The quest for identity
This Independence Day, Sukrita Paul Kumar revisits Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya, a novel triggered by Partition
“Where does creation begin from? Where does it go? Why are we living? And how? Where will we go?”
Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire )
What made Qurratulain Hyder write such a novel with this beginning? Ironically, the stupendous journey of the writing of Aag ka Darya rests on an apparently simple and innocent question asked by the author’s niece in Karachi “Amma, basant kya hota hai? (What is Basant, amma?)” In the December 1959 issue of the well-known Urdu journal from Pakistan, “Naqoosh”, Hyder records how she ended up writing this novel of over eight hundred pages in response to that question. The story folds within itself the cultural history of over a thousand years of this subcontinent as also the perennial existential dilemmas of an individual. This novel interrogates many a divide, of gender, of time, of religion and of race. The metaphor of the river emphasises the flow of both time and human consciousness. There are continuities despite ruptures, and compassion despite conflict. The movement in time is captured through four phases of history through centuries.
The first character we are introduced to in the novel is Gautam Nilambar, a student of Shravasti Gurukul, in the 4th Century B.C.; in the second phase he serves the British government; and, while he is a teacher in a Brahmo Samaj school in the third era, in our own times he is an intellectual living in London and New York with the values of his race secure in his being. Through another character, Kamaal, runs the vibrant stream of the history of Islamic presence in the subcontinent – the same Kamaal who in the 4th Century, had reached Tughlakabad through Central Asia and Kashmir. Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin comes to Jaunpur, Kashi and Ayodhya and meets a very different brand of Muslims, the Sufis. With his contact also with the idol worshippers and the new land, the process of negotiation between his brand of Islam and the local culture begins. When he re-emerges in later times in the 17th and 18th Centuries, he comes through as a synthesis of Islamic and the local culture.
The novel River of Fire deftly moves from one century to another, essentially retaining the same characters with slightly modified names, thus weaving the story’s continuity. After some negotiation and mutual assimilation, history is shown to witness, the progress of the unique Indo-Islamic culture in the subcontinent with conflicts and differences on the one hand, on the other, there is a bonding and a striking of some concord. Kamaal, the outsider of the 4th century B.C. slowly becomes a nationalist: “Are you a very staunch nationalist, Kamaal?” asks Champa, “Yes, every honest person should be a nationalist”, is his answer. “How is it that all the Muslim intellectuals and scholars and theologians of India are nationalists? (River of Fire). When his father supports the demand for Pakistan and joins the Muslim League, Kamaal is upset.
Clearing the cobwebs
By capturing the inner currents of the evolution of a dynamic culture, Qurratulain Hyder endeavours to clear the cobwebs on the process of first integration and later the disintegration of cultural harmony. The bonding that is evolved over centuries between the Hindus and the Muslims begins to crack through Partition politics generated deviously by the British rulers. While the novel is not history, it is nevertheless an imaginative reconstruction of a cultural process that has its foundations in history as perceived by the author.
Both Kamaal and Champa of River of Fire require tremendous fortitude to survive the Partition. Kamaal is driven, against himself, to migrate to Pakistan. The following statement in the novel is not simple: “Remember, how Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin had entered Hindustan and how he has gone out of it.” In fact this carries within itself a chunk of the thematic content of the novel. Once again, Kamaal becomes the “other” but not the same ‘other’ of the 4th century B.C. Earlier he himself had perceived his presence in Hindustan as that of an alien but after a long history of negotiation, in the recent history, he is abruptly pushed into this role by political forces beyond his control. The cultural heritage of the two communities, of intermingling and owning each other’s customs, festivals, mythologies and languages and sharing the same geographical climate under the same sky for centuries could not simply be forgotten.
Shifting locations, and severed from home, the post-Partition Kamaal becomes a wanderer in search of his origins forever. At the same time, for many, as for him, Pakistan could be viewed as the Promised Land which may indeed have the potential to reconstruct his own identity within the identity of his community.
But as Sadaat Hasan Manto and many other sensitive writers perceived, the common song of the people could not be partitioned, and thus the sense of lostness and desperation on both the sides. Gautam tells Roshan Ara in the novel, “In this divided world we can meet each other only on borders”. The novel asserts the need to realize continuities.
“But I saw the city chock full of Muslim”, on getting back Kamaal argued. “Only the hoi-ploy”, Bade Abba replied dismissively. The gentry has more or less emigrated.” (River of Fire). Champa Ahmed pontificates over the anguish of Gautam, Harishankar and Kamaal along with the entire crisis of Indo-Islamic culture and the crumbling of the long-cherished values.
Denial of history and heritage can in no way establish a stable identity for a constructive future for either of the communities. The novel presents a process of creative unravelling of a past that inevitable lives in the present. But, for such a realisation, an alertness about the essential flow of history rather than an amnesiac state of mind is required.
The novel comes full circle when in the last chapter the reader finds herself, once again on the highway to Shravasti. Towards the end the vision dwindles into that of betrayal “… together we could have challenged the galaxies”, to which Gautam responds, “We have all betrayed one another. Can these western visitors to Shravasti understand the pain in our souls? In India’s, in Kamaal’s, in mine?” The novel ends with the same question with which it begins: “I…who the hell am I?” The river keeps flowing and the quest of the individual continues, the quest for identity and for the very purpose of one’s existence. “The river may dry up or change its course just as human beings disappear or change the direction of their journeys.” (River of Fire).
(The author is an eminent poet and critic)