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River of Fire

Qurratulain Hyder

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To purchase River of Fire

Title: River of Fire
Author: Qurratulain Hyder
Genre: Novel
Written: 1959 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 428 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: River of Fire - US
River of Fire - UK
River of Fire - Canada
River of Fire - India
  • Urdu title: آگ کا دریا
  • "Transcreated" from the Urdu original by the author
  • First published in English in 1998

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Our Assessment:

B+ : broad historical novel, often fascinating, sometimes obscure.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 20/5/1999 Pankaj Mishra
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/4/2019 Aditi Sriram
TLS . 6/11/1998 Aamer Hussein
World Lit. Today . Summer/1999 Susheela Rao

  Review Consensus:

  All acknowledge the significance of the book and praise Hyder, but hardly offer much of an opinion.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(River of Fire) has a magisterial ambition and technical resourcefulness rarely seen before in Urdu fiction. (...) Hyder employs diverse genres -- letters, chronicles, parables, journals -- to present her melancholy vision of the corrosions of time." - Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books

  • "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 arenít." - Aditi Sriram, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Hyder's prose is lyrical and witty; occasionally idiosyncratic, it is always alluring and allusive (.....) Her independent stance and the marginal status of Urdu have perhaps been responsible for the fact that her appeal has been restricted to departments of Indology in the West. Now anglophone readers can see whether the fierce beauty of her imagination transcends the limits of language and nation." - Aamer Hussein, Times Literary Supplement

  • "On the whole, the book is a most interesting creation." - Susheela Rao, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Qurratulain Hyder's 1959 novel is considered one of the classics of modern Urdu literature. After some forty years it is finally also available in English, "transcreated" by the author herself.
       Hyder's novel offers a broad sweep of Indian history, covering literally thousands of years. Characters reappear in different guises but with the same names in episodes from different times, beginning in India over two thousand years ago. Gautam Nilambar, a student, is the first character encountered, and he reappears in many reincarnations across the centuries, as does the woman he loves, Champak, his friend Hari Shankar, and others -- including the Englishman, Cyril Ashley. These reincarnations are handled well and make for an interesting (and not hokey) sense of continuity.
       In short episodes (the novel has 73 chapters covering its 428 pages) the novel charges through Indian history. There is a greater emphasis on relatively modern times, but Hyder offers an excellent survey of all of Indian history. Some of the expected highlights are here, but Hyder does an excellent job of skirting along history's periphery, giving a better sense of the day to day life and general feel of India across the ages.
       The book is decidedly North Indian, with regrettably little mention of the south. Most of the action is set in the north, with Lucknow and Bengal areas of particular focus. Some of the action, in the twentieth century, is also set in England, as many of the characters then travel there.
       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.
       The amount of history presented makes aspects of the book difficult for those not entirely familiar with Indian history. With only a few footnotes the text may not provide enough support for those overwhelmed by the barrage of names, personages, and events. The pace of the books slows as the book moves into modern times, with characters lingering longer. The book is perhaps easier to follow here (though the earlier episodes are more colourful and entertaining).
       Hyder's point of view is of particular interest: writing in Urdu places her in an unusual position. Though the language is naturally widespread in India (and differs fundamentally from Hindi only in the script used to write it), it is emphatically the language of Pakistan. Hyder is particularly interested in the religious difficulties between Muslims and Hindus in India, in Mughal and in modern times. Fortunately, she manages to present a book that is decidedly Indian (rather than Islamic).
       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.
       First published in 1959, the book does not address events of recent years -- the India most readers will be most familiar with. Nevertheless, the book is invaluable in presenting a version of Indian history up to the 1950s, and particularly the initial troubled times after independence.
       Hyder's "transcreation" of her own text into English generally works quite well. Quite frequently, however, her English is anachronistic -- too modern for the times described. From the "green-room" that Gautam goes to off-stage over a thousand years ago to the unlikely reason why one character names his house in England The Laurels ("his English wife was called Laura") there are a number of incongruities that stick rather sorely out. Occasionally, Hyder also rushes her writing, sweeping over an event or description too hastily (something that works in some languages -- possibly Urdu -- but generally does not in English). When the first Cyril Ashley dies, for example, it is a bit too simple (and at odds with much that has happened to that point) for her just to state:

Gautam was overcome with grief. Cyril was a rare human being, they didn't come like him anymore.
       Overall River of Fire is certainly an interesting, valuable, and entertaining read. The quick sequence of so many events and the obscurity of the subject matter may put off some readers. It is, however, highly recommended, well worth the effort.

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River of Fire: Reviews: Other books by Qurratulain Hyder under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of Indian literature at the complete review
  • Hasan Shah's The Dancing Girl (translated by Qurratulain Hyder)

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About the Author:

       Noted Indian author Qurratulain Hyder (قرۃالعین حیدر) lived 1927 to 2007. She wrote both in Urdu and English.

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