Urdu literature has always fascinated me. But the pity is I cannot read Urdu, so I have to read the translated Hindi and English versions of the available books. Translations done by someone else than the author himself aren't that effective always. So there is always a chance of being disappointed in spite of the great original work.
The case with Qurratulain Hyder was different. She has herself translated all of her classic Urdu novels. Qurratulain Hyder is one of the most celebrated of Urdu fiction writers. She wrote at a time Urdu fiction was still trying to grab roots in a poetry-dominated world of Urdu literature. She is widely regarded as the "Grande Dame" of Urdu literature. Born in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh in 1920 the author did her graduation from Lucknow University and moved to Pakistan during partition of 1947. Onwards she lived in England up to 1951 and then returned back to India which has been home for her since then. This transition period with the background of Partition has been a regular canvas in her writings. Qurratulain Hyder's 1959 novel "River of Fire" reflects this as well. But there is more to the book than just the transition period.
The book explores through the Indian culture across ages. In her characters she has explored the past up to present. The novel starts from Vedic age and literally explores thousands of years. The characters though have recurring themes across the ages. Gautam Nilambar's "ego" lives across the ages and repeatedly appears at different times along with other characters. This seamless and interesting transformation sweeping entire Indian history has made the book one of the most celebrated novels.
Aag Ka Darya (Book’s original Urdu name) is a landmark novel that explores the vast sweep of time and history. It tells a story that moves from the fourth century BC to the post-Independence period in India and Pakistan, pausing at the many crucial epochs of history. The Times Literary Supplement wrote that, "River of Fire is to Urdu fiction what A Hundred Years of Solitude is to Hispanic (Spanish) literature".
The book has a very descriptive and detailed account of North Indian history parallel to its characters. Descriptions of some worn out (culturally i.e.) cities like Jaunpur, Lucknow etc certainly make a person curious who has his roots in this part of North India. After reading the novel one realizes that the now worn places have once been at their cultural apogees and there’s much hidden inside the layers of history which isn’t visible. This realization is one of the major themes in the book.
Hyder tells a fascinating and fast-paced story, and she is generally able to sustain the narrative through the short and often separate episodes of the novel. From Gautam wandering through the forest as a student in ancient India to the troubled modern times of partition Hyder offers many vivid and powerful scenes. Many a times reader is overwhelmed with the surprisingly rich amount of historical information that Hyder reveals. But one does enjoy it. The colonial period is also well-covered, with the English intruding into the text (and country). Describing India's difficult relationship with the English, both in colonial times and after, is among Hyder's greater successes here.
It’s not that the author abhors the British; rather she brings out a more convincing cultural friction which is quite apparent in the book.
Overall River of Fire is certainly an interesting, valuable, and entertaining read which provides one an insightful peek into India’s past and the way it has shaped us. And the wit and sensibility of Hyder make it even more worth reading. Once you start reading it, there’s no putting down. Qurratulain Hyder is one of those rarest jewels that Urdu literature can claim to have.