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

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.

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