“River Of Fire” by Qurratulain Hyder is a masterpiece that spans millennia. The story starts from 300BC when cirucumstances bring a young student from gurukul, a prince who wants to become a monk, a royal princess and a noble-born lady together. As they discover and evaluate their feelings for each other, the country goes through upheavals during the formation of the Mauryan empire and the corresponding rise of Buddhism. The story then travels to the Delhi Sultanate, where a young Islamic scholar from Iran travels to Delhi to earn his fortune. The scholar meets Champa, who believes in Kabir, the Sufi saint. The scholar and Champa become witnesses to the upheavals of the formation Mughal Empire. The story then moves on to Cyril Ashley, who travels from England to India to become a Nabob of East India Company. He hires young Nilamber Dutt as his secretary. Cyril’s friend Kamal becomes witness to the first war of independence and establishment of Queen Victoria’s rule on India. In the last part of the book, the story progresses as India transforms from a colony to an independent nation after going through upheavals.
“River Of Fire” was first published in Urdu as “Aag Ka Darya” in 1959. It was translated into English by the author herself in 1998. Like a river, the story too ebbs and flows, twisting and turning, ensaring the reader. The different periods and the emotional quandaries of the characters are portrayed beautifully. The time-periods seemingly unconnected are those that change the course of India’s history. The upheavals of the country become a metaphor for the change in the lives of the characters. Even though unrelated in different time-periods, the characters have a common thread throughout. The ghosts of the characters past cast their shadow on the characters that come in future. The characters are deeply flawed and seem to be searching for something elusive. All they are doing their best to survive. Survival might be like Champa’s, who lies constantly about her background to fit in, or Kamal’s, who emigrates to a new country to find a place where he belongs.
The last part of the book starts from colonial India and ends with a country divided. This was the most engrossing part of the book for me. All the dots seemed to connect as the characters seem to be reaching their final destinations. This part starts light and easy, with all the shenanigans of youth. There is excitement and idealism, with the characters dreaming of a better future as they discuss communism and Nehruvian policies. They try to navigate through life and try to find their own place in the world. However, soon the story grows dark. Youth cannot protect the characters from the upheavals in the country. The part when Kamal emigrates to Pakistan was particularly heart-wrenching. Kamals’ feeling of becoming a muhajir, his sense of displacement is palpable.
I came across “River Of Fire” on a Twitter thread on best-translated works. And I was glad that I picked up this book. The book shows the richness of literature in Indian languages. “River Of Fire” is a beautiful book. Once you reading the book, you will need some time alone, to process the sadness and the emotional turmoil you have experienced while reading the book. The book does not have a conventional happy ending. “River Of Fire” stays with the reader for a long time, questioning their beliefs, their thoughts. The book makes a reader think of what it all means, life, religion, nation and humanity.
This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon for August,2021.