River of Fire

  River of Fire
  - A Review by Jafar Abbas
Qurratulain Hyder is one of the few living Urdu writers whose work can be placed along with the very best in world literature. Her novel Aag ka Darya, first published in 1959, is without question the most important novel of 20th century Urdu literature. Not too long ago, the author herself, who writes equally well in English, has "transcreated" this novel as the River of Fire.

Spanning two and a half millennia of Indian history, the book is a meditation on history and human nature, tracing four souls through time. The novel focuses on the lives and loves of four characters, who are born and reborn during various epochs of Indian history, bearing the same names: Gautam, Champa, Kamal, and Cyril. In different eras different relations form among them - romance and war, possession and dispossession.

The novel offers four main plots, which are meant to be dissolved in our minds as we meander through the great historical narratives of our traditions: Buddhism, Hinduism, the coming of Islam, the age of the great Mughals, the arrival of the British, the 1857 War of Independence, the two World Wars, the horror of partition, and so much that followed in post-independence India and Pakistan. Gautam (appearing first as a student of mysticism at the Forest University of Shravasti in the 4th century B.C.) and Champa, the beautiful daughter of the Chief Minister (throughout embodying the enigmatic experience of Indian women) begin and end the novel. Nearly two millennia later Gautam emerges as Syed Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin, a foreigner from Persia who falls in love with a native beauty Champavati, who is fated to elude him. Further down the river of time the characters appear as Cyril Ashley, a scholarly company man from old Bengal who falls in love with Champa Jan, a cultured and alluring courtesan from Lucknow. Gautam is there, too, as Gautam Nilamber Dutt, this time, a reader of Shakespeare, preparing for an opportunistic career rise with the rise of the Raj.

When the story makes its final shift from the 19th to the 20th century, we see, for the last time, a whole new configuration of characters, united by leftist politics, intellectual kinship, art, music, poetry, and theatre. Again, Gautum, Hari Shankar, Nirmala and Champa come together as friends at college. Also on the scene are Kamal, Amir, Tehmina, and several other young Muslims and Hindus. The final segment, which takes up more than half of the book, is played out in three phases, the protagonists' education in India in the final years of the Raj, their sojourns in England, ending with their careers in India and Pakistan. The profound sweep of the book is simply amazing.

Written years before magical realism and other formal experiments reshaped the novel genre, this bold experiment in narration enables us to participate in 2,500 years of imagined history. Interweaving parables, legends, dreams, diaries and letters, Hyder's prose is lyrical and witty and evokes a strong nostalgia for times gone by. The novel makes us feel the poignant passage of time and leaves us with a deep sense of sadness. In every way, it is a masterpiece.

Read it in Urdu or read it in English, but read it you must. There is really no book like the River of Fire.