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River of Fire, Hyder

August 6, 2014

River of Fire, Qurratulain Hyder.  New Directions Publishing (2003), Paperback, 428 pages.


A sweeping novel by a major Urdu writer tracing over thousands of years of Indian history with characters reappearing in different eras.

Qurratulain Hyder is a major contributor to twentieth-century world literature. Her books are complex and literary. A Muslim growing up in northern India among Hindus, she experienced the Partition firsthand. After a brief time in Pakistan, she returned to India where she lived and continued to write in Urdu. Her writing often witnesses to how Muslim and Hindu lives were braided together during the centuries they lived together in India.

River of Fire is generally regarded as Hyder’s masterpiece. I read it because I had been impressed by My Temples, Too (See my review.)  I found River to be a difficult, but rewarding book. Even more than Temples, it assumed a familiarity with Indian words and names and their variations. But the writing was so powerful that I was swept along even when I didn’t always understand. After publishing this book in Urdu thirty years earlier, Hyder herself translated in English.

Hyder begins her story with a traveling student in ancient India. Repeating the names of her characters in different eras, she describes what changes and what does not as northern India moves through medieval conquests and modern colonization. She tells the stories of the more recent periods in more detail, ending with accounts describing the 1950’s, when she wrote the book, and her description of her characters’ lives in divided India and Pakistan. Throughout the book characters with names we know from earlier chapters fall in and out of love, support and oppose governments, and vigorously debate literature and politics. Always they are a mix of Muslims and Hindus who differ on a host of issues, but seldom argue over religion. Typically they all live in north central India and belong to relatively affluent families, affluent enough to pass down a heritage to the next generation.  Although a cluster of leading characters appear in the different centuries, so do a few servants. The section of River of Fire that deals with the 1947 Partition is reminiscent of the scenes in My Temples, Too. The account of the period after the division into India and Pakistan is full of regret over what was lost, balanced by the sense that life goes on even after   cataclysmic change.

This is an important book, one that I am glad to have read and recommend to others. Those who know something of India’s histories and myths are sure to find it more accessible than I did.  Even those of us without that background can relate to the flow of changes that the book depicts.

One Comment leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    August 11, 2014 8:55 pm

    I have Hyder on my radar just because of you! This one sounds like a tough read, but the subject matter sounds really great!

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