A Forgotten Urdu Epic Is Essential Reading for Understanding the Indian Political Situation

A Forgotten Urdu Epic Is Essential Reading for Understanding the Indian Political Situation

The Alternate India

Qurratulain Hyder’s forgotten vision of subcontinental history in River of Fire. 


In the front parlor of a boarding house in 1950s London, the Urdu poet and “staunch Pakistani” Hamraz Fyzabadi delivers a ghazal to the house’s many residents who hail from the Indian subcontinent. The ghazal—a sung, poetic ode about love—that Fyzabadi recites extols the culture of the state of Uttar Pradesh in the newly formed country of India. His co-religionist, but Indian-nationalist acquaintance Kamal asks him, “Your country is Pakistan, what on earth have you got to do with Uttar Pradesh now?” Fyzabadi replies, with a melancholy characteristic of his subcontinental milieu: “One’s heart is still in Fyzabad, even if one has taken up residence in Quetta or got a job in Peshawar…. In short, one is neither here nor there.”

The exchange occurs in River of Fire, the magnum opus of possibly the most acclaimed Urdu novelist of all time, Qurratulain Hyder. Fyzabadi’s words, as a sort of thesis statement, captures Hyder’s view of the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent: the event that resulted in one of the greatest mass displacements in history and the formation of two countries, India and Pakistan, as the British (mostly) departed the former colonies. River of Fire tells a completist and syncretistic version of 2,500 years of history in modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—beginning with the Nanda Dynasty on the brink of defeat by the founder of the Mauryan Empire (323 to 185 BCE), and ending in post-Partition despair. But the novel, barreling through the ages, leads up to 1947 with great purpose, the deep past used to understand the suddenness and chaos of Partition.

When Partition actually happens in the novel, Hyder renders it as an impulse of momentary delusion, forced by the acts of a few politicians in the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, sweeping along a deluge of unwitting millions who suddenly found all exits blocked. It captures the regret—of pulling apart a people formed and contaminated collectively by numerous, sometimes opposing cultures—and the brutal abruptness of Partition that is deeply familiar to those from the subcontinent, even generations later. As William Dalrymple put it, “Partition is central to modern identity in the Indian subcontinent, as the Holocaust is to identity among Jews, branded painfully onto the regional consciousness by memories of almost unimaginable violence.”

For many modern-day Indians and Pakistanis on either side of the border, that sense of inconceivability is what we learned to realize about Partition most of all. To read River of Fire is to deliberately invoke the regret and sadness we sensed from our grandparents: for the singular, abandoned hope that Partition could somehow be undone.

Qurratulain Hyder was born in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh in 1927 and died in Noida in 2007. She translated River of Fire into English herself nine years before her death; a reprint has recently been published by New Directions. Hyder witnessed Partition. She crossed the border from India to Pakistan in the wake of burning trains of corpses going into and out of both countries, as Muslims moved to Pakistan and Hindus to India. The violence claimed 1 to 2 million lives and displaced 15 million people. Indeed, Partition, for Hyder, was an almost mystical tragedy. One day, many families simply awoke in different countries. The shock was perhaps particularly pronounced for Hyder, since she had no fealty for the Muslim League—the upstart, overnight success with little mass support from Muslims that, to the shock of many, including Hyder, somehow managed to wrangle the separate country of Pakistan.

The tribes, castes, and classes of peoples who knew little of politicking were carved up and apportioned between the two countries. What happened, it seemed, was utterly baffling. Just before Partition occurs in River of Fire, Kamal—one of the characters who reappear continually throughout the novel—wonders in confusion: “The Indo-Muslim life-style is made up of the Persian-Turki-Mughal and regional Rajput Hindu cultures. So, what is this Indianness which the Muslim League has started questioning? Could there be an alternate India? Why?”

River of Fire was a controversial book in Pakistan when it first appeared in print in 1959. Primarily because of Hyder’s view of the Pakistani person as indistinguishable from the Indian person, the novel was met with much consternation by Pakistani nationalists. Hyder had been living in Karachi when the book was released. Soon after the book’s publication, however, she suddenly picked up and returned to India. There’s very little by way of direct documentation that shows precisely why she moved, but the consensus then and now is that it was caused by the outrage of critics to her portrait of the incomplete Indo-Muslim: the one who could only truly exist in fictional opposition to a Hindu counterpart.

Maintaining strict notions of difference is pivotal to the current conception of the Indian and Pakistani states. And stripping away those notions and showing the lack of completeness of either India or Pakistan, of course, is the point of Hyder’s sweeping history, a story that likely comes as a surprise, especially to those of us from the subcontinent—given that it appears in neither Indian nor Pakistani textbooks. It’s a history that posits the two nationalisms as mirrors, born of ambivalence and artifice; an idea that raises the question a schoolgirl in the Indian city of Lucknow poses as: “You mean Humpty can never be put together again?”

Almost by definition, River of Fire’s syncretistic history renders everything about India and Pakistan subsequent to Partition as fundamentally reactionary: both countries in a position where they must constantly dispute the creation, over millennia, of the composite Indo-Muslim-Hindu character—traced by Buddhist, Brahmanist, Sufi, Jain, Persian, and Afghani cultures crashing and melding into one—in order to justify their separate existence. Hyder’s narrative aggressively asserts this cultural synthesis. Through an amalgamation of letters, parables, folklore, myths, and diaries, Hyder uses recurring characters that are composites of multiple cultures and locks them into the same ill-fated trajectories in each era. Characters—Champa, Gautam, Cyril, Nirmala, Kamal, Hari, Jamuna—reappear constantly, as if each time period is a precise metaphor for a past or future one. Kamal, for instance, turns up as a Persian visitor in the 15th century and later, as a student in 20th-century Lucknow with great distaste for the creation of Pakistan, where he nonetheless ultimately resettles.

But Hyder’s most consistent through line is, arguably, the character of Champa. She appears first as a Rajput royal proffered to the son of the Raja in ancient Shravasti. She then reappears as the sister of a Brahmin pandit in a 15th-century sultanate soon to be conquered by Mughals, pursued relentlessly by the Persian polyglot, Kamaluddin. In both, she’s betrayed by the men who pursue her, cast aside from the narrative only to reappear in another, as if up for the challenge of altering her inevitable fate, only to fail yet again.

In the cosmopolitan Lucknow society of 1823 Mughal India, Champa is the “reigning diva,” a courtesan who invites visitors and locals alike to her mehfils, in a world where Muslims, if they can be differentiated from Hindus at all, are far more libertine—but both worry equally about the threat of Christian missionaries. In 1868, as the collective people reel in hatred of the British East India Company after the brutality of the Revolt of 1857, Champabai is a courtesan-turned-beggar, turned away by everyone she once knew. And finally, from the 1930s onward, Champa is a student from Banaras who joins the Lucknow Gang, a group of precocious, political young people—Hari, Kamal, Gautam, Talat, Nirmala, Champa, Tehmina, Amir—with “dreams of their own of a socialist India,” along with flings, jealousies, and passions that, to them, render moot their different identities as Hindu or Muslim. Almost all the boys pine after Champa, only to abandon her; girls despise her and whisper about her. When Partition actually happens, Champa’s role in the story becomes clear: The universally and historically rebuked Champa stands in for a despised co-religionist and fellow countrywoman, the symbol of the self-evident truth that India and Pakistan cannot hate each other as much as they hate themselves.

This is not to say that Partition is the only momentous change that occurs in Hyder’s historical narrative. British colonialism, too, is a violent and confounding existence for all of Hyder’s characters, as are wars between fiefdoms in earlier eras, but both weave in and out of the story: 20th-century characters recall their Hindu and Muslim parents’ unifying hatred of the British, and when Partition occurs, the malevolent role of the British in causing it escapes no one, but it’s a source of ambivalence nonetheless. (“So the British were again the villains of the piece. Yet the indisputable fact remains that they created modern India,” Kamal reflects at one point.) In fact, River of Fire doesn’t so much downplay colonialism as insist that the culpability of hidden, removed politicians—separatists, both Hindu and Muslim, who appear obliquely in the conversations and pontifications of the Lucknow Gang—is far greater an offense. Ultimately, it is Partition that is the too-deep rupture, far more irrevocable than anything the people of the subcontinent have faced before.

In Hyder’s telling, the moral anguish of Partition is pointedly not a culmination of everything from 300 BCE onward. Instead, it can be understood as a lament for the loss of all that history, the history that created identities “so intermingled that it was impossible to separate the warp and woof of the rich fabric.” Despite Kamal’s hatred for Pakistani nationalists, he ends up in Pakistan. But as he leaves India, it is a broader “motherland,” a concrete sense of wholeness, that he weeps for, and the sum of Hyder’s history lessons seems to demonstrate how different Partition was from anything else. Just a few years before he departs for Pakistan, at the India Coffee House in Lucknow, Kamal tells his company of poets, artists, and students: “At least you should be thankful that the culture created by our ancestors has proved more powerful than the present insanity.” A melancholy Urdu poet replies: “Culture, culture everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”

And there, perhaps, is the point Hyder’s been driving toward: the two nations as tenuous social constructions that run roughshod over what actually happened on the subcontinent over millennia. Much like Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” Hyder’s historiography and narrative purpose is to recognize the sadness and wrongness of actions, identities, and communities based on convenient fictions. History during the colonized British Raj was built upon lies, as the English press published accounts of the unsuccessful Indian uprising against the British in 1857, speaking of “the heroism of British generals and soldiers…the massacre of English families” but not the “twenty-seven thousand Muslims…hanged in Delhi. Thousands of Hindus and Muslims were sent to the gallows in Cawnpore, Allahabad and other places.”

And India and Pakistan, since Partition, were built on the fiction that the warp and weft of their shared identity could somehow be separated. In other words, it’s easy to see why Hyder’s view of history is extremely radical—in its staunchly anti-nationalist challenge to the very raison d’être of modern-day India and Pakistan—and why River of Fire got the reception it did in 1959, when Pakistan was fighting tooth and nail to continue to exist. Being an anti-nationalist citizen of either country is a tenuous, ambivalent state of being. Publicly acknowledging this ambivalence is considered treasonous for citizens of both countries, but of course, it happens nonetheless. As it is for Hyder’s expats, so it is today that Indians and Pakistanis are witnesses and participants in relating to, being mistaken for, and finding home in each other.

As romantic as that may seem, it is a reminder of something else, a key component of Hyder’s history: the failure of the Indian left before Partition—embodied by the Lucknow Gang, youths with high-minded ideas and political affiliations whose views become heretical almost overnight. As the British collaborated with leaders of the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress to enforce an arbitrarily drawn border, thereby inciting communal violence, whole peoples, regions, and parties were left out of any effective say in the matter. Socialist parties, of course, were sidelined, and they would continue to be brutally cracked down on in both countries for decades to come. Still, Hyder’s narrative argues that this doesn’t absolve the left for its inaction during Partition. Once the unthinkable does indeed come to pass, the young people of the Lucknow Gang shock themselves into resignation—a condition clearly a consequence of not having taken events seriously enough, never having truly considered that it could happen. Almost all the Lucknow Gang chooses to leave for England. “The Exodus from India had begun,” Champa thinks as they all pack their bags. It’s not an exodus to Pakistan, but the creation of the worldwide diaspora.

Now those who were of age during Partition—the generation of my grandparents and their parents—have mostly died. What’s left behind are the impressions that the clay has hardened around the ideas of Pakistan and India, along with the emergence of extreme Islamist and Hindutva elements that continue to insist on confrontation and difference, the latter of which was recently seen so starkly with the reelection of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in another landslide, following a campaign where Modi and BJP candidates for Parliament doubled down on their extreme brand of right-wing nationalism premised on Islamophobia, caste-based violence, and a purist Hindu identity, arguably far more than the previous election. (This March, Modi threatened Pakistan with more air strikes during a campaign rally speech. The month before, after a terrorist attack in the Pulwama district of Indian-occupied Kashmir, Indian warplanes flew over Pakistani territory for the first time since 1971).

Of course, as long as the idea of a purist Hindutva identity is kept alive, so will the apparent justification for Partition—that Indian Muslims had to have a separate state from Indian Hindus—and for the trauma that left so many dead and displaced. But as the Hindu fundamentalist Modi government begins another term and Pakistan bankrolls terrorist groups to stoke fear about India, each country’s own minorities make clear how illusory their nationalism is: Pashtun separatists, Kashmiri separatists, Baloch separatists, Adivasi separatists, Indian Muslims, Pakistani Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis, Parsis, Sufis, Jains, Naxalites. Each country must teach its citizens to hate the other as a proxy for veiling the brutality within its own borders.

This is why the historical benefit that River of Fire confers is particularly important today, in its reintroduction of an audacious, complex syncretism as a method to find a real identity that can sensibly counter the fictitious ones each country confers on its citizens and in its approach to history—one that Hyder doesn’t shy away from being explicit about (though she gives short shrift to considerations of caste in River of Fire, and earned much criticism for her supposed elitism). Indeed, for postcolonial scholars, Hyder’s history has long been a purposeful rebuke to the purist Hindutva and Islamist ideologue. For if the historical narrative of River of Fire is to believed, such ideologues do not just truck in nationalist fictions—they’re also relatively recent historical phenomena.

Which is why Hyder’s sheer prescience, writing in 1959, is hard to understate. In a beautiful interlude near the end of the book, as the Lucknow Gang disperses and gets recast as enemies—though they think of one another as family—Hyder finds a moment where Time itself speaks to the reader:

Time said: Recognise me. I’ll never stop hounding you. You thought that the moments shall remain at their stations. You were mistaken…. The gate stands before you, a new country begins now. You will have to get new travel documents, fill new forms and write your signatures all over again…. You shall face more trouble but I’ll teach you how to deal with it.

But, really, has time taught us anything at all?

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