How do we evaluate a book that spans several millenia under the guise of four characters – symbolic of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity – and seeks to tell the history through their reincarnating narratives? Quarralein Hyder’s River of Fire ought be a novel akin to A Hundred Years of Solitude, a gem in the already lustrous crown of 20th century literature. Some have posited that Hyder’s novel, written in 1959, did not become well-known because it was written into English a near half-century later. I have not read the Urdu version, but upon reading the English version, I would say the experiment sadly feels too much like one.
We need judge novels of course by the range of their ambition, but also to the degree that they succeed as novels. Does the world feel fleshed out and fully developed? Do the people that purport to be characters exhibit tendencies that read as true as per the rules of the author’s world? Is the world engrossing? Does the language make one want to turn the page? For me, Hyder did not succeed in these accounts. Much of Hyder’s tracing of the lives of Gautam or Champa feel too obviously narrated. Outside of Gautam existing to tell me the woes of his empire, outside of Champa telling me the similarities between the Turks and the Persians and how they both inspired Delhi, I do not feel like they think much. I do not understand much of their interior world. I do not know what they are even trying to do in the greater universal sense as human beings. They are merely mouthpieces to expose Hyder’s belief in the trends of religion as India moves through its history. ��In such a way, I learnt a lot. I truly feel closer to the religions of my heritage, I get what Hyder was doing and think as a writer that I would have liked to have done it myself. However, I do not like to pick up the bones that other dogs have picked up, and so I leave Hyder to her scraps. She succeeded to create. But, I often feel that was appeared to be the tusk of the mammath in the shadows was in fact the remnants of the jackal, left plain in the dust.
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