Reading Qurratulain Hyder's 'Aag Ka Darya' in Contemporary India

Written in a tumultuous Pakistan of the 1950s, the novel is more relevant to present-day India than ever before.

In Pakistan, after Muhammad Ali Jinnah died in 1948, the establishment began to deprive its citizens of a syncretic past where Hindus and Sikhs lived alongside Muslims. Even before martial law was imposed in 1958, Muhammad Bin Qasim – an eighth-century Arab commander – had been christened as the early founder of Pakistan for discovering the first “Islamic” province of South Asia – Sindh. Expectedly, Sindh’s syncretic Sufi tradition was considered merely an afterthought in this state-sponsored version of history.

A similar attempt at undermining the syncretic past is underway in India. The labyrinth that is the history of India is not only extensive and rich but also highly contested today. From hyper-nationalistic films to ‘WhatsApp Universities’ that produce false histories, the idea of India is being punctured and inflated with ‘alternative’ narratives.

In the past five years, several fringe, as well as mainstream elements have attempted to physically and intellectually bludgeon any aspect of India’s Muslim heritage. The reading down of Articles 370 and 35A, which gave Jammu and Kashmir its special status, was deliberately aimed at purging the state of its unique (multi-)ethnic identity – which is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Even as governments aggressively alter history or assert alternative narratives to suit their ideologies, literary writers bear the torch of debunking these narratives from bygone eras and bringing truth to the fore.

Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya (self-translated in 1998 as River of Fire) is an example of one such account.

Also read: A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

Qurratulain Hyder
Aag Ka Dariya (River of Fire)
Women Unlimited, 2003

Born in Aligarh in 1927, Hyder migrated to Pakistan in 1947. But just a few years later, after Aag Ka Darya was published, Hyder returned to India, where she was welcomed with open arms by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad. Her debut novel, Mere Bhi Sanam Khaane (My Temples), examined the causes of Hindu-Muslim violence that led to the partition of India.

Ainee Apa – as she was endearingly referred to by her readers – dealt with the aftermath of such communal discord in her next novel Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil (Boat of Sorrow). When the military and religious fundamentalists tightened their grip on Pakistan, in 1958, Ainee Apa gifted her third novel, Aag Ka Darya, to the Urdu literary world. This was at a time when the Pakistani establishment was systematically cleansing the country’s ethos of any traces of Hindu (thereby Indian) traditions, which earlier existed alongside the Islamic ones.

Aag Ka Darya transcended revisionism by blending the mammoth task of chronicling the Indian subcontinent’s history with witty and fictional prose. The novel spanned historical periods from the Mauryan Empire, the end of the Lodhi dynasty, the start of the Mughal rule, the British Raj to the partition of India. It contains recurring characters with similar names and cyclical occurrences that establish continuity.

It exudes the same cadence through which Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude reimagined Colombia’s history through the repetition of core dramatis personae and watershed events. Each of the epochs constitutes the backdrops that shape these characters’ actions, their interactions with each other, and their individual trajectories.

Abul Kalaam, professor of Urdu at Maulana Azad National Urdu University and an acquaintance of Hyder, considered the book to be the third part of a trilogy. “She saw how the violence played out in 1947. Therefore, Apa’s first two masterpieces were her ways of purging herself of the partition memories that weighed heavily on her,” he said.

Also read: The Question of Identity, Captured by the Pakistani English Novel

Unlike the first two parts of this unofficial trilogy, Aag Ka Darya did not delve too much into the circumstances that destroyed the Hindu-Muslim unity. Kalaam elaborated and said, “Aag Ka Darya chronicles how the cultures of Hindus and Muslims amalgamated to form the syncretic ethos of a land called ‘Hind’”.

Today, with the majority and minority populations being polarised through their religious identities and national registers deciding whether someone is truly Indian or not, the theme of belonging to a nation hits close to home. Ironically, present-day Muslims are conflated with certain Muslim rulers and their excesses on the “native” Hindu.

Qurratulain Hyder. Photo: Dawn

A memorable character that symbolises this nuanced view about the Muslim rulers’ contributions to India is a half-Middle Eastern, half-Persian man named Kamal. Before being supplanted by the Lodhi regime, the Jaunpur Sultanate tasks Kamal with translating Hindu spiritual texts into Persian. To do so, he first learns Sanskrit. Even after Kamal’s Jaunpaur Sultanate masters are ousted by the Lodhis, he further naturalises himself into his adopted land by marrying a lower-caste Hindu and learning other indigenous languages like Bengali and Awadhi.

With the end of colonial rule, in the land that was once a fertile ground for syncretism, the colonially implanted ideas of a Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan have materialised. Even when a totally ‘Hinduised’ country did not seem like a possibility in 1947 to some, Kamal was loyal to India despite the pro-Pakistan Muslim League influences around him. Yet, it were those seeds of hatred that rendered him unemployable as a Muslim despite his superb qualifications.

Juxtaposed against another recurring British character, Cyril, Kamal is anything but an exploitative coloniser. During the British era, Cyril is the quintessential ‘civiliser’ of the natives. He undertakes multiple affairs with many native women whom he views as exotic and lures with false promises of marriage. Another one of his incarnations, in the post-independence epoch, can’t even stay loyal to his wife. Commenting on her nuance, Kalaam states, “Throughout her repertoire, she never excessively extolled the pleasant or unsavoury aspects of any historical period of the subcontinent.”

Also read: After Partition, Trust was the Biggest Loss in Sindh

Unfortunately, such balanced retellings of ancient times are being stifled. Hence, “Who controls the past controls the future” is not just an Orwellian warning. Rather, it seems like a revisionist tactic from the playbook of the powers that be. “Be it the Vedic or Mughal timelines in Aag Ka Darya, while acknowledging the negative, readers are attuned of the positive aspects of both phases,” Kalaam says.

At a time when the country’s history and constitution are being rewritten, Aag Ka Darya remains a potent reminder of the epochs that have shaped and shattered India since the fourth century BC.

Daneesh Majid is a freelance writer on South Asian culture and security with a masters in South Asian area studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.