Skip to content

Travelling Memory: A Study of Qurratulain Hyder’s ‘River of Fire’

By Nishat Haider 

Emphasizing the significance of ‘travel’ as a key trope in Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire, this paper engages with the ways in which individuals and ideas travel between different spatio-temporal chronotopes, producing new cultural matrices and political contexts. The River of Fire (originally in Urdu, Aag Ka Darya) is an expansive book, which draws on two millennia of history, with a cast of characters that rematerializes in various incarnations and eras. It is a challenging text that evades enclosure in conventional historiographical or narratological boundaries.  Foregrounding River of Fire, this paper presents diachronic approaches to the afterlives of memory, imagination, and imaginal to underscore the ‘imaginative’ capability of historical time-travel as an effective way of considering ‘complex ethical questions’ (Mandler 147) of identity, memory and history. Alluding to Astrid Erll’s understanding of memory as the migrations and mobilities of symbols, people, and mnemonic texts and legacies “continually moving across and beyond territorial and social borders” (10) and framing it within the historical chronotopes of India, this paper explores the ways in which mnemonic symbols, images, and icons cross borders of all sorts to give meanings to events distant in time and place. This paper delineates the conceptual ‘travels’ in the explorations of how, reconfiguring our concepts of time, history and memory might result in new understandings of culture, subjectivity, and politics. Revisiting the terms ‘travel’ and ‘traveller,’ this paper will not only question a critical tendency to conflate radically different types of travel discourses that define postcolonial spatio-temporal frames. Last but not the least, this paper delineates the conceptual ‘travels’ in the explorations of how, reconfiguring our concepts of time, history and memory might result in new understandings of culture, subjectivity, and politics.

Re-framing memory: Writing the Nation and History in River of Fire

My focus in this paper will be to expound the cognate aspects of historiography, historical fiction, and narrative time in order to explicate the manner in which Hyder’s text travels in time. Hyder’s consciousness of personal/social memory through culture is deeply concerned with the question of travel that Susan Sontag pinpoints in “At the Same Time”:

To be a traveler—and novelists are often travelers—is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned ‘home.’

It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it’s a question of sympathy … of the limits of the imagination. (228)

Hyder’s travels in River of Fire represent a striking embodiment of this ‘painful awareness.’ River of Fire has four similar stories that take place on the subcontinent during different historical periods − fourth century B.C., late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, end of eighteenth and the whole of the nineteenth century, and the post-Partition era. The three principal characters of the novel, Gautam Neelambar, Champak/Champa, and Hari Shankar, who are reincarnated in many ages, and other characters, who join them along the way like Kamaluddin from the Sultanate period and Cyril from the time of the East India Company, flow along with the ‘river of fire’, century after century, birth after birth, creating in the novel an enormous canvas of spatio-temporal consciousness. These stories narrativise multiple heritages; and, more significant, they map out the cartography the collectivity has travelled both spatially and temporally in history. Hyder is concerned with the travels of memory and the (re)formulation over time of the various trajectories that constitute and maintain a collectivity’s identity – the self- image shared in some manner and degree by most of its members. In River of Fire, Hyder showed the way to “multi-historicalism,” whichpresupposes the historicity of cultures, and different historical trajectories out of different pasts, that provide “outsides” from which to view contemporary structures of power and the ideologies of history that legitimize them” (Dirlik 17). Mapping the contours of these imagined itineraries, Hyder’s mnemotechniques and routes of memories reveal the links between memory and identity that connect the characters in the text to the present time, conferring on it a historical dimension. Emphasizing the coexistence and free intermingling of the various epochs, on social and psychological planes, in India, Hyder says, “You have to be a native, born and bred in this land to understand the synthesis and cultural richness as well as the contradictions and frictions inherent in this situation” (qtd. in Asaduddin, “The Exiles Return” 29). She does exactly that in her novel River of Fire by delineating the broad spatio-temporal frames of the text which underscore the attention for complexity and alterity, and invite readers to think about plurality not merely as an absence of unity, but as a constitutive feature of the ways in which processes of remembering constitute and form social connections.

In contradistinction to the Partition trauma narratives such as Abdullah Hussein’s Udas Naslein (1963), Intizar Hussain’s Basti (1979) and Nasim Hijazi’s Khaaq aur Khoon (1961), Hyder’s novel is less focused on Hindu-Muslim communal violence and creates a sense of syncretic past through the simultaneity of narratives, which feature varied characters with parallel experiences that makes them all part of the same ‘imagined community’ of the nation. One way of reading the novel is therefore to view it as structured around different chronotopes, linked via networks of power and travels of memory. As the narrative shuttles back and forth between events of different spatio-temporal frames, it explores post-Partition, contemporary realities of shifting national boundaries, multiple locations of home, and multicultural identities by skillfully yoking together the local with the national. The collective memory is exemplified and expressed through the minutiae of everyday, swathed in memories of a deep past, which may be mythical in part and abounding with apocrypha. This renders the collective identities at once more malleable and gives rise to the fuzziness or diffuse nature of origins. Alluding to the work and legacy of the Andalusian mystic and philosopher, Ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240), and his emphasis on the imagination as both a form and medium of knowledge (Chittick, Imaginal Worlds 11), it can be asserted that River of Fire interlaces the imaginal and imagination with the everyday to open up alternate epistemologies and ontology. Imaginal, according to Ibn ‘Arabi’s use of Khayal, or imagination, “accords with its everyday meaning, which is closer to image than imagination. It was employed to designate mirror images, shadows, scarecrows, and everything that appears in dreams and visions…” (Chittick, “Ibn Arabi”). Quilting the imaginal and memory, Hyder narrates the unbelievable conquest of Bahlol Lodhi and the fables of prophet Suleiman (103) as much a part of historiography as the actual specifics of wars for the throne of Delhi. Interspersing the discursive ways of knowing (including both oral and written discourse) with the imaginal, the realm of experience and knowledge linked to dreams and visions, Hyder writes:

Last time when Hussain Shah reached the banks of the Jamuna ¾ it was his third and the seventh Sharqi campaign against Delhi ¾ poor Bahlol Shah went hotfoot to the tomb of Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli. He stood beside the grave of saint and prayed all night. At daybreak an unknown man came along and gave him a stick. A great many sheep have arrived at gate of Delhi, drive them away, quoth he. And Bahlol was victorious. (Hyder 73)

Hyder uses memory and imaginal as valid forms of knowledge, of knowing the world and telling its (hi)story. For instance, in the novel the story connecting Manu is articulated by a local Muslim man, the story of Bibi Razia comes from a poor Persian Dervish (62), the divine intervention in Bahlol Shah’s victory is articulated by the Iranian dervish (73), and so on. Hyder sees the contemporary heterogeneous forces in Indian society in terms of the image of a complex and inscrutable palimpsest, which can be used to represent and deconstruct the paradox of national identity through history and cultural differences, combining the seemingly incompatible aspects of the nation, such as the historical and the ahistorical. While negotiating belonging through various intersecting mobilities of people, cultures, images, and objects, the characters of the narrative travel across borders of time, space, and identity through a prism of attachment and affect. For instance, Hyder forges an evocative metonymic conflation of the Hindu mythical character Manu and the biblical Noah or the Islamic Prophet Nooh in the chronotopic space of Hindu god, Lord Rama’s Ayodhya. To stretch the metaphorical expression of travelling, since allegory is a form of travel as it involves the movement of a character through temporal borders and geopolitical sites, it can be inferred that Hyder re-constructs and re-signifies allegorical figures that circulate both within and beyond the boundaries of the Indian post-Partition moment.

From this perspective, travelling across the eons in the narrative become a hermeneutic circle in which imaginal itineraries and imagined tracks are set in keeping with those imaginations and representations that preceded the journey. The forte of River of Fire lies in what Penguin New Writing in India described as its unique exploration of time. Organizing memories temporally as acts of mental representation by which individuals locate themselves in time and distinguish themselves from the past – a “present past” (Koselleck, “Neuzit” 254), Hyder reminds us that the temporal shifts in River of Fire set up a changeable relation between present and past as there are multiple interpretations, which are superposed and altered by newer interpretations. In River of Fire, the geographical displacement of the exoticist project is substituted by historical distance and the temporal cleavages/shifts in broaching the issues of alterity, othering, and subject positionality. In doing so, Hyder underscores the subversive potential of the narrative. Hyder subverts the persistent orientalization and exoticization of the Indian subject in historical narratives. The linear sense of time is frequently interspersed with experiential time within the character’s consciousness in River of Fire. Identifying the circular time of the novel as a Buddhist concept, Amarakeerthi says that Hyder’s “choice of this time frame also has significance. It is said that Gautama Buddha’s Sasana is to last five thousand years before the next Buddha appears. Hyder inserts her novel into this Buddhist conception of time which is itself circular” (30). Hyder’s novel, moving from one historical period to the next, comes close to the Hindu Puranic concept of the kaalachakra or the ‘wheel of time’, which keeps rising and falling, pushing and hauling vast humanity with it. In order to create a structure of experience capable of integrating history and fiction (Ricoeur, Oneself as Another 114) in terms of wo/man being a “plural and collective unity in which the unity of destination and the differences of destinies are to be understood through each other” (Ricoeur, Fallible Man 138), Hyder makes a kaleidoscopic presentation of Champa Baji (of Lucknow, Paris, London, Cambridge, and Moradabad), merges different images of Champak of Shravasti standing in the corridor of time, Champak as the Aryani (Goddess of the Woods), Champavati a Sufi allegory for Kamaal, as also Champajaan, the courtesan who enchants Cyril Ashley. The feminine, in River of Fire, can be comprehended in terms of the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of the ‘becoming woman’, which designates a perpetual process of rhizomatic deterritorialization, where all genealogies, roots, structures, beginnings, and ends are renounced in support of free-floating, interlocking, nomadic subjectivities (25). The “becoming-woman space of intersubjectivity” is a “space of destructured desire”, where the habitual drive to construct the world in terms of reductive binary opposites (man/woman, Hindu/Muslim, colonizer/colonized) is opposed, relinquished, and eventually made immaterial (Orlando 6-7). This becoming-woman space of liberating intersubjectivity is located in Hyder’s female-inflected historiographic narrative in which the female protagonists are permitted to move and to attain a positive sense of feminine agency, challenging the colonial, communal, and gender politics that confine them to an otherwise immutable otherness, becoming-woman in the text is a crucial step towards the transformation of exoticized and Orientalized other, which is “revolutionary” (Batra 65). Also, the figure of alikeness in these instances, where one individual is likened to another, is a type of travel, from the Greek metaphorein, to travel, to transfer or to move over.

If historical memories travel around our Indian cultural landscape, I see their confluence in River of Fire as a dynamic site. In fact, memory is not a phenomenon that is fixed in time and space. In River of Fire, Hyder shows that memories travel in multidimensional motion and that our national memoryscape reflects the routes of memories in the itineraries of war, colonialism, and nationhood. The characters of the novel are the carriers of memory, who not only share in collective images and narratives of the past, but also draw on repertoires of memories and inherited habitus. Consequently, in Hyder’s River of Fire the past is not consigned to history but is still active and relevant. The characters in the narrative travel here and there across time, exploring experiences and exchanging views. This is like time travel across the map of memory. In the novel, the mnemonic symbols, images, and icons criss-cross not only the frames of historical chronotopes, but also the borders of all sorts to give meanings to the events distant in time and place. 

Works Cited

Amarakeerthi, Liyanage. “River of Fire: Critiquing the Ideology of History.” Annual of Urdu Studies 18 (2003): 25-44.
Asaduddin, M. “The Exiles Return Qurratulain Hyder’s Art of Fiction.” Manushi 119: 28-32.
Batra, Anupa. “Women and Becoming-Woman: Deleuze and Feminism.” Movements in Time: Revolution, Social Justice and Times of Change. Ed. Cecile Lawrence, Natalie Churn. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. 65-76.
Chittick, William. “Ibn Arabi.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 20 Aug. 2008.
—. Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity, Albany, 1994.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Dirlik, Arif.  “The Past as Legacy and Project: Post-colonial Criticism in the Perspective of Indigenous Historicism.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 20.2 (1996): 1-31.
Erll, Astrid. “Travelling Memory.” Parralax 17. 4 (2011): 4-18.
Gibney, Matthew J. “‘A Thousand Little Guantanamos’: Western States and Measures to Prevent the Arrival of Refugees.” Displacement, Asylum, Migration: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 2004. 
Ed. Kate E.Tunstall. Oxford: OUP, 2006.
Hyder, Qurratulain. River of Fire. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1988.
Koselleck, Reinhart. “Neuzit”: Remarks on the Semantics of Modern Concepts.” Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Trans. Keith Tribe. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.
Orlando, Valerie. Nomadic Voices of Exile: Feminine Identity in Francophone Literature of the Maghreb. Athens, Ohio: Ohio U P, 1999.
Ricoeur, Paul. Fallible Man. New York: Fordham U P, 1986.
—. Oneself as Another. Trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Sontag, Susan. “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.” At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. Eds. Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump. London: Hamilton, 2007. 210-231.

Dr. Nishat Haider is Professor of English and Director, Institute of Women’s Studies, at the University of Lucknow. She is the author of Contemporary Indian Women’s Poetry (2010). Recipient of Meenakshi Mukherji Prize (2016), C. D. Narasimhaiah Award (2010), and Isaac Sequeira Memorial Award (2011), she has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and her essays have been included in a variety of international journals and books. She has conducted numerous workshops on gender budgeting and gender sensitization. She has lectured extensively on subjects at the cusp of cinema, culture, and gender studies. Her research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Popular Culture, Cinema, and Gender Studies.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: