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Qurratulain Hyder: آگ کا دریا (River of Fire)

This is a wonderful novel which takes us on a romp (but a fairly serious, albeit at times tongue-in-cheek romp) through Indian history. The novel is set in four different periods of Indian history – the classical (4th century B.C.) , the medieval, the colonial, and the modern post-national, with the latter occupying most of the book. There are four main characters – Gautam and Champa who appear throughout the book and Cyril and Kamal (the Indian Muslim) who appear, naturally, only in the latter parts. Gautam is the student, the learner, on a quest for what he is and what his country (whatever it may be) is. Champa is the Indian woman whose role, of course, is changing but still unclear both to her and to those around her. Kamal is the late-coming Muslim who is Indian but who is not (at the end, he is, of course, Pakistani). Finally there is Cyril, the invading Englishman, out to take what he can from India – indigo, women, exotic culture – but who never will and never can understand what India is.

The beauty of this novel is threefold. Firstly, the characters themselves are thoroughly engaging and very complex as they try (and often fail) to relate to each other and their fellow citizens but also to the troubled times they live in, whether it is the warring states in the 4th century or the problems faced by all Indians but, particularly, Muslims as a result of the Partition of India in 1947. Secondly, Hyder is very much concerned with the history of her country and very cleverly weaves it into her story and the lives of her characters so that it is an integral rather than intrusive part of the novel. Though she focuses on four specific periods, time is very much a fluid concept for her as the characters and their memories move around the years almost as easily as they move around the country. Finally, Hyder has a wonderful sense of humour and an attitude that is mocking but gentle at the same time. The British and their hypocrisy receive the brunt of her witty attacks as the attitude of the two Cyrils is satirized in an understated but, nevertheless, obvious way but the Indians (and Pakistanis) and their foibles do not escape by any means.

From Lucknow and the Uttar Pradesh area (where much of the novel is set) to London (where many of the characters meet up in the 1950s), Hyder moves easily between Indian myth and religion and more conventional English/Anglo-Indian styles. Her message is clear – whatever you do or want to do, you are going to be hit by history. Chaos follows order as naturally as night follows day in the cycle of things and there is nothing we can do about it. Salman Rushdie has said that the only worthwhile modern Indian literature is that written in English. This book proves that, at least, writing in Urdu can produce first-class literature.

Publishing history

First published in Urdu 1959 by Kitab Ghar
First published in English 1998 by Kali for Women
Translated by the author