Wednesday, December 8, 2010

River of Fire

Life is like an ocean. Each wave of that ocean brings a new experience on shore. But that experience is new only in form, in appearance. The content has always been the same. This River of Fire – the river of time – flows through the consciousness of all of us, it flows through a cultural space called India and more than anything else it touches through the noblest achievements of human civilization. The origin of this stream is a confluence of truth and eternal beauty and it quietly flows and flows without any end. It does not get dissolved anywhere because it carries that ocean of life within it. The River of Fire by Qurratulain Hyder is a classic in the true sense of the term. Widely acknowledged as a great landmark in Urdu literature (where prose tradition was not the strongest when it was first published in 1959), it is a novel sketched over a breathtakingly vast and deep canvass of time, space and culture

                The story begins in Shravasti of 4th century B. C., where a final year student of the Forest University of Shravasti,Gautam Nilambar meets Hari Shankar, a prince who wants to follow the path of Sakyamuni Gautam falls in love with Champak, a beautiful and intelligent princess. But the bigger world of almost meaningless political strife throws all of them out of their own orbits. Life, at the end of the story, proves a humbling experience for all of them.
And from there they set sail on the River of Fire –Gautam Nilambar,Hari Shankar, Champak, Kamaluddin, Nirmal. They meet, they fall in love and again above all, they worship truth and beauty – and all these meetings take place at different junctures of Indian history. They meet – and that’s the essence of it – they meet in pre-Mughal Hindustan, flows down to Bengal, from Bengal, Cyril Ashley and Gautam Nilambar Dutt reach Lucknow to meet Champabai and Kamaluddin in pre-mutiny Awadh. And from that fabled Nawabi city in 1930s and 1940s, they disperse all over – from Karachi to Sylhet, from Lucknow to London. They are always men and women from the upper echelons of society (a pity rather, because whenever ‘others’ – like their servants came in the narrative – mostly for one sharp comment or a sensitive observation – they left haunting insight into the psyche of those left out from our history books), they always have an eye for the beautiful and yearning for knowledge. But always they are thrown into the vortex of political turmoil and almost meaningless fighting, at times uprooted from home. But life remains as humbling experience as ever. Apart from the same characters, their eventual destinies and truth and beauty; there remain a few more symbols of eternity. And the most memorable of them is perhaps the way the entire novel progresses under the shadows of two of the greatest philosophers of all time –Gautam Buddha and Ibn-al-Arabi. Gautam Nilambar is always in doubt – who is he to resolve the great debates of logic and metaphysics; we are here to lead a life of beauty and creativity. After all the strife and struggle, discussion and disappointment, life in the ultimate analysis remains a celebration of beauty and creativity – and in this book that stretches from 4th century B. C. to post-partition India – that celebration of life flows through the novel like a river of delight.

Through her narrative spanning over time and space, she touches one of the greatest debates of history – is history cyclical? Should we repeat the way Sherlock Holmes used to admonish Watson and Inspectors of the Scotland Yard, “read more and more, nothing new happens under the Sun”? But what she conveys more effectively is that circumstances may change but the basic yearnings of human being remain the same. She has a great sense of history. Unlike most other dry academic historians, she can bring alive any page from your history book and that too in a very authentic manner. She draws sketches of historical figures throughout her epic tale and does it not only very convincingly but always from the perspective of a contemporary observer. More amazingly she touches upon sublime symbols of history, so often overlooked – how a simple bicycle came to be seen as a symbol for women’s liberation. It happened in the US, England and India at different points of time. What she writes about lady teachers of Lucknow finds its exact echo in Geraldine Forbes’ description of pioneering women freedom fighters of Lahore – how cycling in the public space gave them a sense of freedom, mobility and a special status.
But like other great works of fiction, this one is also not absolutely perfect. The last story stretches too long and it becomes a little tedious as well. One wishes she gave more space to first two stories – they appeared so harmonious. It is difficult, if not impossible to write contemporary history. At best you can be a good chronicler. No doubt she is one but she fails to distance herself from the contemporary events and thereby falters in maintaining the balance, which she did so masterfully in previous tales. In the last narrative she clearly shows her inability to assimilate myriad events during a tumultuous period of Indian history and produce her own tale – just the way she did it although this wonderful journey through the River of Fire. Apart from this serious limitation, the character of Talat also seems to be overburdened with ideas, experiences and observations of Qurratulain as a person.

She writes evocative prose. The translation – by the author herself – is too simple and does not convey even glimpses of her famous Urdu prose, which many of us are unable to savour in original. But inspite of all these limitations, she remains – even in English translation – a masterful story-teller. She knows how much to describe and what to leave out for a reader’s imagination. She touches emotional chords so effortlessly – she makes people almost automatically nostalgic, whether with Lucknow of yesteryears or humming of a Pahari Sanyal song – people cutting across a vast geographical area and different sub-cultures can so easily identify with her story. Like a true history, it becomes “our story”. She takes all of us down the River. And the journey promises a gold-laden ship, hidden somewhere along the River or somewhere inside us.

1 comment:

  1. बहुत ही इन्फारमेटिव पोस्ट । आग का दरिया की ये पंक्तियां भारतीय समाज के गंगा जमुनी तहजीब को कितनी सह्रदयता से जोडतीं है ।जब खुशहाली आएगी तो सारे मुल्क के लिए आएगी. वो ये थोड़े ही देखती है की ये हिन्दू का द्वार है या मुसलमान का. हम सब एक साथ डूबेंगे, एक साथ उभरेंगे.