June 8, 2019
In February, a Pakistan-based terror group claimed responsibility for killing 40 soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. Both nuclear-armed nations responded with military force, while the world watched nervously. Flare-ups like these have formed an unending pattern of brinkmanship ever since the partition of British India after 1947.
This is why Qurratulain Hyder’s epic novel, “River of Fire,” is as relevant in 2019 as it was when she first wrote it in 1959, originally in Urdu and then, in 1998, in English.
Oversimplified, the book is about partition: about life before and after. But Hyder, who died in 2007, transforms this singularity into cyclical phenomena. History repeats itself from era to era, enduring rift after rift, until the reader is primed for the ultimate split, of one country into two — even if her characters aren’t.
“River of Fire” gushes across more than 2,000 years of subcontinental history, carving narrative mountains and valleys for us to hike across. It floods us with details: names, philosophies, politics, religion, the history of Urdu literature. Each time the water recedes, Hyder’s characters are left parched with nostalgia, to be quenched only when the river is next in spate. It takes inventive writing to evoke such a seasonal narrative.
Scripting this much history, culture and politics, Hyder tests literary convention — and her readers’ focus. She brazenly reincarnates characters as well as their relationships; think “Cloud Atlas,” the movie version. A Vedic scholar named Gautam from the opening pages re-enters the story as a young Bengali in the service of the British, and then again as part of a group of students in 1940s Lucknow. His character falls in love with a female character, Champa, first on Page 3 and repeatedly until Page 343. Tellingly, Champa is named after the champak flower or frangipani in English. Each time she blossoms and withers, the book segues into a new historical epoch.
What makes Hyder harder to enjoy is that she doesn’t give readers enough time to catch their breath. Sometimes 100 years pass in a chapter, at other times in a line break. Group dialogue reads like a serious play rather than friends gossiping over tea. Letters and monologues become dense with rhetoric.
In calling “River of Fire” a “transcreation” instead of a translation, Hyder was experimenting with her own storytelling. “How shall I begin?” one character asks, while recounting her family history. “I don’t know which characters are more important. Where did this story start? What was the climax? Who was the heroine?”
These techniques are more suited to Hyder’s short fiction. In “Street Singers of Lucknow and Other Stories,” the table of contents deftly traverses Bombay neighborhoods, grand Lucknow zamindari estates and serene tea gardens in what is now Bangladesh. Her detailing shows off in this condensed format, creating rich microcosms from one story to the next. In a rambling novel, the same worlds feel overpopulated and chaotic, and end up being glossed over. This is perhaps why Hyder did not achieve the international recognition of peers like Khushwant Singh, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. As Chughtai recounts in her memoir, “A Life in Words,” Hyder “talks very fast, as though there is so much to say and time is running out.”
In “River of Fire” time is running in circles. Even if that isn’t entirely pleasant for the reader, Hyder’s tone of confused déjà vu seems appropriate for the subject matter. The relationship between India and Pakistan continues: fraught, repetitive, no end in sight.