up of families in UP after Partition. A unique technique of storytelling is used in this novel. The protagonist Chandni Begum appears briefly at the climax. The rest of the novel covers far reaching implications of the climax which turn out to be even more interesting. One interesting part of the novel is when Pakistani cousins visit their Indian cousins and spend some days together. This part of the story emerges as an authentic case study of the families broken by Partition and the difference of attitudes and approaches between the younger generation who have known no partition or migration and are either purely Indian or purely Pakistani. Chandni Begum is a fine specimen of Quratulain's relativity approach. She connects little coincidences with greater implications and thus creates a fascinating story.

Well, who said Quratulain Haider died?