River of Fire

River of Fire

by Qurratulain Hyder


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“Magisterial” (Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books) and “to Urdu fiction what One Hundred Years of Solitude is to Hispanic literature” (TLS)

The most important novel of twentieth-century Urdu fiction, Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire encompasses the fates of four recurring characters over two and a half millennia. These characters become crisscrossed and strangely inseparable over different eras, forming and reforming their relationships in romance and war, in possession and dispossession. River of Fire interweaves parables, legends, dreams, diaries, and letters, forming a rich tapestry of history and human emotions and redefining Indian identity. But above all, it’s a unique pleasure to read Hyder’s singular prose style: “Lyrical and witty, occasionally idiosyncratic, it is always alluring and allusive: Flora Annie Steel and E. M. Forster encounter classical Urdu poets; Eliot and Virginia Woolf meet Faiz Ahmed Faiz” (The Times Literary Supplement).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811222198
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 03/26/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 390,552
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Qurratulain Hyder (1926-2007) is widely regarded as the grande dame of Urdu literature. To her fans and admirers she is popularly known as “Ainee Apa.” The Prime Minister of India said at her funeral, “With her unfortunate passing, the country has lost a towering literary figure.”

Read an Excerpt

river of fire (Aag ka Darya)

By Qurratulain Hyder


Copyright © 1998 Qurratulain Hyder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0811215334

Chapter One

The Time of the Peacocks

It was the first beerbahuti of the season that Gautam had seen. The prettiest of rain-insects, clothed in god's own red velvet, the beerbahuti was called the Bride of Indra, Lord of the Clouds. This one was crawling upon a blade of grass. A gust of easterly wind brought it rolling down onto the sodden earth. Gautam scooped it up tenderly with the help of a twig and placed it on his palm. Come the rains and the beerbahutis appeared all over the green. From where do they emerge, so perfect in shape and colour, and where do they go? What a brief span of existence they have, but for them it's a lifetime. This was a solitary beerbahuti and it looked so alone in the expanse and depth of the forest. Right now it sat cosily in its own silence on Gautam's palm. It could soon be crushed by an animal or a passer-by.

Gautam put it down and made a boat out of a bargad leaf. A brook of rainwater was rippling past the gnarled roots of the banyan where Gautam had been sitting. He let the beerbahuti slide into her barge and put it out to sea. For this minute creature the rivulet must seem like an ocean. "Farewell, Indra's bride," Gautam said as the waves carried the leaf-boat away.

He looked up at the sky, collected his staff and cloth bag and resumed his journey. He noticed another red beerbahuti on the lush green grass, slowly making its progress from somewhere to nowhere. He could unwittingly trample these lovely, helpless little beings. He walked carefully across the patch of green and reached the mud track.

Now he was tired. Gautam Nilambar, final year student of the Forest University of Shravasti, had walked all the way from Shravasti to Saket in pursuit of more knowledge. He had been attending a centenarian sage's lectures on cosmology till he felt that his head was overflowing with stars. The new term was about to begin in his own gurukul and he was trudging back to Shravasti, his hometown. It rained frequently and he had to stop now and then under the trees.

The journey was arduous. As a student he was not allowed to use boats or vehicles or umbrellas. Nor was he supposed to carry any money. He had to beg his food from respectful villagers and sleep under the trees. Such a life of extreme hardship could match that of any Jain ascetic, except that Gautam was neither a Jain sadhu nor a Buddhist bhikshu. His head was not shaved and he let his long Brahmanical top-knot mingle with his glossy ringlets. He was rather proud of his good looks. Gautam, in fact, was quite vain and had certainly not conquered his ego-he saw no reason why he should.

Once his friend, Aklesh, a townsman, had said that he was like the proverbial peacock that danced in the jungle, but there was nobody to admire him. Surrounded by hoary gurus, erudite shastris and pedantic students, poor Gautam had become a loner. He liked to dance and paint and make terracotta figurines. Once he had travelled on foot all the way to Kashi to learn Shiva's nritya. He had had no intention of becoming a priest like his father. He wanted to gain some insight into Saraswati's bhed as a creative artist. He wanted to partake in the mysteries of the universe as the beerbahutis did in their own tiny, weary manner-surely they must have their own perception of the cosmos! As he was the only son of the High Priest of Shravasti, he had been sent to the gurukul as a young boy. He had lived there all these years, devoting himself exclusively to the goddess of learning.

The month of Bhadon had arrived and it rained frequently. He reached the outskirts of Saket and sat down on the grassy bank of the Saryu river.

While he was piously reciting his shlokas and cleaning his muddy feet in the water, something soft touched his toes. He heard the jingle of anklets and glass bangles. A woman laughed. Giggly females jingling their bangles, he thought loftily. Then he noticed thick jasmine garlands floating past his toes. Magnolia blossoms followed. Are they sending me floral messages, he thought vainly, and stole a glance in the direction the flowers had come from. It was a bathing ghat, hidden behind a bamboo screen. Gautam peeped through the lattice and held his breath. Two fair damsels and their dark dasi were getting ready for their early morning dip. One of them was doe-eyed and was in the process of taking off her gold tiara. These were no wanton females tempting a stranger with floral greetings, they were high-born ladies who had merely discarded their stale flowers before bathing.

One of them had a golden complexion and oblong eyes. A poet would have called her Meenakshi, fish-eyed. She was removing magnolia blossoms from her braided hair and throwing them in the water. The low-caste woman carried a fancy parasol and a basketful of fresh flowers. She had bovine eyes and could be called Ellakshi-the cow-eyed one. She was earthy, like a roughly-moulded terra cotta figurine.

The fair women wore beerbahuti-red sash bodices and knee-length sarongs. Brides of Indra, surrounded by heavy, rainladen clouds! Their bare arms and legs were loaded with gold bangles and anklets. Gautam realised that he had trespassed into the bathing enclosure of the royal family. The Raja's palace must be in the vicinity.

He felt greatly attracted to the Fish-Eyed One. She was voluptuous and magnetic, yet there was something ethereal about her. He even went into a momentary trance, just looking at her. He came to with a jolt when he remembered that he was a brahmachari and was not supposed to look at women till he graduated. Afterwards, he would be at liberty to choose his way of life. He could become a hermit or a householder. I am not cut out for permanent bachelorhood, he told himself grimly. Still, right now, lingering behind this reed screen was dangerous. He could be caught ogling royal ladies and bring disgrace to his gurukul.

Kadamba flowers glimmered like little red lamps set amidst the heart-shaped kadamba leaves. Krishna Banmali, god of the woods, used to play his flute under the kadamba trees. The easterly wind seemed to waft the notes of his flute across the eons, shaking the branches so that drops of rain fell like a shower of tiny diamonds.

A peacock danced under a flaming dhak. Magnolias were in full bloom. A lone ferryman sang somewhere in the watery expanse. The two fair women glowed like pale moons in the river-mist. The scene was like something out of the sylvan idyll of the 'Golden Age' that Gautam had heard about. Reluctantly he came out of hiding and dived into the swiftly flowing water. The cool restful waves of the Saryu filled him with a deep contentment. He began swimming across to the other bank. The three young women heard the splash and watched a gorgeous young man appear out of the water like a silver figure emerging from the waves of a dream. He disappeared again in the mist. "Some poor miserable student roughing it out," fish-eyed Kumari Champak observed sympathetically.

"How did you guess?" asked the doe-eyed one.

"He did not hire the ferry."

"Why aren't they allowed to use boats even in bad weather?" asked Jamuna, the maid.

"To make them hardy, so that they can sit tirelessly under the bargad trees and propound more philosophy," Champak replied sourly, stepping down into the river.

The doe-eyed one noted the bitterness in her companion's voice and sighed. The sight of the white-robed scholar had upset her, too. Her own brother, the crown prince, was also a student. He had not come back from Taxila. Eight long years and he had still not returned home. They waited for him patiently, praying hard for his safe return. Meanwhile poor Champak, the chief minister's daughter, had no choice but to discuss matters of intellect with visiting Chinese scholars. She had promised the Rajkumar she would wait for him. She had rejected many a fine suitor and was fast turning into a grumpy old maid. Soon, she may also have no option but to become a sanyasin or even a Buddhist nun. The princess shuddered.

Men who go away on long journeys are awaited anxiously in the rainy season by the women they leave behind. That's what all the rain songs say. But he had not come back, even in this year's Sawan and Bhadon, to end Champak's long vigil. How much more was her brother going to study, the princess wondered. Whether you acquire the wisdom of the three worlds or remain ignorant like this dasi, Jamuna, you die all the same. So why waste your precious youth squatting under the trees, cramming? I must not feel depressed so early in the morning. She said aloud: "Today I would like to try out a new hair-style when I get home."

"The other day I saw some snooty women from Pataliputra. They wore fan-like turbans jauntily fixed to one side, big-city women. They think we are dowdy and provincial." Champak, too, changed the subject. "My father says there is political trouble brewing in Pataliputra, so they have come here."

It began to drizzle.

Both of them gazed wistfully at the further side of the river. The unknown scholar had vanished behind a moving curtain of rain.

Gautam reached midstream. He turned his head once to catch a last glimpse of the girl with the champak blossoms. Then he began swimming with all his strength and reached the other bank where cranes stood about sorrowfully, drenched in rain. He spread his wet mantle on a shrub to dry. The sun was coming up. He went to the riverside village, a peacock-rearers' hamlet where they made fans from peacock feathers. Gautam stopped at the first house in the lane and knocked on the door. A jovial-looking householder peered out and seemed relieved to see a white-robed mendicant.

"Ram Daiya, a Brahmin scholar is here, not one of those saffron-robed ones ...," he shouted. He was a talkative trader, and continued in the same breath as he came out. "I am an exporter of peacock fans, sir. The market is down these days, ever since this new movement of shunning luxuries and taking to the woods began. Do pray for me. My fans used to go to foreign countries. When I heard the knock I thought, here comes another ochre-robed character. All these newfangled notions of equality, no caste, no nothing. And this 'Renounce the World' business is catching on. Even the girls are shaving their silly heads and taking to the woods. This is what happens when you educate the women-they begin to seek nirvana."

The old householder's child-wife came out with a cane tray full of rice and lentils, ground barley and a piece of jaggery. The scholar received the offering in his cloth bags. The girl touched his feet. He repeated the formal benediction ...

"May the gods bless you with cattle and progeny and bountiful harvest ... and peacock fans," he added. Since he was not supposed to indulge in unnecessary conversation with villagers or townsmen, he started walking towards the Kumhar basti. A potter gave him a new clay pot and some fire. He dug an oven in the ground and boiled his rice and lentils in the clay pot. Then he ate, slept a little and started walking again.

He spent several days moving carefully through the tiger-infested jungles of the Gond tribes. He lived on wild fruit and slept under the trees. He had ample time to memorise the lectures on the stars he had heard in Saket, and his head was full of discourses on all manner of subjects. Fortunately this was his last year at the gurukul.

The shadows of the sal trees had lengthened when he reached another bend of the Saryu. He had to cross this river once again. Shravasti lay on the other side. He dived in and crossed over to the shore of his home territory. As he picked up a few ripe wood-apples lying on the grass he noticed a rock-shrine by the river-perhaps he could spend the night there.

It was an abandoned temple of some tribal mother-goddess. He went in and spread his mantle on the floor. Being a lonely person he had got used to speaking silently to himself-I am physically tired and I am also knowledge-weary. I am suffering from wisdom-fatigue. I must have a good night's rest here before the ashram routine starts all over again. He leaned against the wall of the cave-like shrine, frightened of the quiet within the tiny enclosure. The Rig Veda says that, in the beginning, there was the Self which appeared in the form of Purush. The Purush looked around and found nobody but himself. He said: This is I. So he began thinking in terms of I-ness. He was afraid because he was alone. Therefore one is afraid when no one else exists besides oneself. So saying, he stopped being afraid. But he was not happy, because loneliness contains sadness. And sadness is fearsome, too.

When Formless, Faceless Brahma appears in the form of another human being, one becomes careful. Why doesn't one trust others? They are also Brahma.

I must not be scared of the loneliness of my soul. He remembered the Upanishads. Within the City of Brahma which was the human body, there was the heart, and within the heart there was a little house. This was in the form of a lotus and within it dwelt that which was to be sought after, inquired about and realised. What was in the macrocosm was in this microcosm. Though seated, he travels far. Though at rest, he moves all things, who is joy and is beyond joy. In the midst of the fleeting, he abides forever. Brahma, who is beyond knowledge ...

He heard a footfall. There was silence again. Somebody peeped over the wall. A horse neighed in the distance. Gautam became alert.

"I say, who are you up there?" a faceless voice asked cautiously and in a cultured accent. Another wandering scholar, perhaps.

"It's merely I-What name can you give to the human soul?" Gautam shouted back in a manner academic.

"Names are necessary to differentiate. If you are human, not a fiery ghost, you must have a name!" The fellow seemed to be equally argumentative.

"Speak for yourself. You may be a ghost come to haunt this spooky little hole. Why, this place is so scary even the Bher adivasis have deserted it. As for this body, if you must know its eminently forgettable name, it is Gautam Nilambar," he answered, endeavouring to be modest.

"Good. Now come down to earth, Brother Gautam of the Blue Skies, I am tired of hanging on to this ledge."

"Climb up. The cliff is not slippery."

"Heights can be slippery," came the reply.

"Are you one of the ochre-robed chaps?"

"No. A mere sympathiser of the Movement. Anyway, there can be no definite answer to any question, Brother Gautam."

"There are six equally valid answers to every question. Are you a Jain Wrangler, by any chance? Jump in, sir, and we shall discuss all this over a cold drink. I am a poor student and can only offer you a wood-apple for dinner. I'll make two cups out of bargad leaves and give you cool barley water to quench your thirst. I can make very neat cups out of leaves, you know."

Who is he? Gautam wondered.


Excerpted from river of fire (Aag ka Darya) by Qurratulain Hyder Copyright © 1998 by Qurratulain Hyder
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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