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Aag ka Darya: Another Perspective

This article on the celebrated Urdu novel Aag ka Darya[1] by Qurratul‘ain Hyder was first published in the prestigious Urdu literary journal ‘Asri Adab[2] in 1977. Bahas ke liye (For the discussion) as an invitational heading was put by the editor at the beginning of the piece.

By Neshat Quaiser
Translated by Fahad Hashmi

[Author’s preliminary note on the article in the journal: This short write-up is obviously not an expanded critical essay on Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) but only a few of those inferences in view of which an expanded critique of the novel however could be written. The essay was presented in a three-day seminar titled ‘Urdu Novel after 1947’ organised by Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna, 12-14 January 1974.]

If the undivided India was not partitioned into two parts, still, Lucknow’s Qurratul‘ain Hyder would have faced no difficulty in writing her novel, Aag ka Darya. I don’t consider it right to insist that the blow of partition was so hard and penetrating that the author was forced to write such a voluminous novel because the underlying structure of the author’s foundational thought process compel us to think in this way.

The tradition of writing novel in Urdu has not been very strong. This time-period has mostly been eighty to hundred years. All the while a good number of novelists came on the stage, however, there are two prominent names in Urdu who established the tradition of writing novel: first, Mirza Hadi Ruswa; and the second, Munshi Premchand. No other novel of Urdu could match the well-organised plot of Ruswa’s Umrao Jaan Ada. But, Ruswa’s whole gamut of thought and action, unlike Premchand, was limited, whereas dominion of the latter was the whole of India—the hustle and bustle of Indian villages, its culture, and its social and economic transactions. One finds a continuous evolution in Premchand’s thought process from 1907 till Godaan.[3] As a consequence his creative works are full of contradictions, which is nonetheless only a reflection of societal contradictions in India of his time. In Premchand’s oeuvre, however, the process of acceptance and rejection of ideas, as well as the evolution of his thought process, in a sense came to rest in Godaan. And one feels that the character of Gobar gains prominence in his work.[4]

Most of the great novels that appeared in the wake of Independence were results of a sudden emotional jolt that the partition of India had produced, and Aag ka Darya, too, reflected the tumultuous condition and commotion caused by this emotional setback. But, Qurratul‘ain Hyder’s novel is not restricted only to this particular historical event, rather the primary stimulus behind the creation of her work is something else. Put differently, it is not right to think that the calamitous event of the partition of India and the consequent destruction of civilizational and humanitarian values were so deep that the author was forced to pen the novel. For Qurratul‘ain Hyder’s stream of thought originated from a deep sympathy with the feudal culture, and it was this foundational stream of her thought which was the primary motivation that made her write the novel. Her deep sympathy with the feudal system and its culture is writ large in the novel, and an all-out effort has also been made to instil sympathy in the readers’ mind for that feudal structure.

Qurratul‘ain Hyder’s pain that one encounters in the novel has got very limited reach. It is restricted to the vested interest of a small Ashraafiya (noble) class. The pain and agony have also been presented as intrinsic part of the novel’s characters, too, which otherwise have nothing to do with the realities of the characters’ lives, instead, such sufferings represent the mental make-up of the people born and brought up in a specific social class. The victims of the exploitative forces, for instance, grieving at the downfall of jagirdars[5] and nawaabs (nabobs); incessantly shedding tears at the ruination of kings of Awadh,[6] and continually chanting jise na de Maula, usey de Asaf-ud-Daula[7] (he who doesn’t get from God [or, perhaps Ali, the Caliph] certainly receives from Asaf-ud-Daula).

The above sentiments—product of a particular society—have been evoked in an ugly fashion in the novel, and have also been portrayed in such a way that it appears to be the constitutive element of people’s life. On the contrary, this depiction only reflects Hyder’s acute desire for the preservation and sustenance of such a feudal system. Please, let me state the point that the author has performed her task rather hastily, for she was deceived by the external dazzle of the system. Because the dread of the decline of her society that pained her so deeply was not going to perish so easily. It is still present in its original, as well as in altered form, nevertheless it calls for altogether a different debate and this is not the right time for taking up that exercise.

The author, therefore, has made a good deal of effort in justifying her pain—so much so that she has made efforts at associating her pain with that of Gautam Buddha’s; the humanitarian philosophy has been put forth, and the Hindu-Muslim unity, too, has been displayed ostentatiously with glossy ideological lacework. In this way a complete jargon has been created.

So, when Qurratul‘ain Hyder feared that her social order was slipping out of her hand, and it was destined to be destroyed, then, in order to justify that social order and her position in it, she declared time to be Aag ka Darya (River of Fire). And she hypothesised that the human life keeps burning in this fire, and societies, civilisations and cultures turn to ashes after getting burned in it; moreover, one is faced with only fire all around, and this is the only fate of human life, the only outcome of life—hopelessness, emptiness, and non-usefulness.

The novel begins with the narrative of social life thousands of years back. Gautam Neelambar emerges as the representative of life and philosophy of that time, and is always in a state of journeying. In this excursion he meets Hari Shankar and gets involved in a great deal of philosophical debate and discussion with him. The second part begins with the arrival of Kamaal indicating the coming of Muslims in India, and with that begins the narrative of the impact and problems of the acceptance and non-acceptance of the Muslims. The third part deals with the British period and the situations that were produced with the arrival of British. Besides, culture, social life, style of living of Awadh, and the conditions of nabobs have been passionately narrated, which, put together, form a very important part of the novel. In the last part, the partition of India and its impact on the characters of the novel have been explained.

The canvass of the novel is, indeed, very vast. The discussion on civilisation, culture and philosophies of ancient India; the coming of Muslims, their culture and social milieus; and the arrival of Britishers and subsequent social and political changes that the Indian sub-continent underwent have been described in detail. Despite all these happenings, however, the author’s foundational thought runs through the novel, that is to say, the process of change and transformation is continuously taking place, still, there is no possibility of change in human pain. In other words, the emotional relationship and predicament of people have remained the same since ages. And people have every right to cherish the fond memories of past, and also to wallow in that past—head banging has been projected a natural part of the human behaviour. Thus, according to the author, the world would see many transformations but people’s emotional experiences would still remain unchanged implying that emotions are stable and eternal.

In Daastaan[8] human characters overcame their calamities and afflictions with the help of fairies, demons and djinns. However, when Daastaan was supplanted by novel, the presence of fairies, demons, djinns, etc. began to disappear from the novel, and by employing their own strength and discretion, without expecting help from the supernatural beings, one found that human characters alone tried to solve their personal problems and those of other people’s, and fought against social injustices. One doesn’t come across such characters in Aag ka Darya. On the contrary, most of its characters appear to be weary, disgusted and defeatist. They do not have a clue about why and where they are. And also, they have no idea about those conditions that led to their present state of being. Furthermore, owing to a painful sense of separation from Qaiser Bagh, Aminabad, Lucknow, Moti Mahal, Bara Dari, ancestral villages, Qasbas (towns) and cities, these people keep wandering—stunned, and ascribed their present turbulent state to the strange stratagems of fate and only try to escape from their present state of affairs.

On reading Aag ka Darya the character that emerges out of it, on the whole, is one who is wrapped up in the narrow past of a particular class. After getting detached with this past, he wails and whines; sobs; suffers from a defeatist mentality; becomes a victim of self-pity and develops a status-quoist temperament. More to it, the character is not ready to come to terms with the inevitable realities of his time and also lack potential to fight against the predicament.

Certainly, Qurratul‘ain Hyder has presented the character with great dexterity as an ideal one. However, is this a healthy conception of literature and culture?[9]

[1] In its English rendition Aag ka darya is River of Fire (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2003). Qurratul‘ain Hyder herself translated the novel.

[2] Neshat Quaiser, “Aag ka Darya: Ek aur Nuqta-e-Nazar,” ‘Asri Adab, 29-30 (May-August 1977), pp 50-53.

[3] Munshi Premchand’s most celebrated Urdu novel.

[4] Here, the context as well as the subsequent paragraph makes it very clear that a certain portion, perhaps a whole page of the article, is missing. The 1975 issue of ‘Asri Adab in which Quaiser’s article was to appear, was slated for publication that the National Emergency was clamped in India, and thus the publication of the journal got suspended. After the Emergency was lifted in 1977, the article in the journal did appear but a few paragraphs that were part of the original piece were clearly missing, much to Quaiser’s chagrin. Quaiser has also mentioned about this deliberate omission and also the missing content in an article as follows:

…because of disagreement the editor did not publish certain portions of the article without my knowledge. I had written that contrary to the established view, the author [Qurratul‘ain Hyder] would have written this novel any way even if the Partition had not taken place, [and, in the excluded part] I was talking about the thoroughly relished location of her social self that produced her writings. She did not consider this location as unearned inheritance but as her pre-ordained location. So, the location was given to her to preserve it. That location was not inhabited only by the Partition. The Partition was just a link but not the first or the last link as is generally viewed. I wrote that the gradual but steady loss of her location that she experienced, which could not be saved even by the Giver, made her write this novel. Her loss was like that of Solzhenitsyn’s part loss. But Solzhenitsyn’s part is Quratul‘ain’s whole.

(Quaiser, Neshat. 2011. “Locating the ‘Indian Muslim’ Mind: An Incomplete Conversation,” History and Sociology of South Asia, Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp 49–68.)

[5] Under the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire, the imperial officers used to get their salaries either in cash or through assignments of the revenues of specified territories. These assignments were called iqta and jagir—a unit of land. Iqta of the Delhi Sultanate was similar to the Mughal Empire’s jagir. The assignees of iqta and jagir were called Iqtadars and jagirdars respectively.

[6] Under the British Raj, Awadh was called the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Later, it got the moniker of United Province. In today’s India, it comprises the north-eastern portion of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.).

[7] This particular saying owes its origin to the generosity of Asaf-ud-Daula, the nawab wazir of Awadh (Oudh)—a vassal of the British.

[8] Dastaan was a form of oral storytelling in medieval Persia that later came to India, and stayed here till the beginning of twentieth century. It is, according to Pritchett, narrated by a dastango. Supernatural characters, and humans endowed with superhuman power are the chief characteristics of this genre.

[9] The last sentence of the article was added by the editor of the journal without the author’s approval. Quaiser categorically stressed this point in a personal conversation.

Neshat Quaiser is currently associated with Centre de Sciences Humaines (CSH), New Delhi. Previously he taught in the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), a Central University in New Delhi. His areas of research include social history/historical sociology of South Asian medicine with reference to encounter and exchange between the Unani and Western systems of medical knowledge and practices during colonial and post-colonial India, where he introduced the employment of Urdu literary prose and poetry as well among other sources; Social Theory; Historical Sociology of Muslims, Islam and Communalism in Indian sub-continent; Religion, Nationalism and Peasant Politics in Indian subcontinent; Colonialism and colonial politics; Post-colonial Law and Legal Theory; Cultural studies and Urdu theatre.


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