... the magnum opus of possibly the most acclaimed Urdu novelist of all time ... tells a completist and syncretistic version of 2,500 years of history in modern-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... the historical benefit that River of Fire confers is particularly important today, in its reintroduction of an audacious, complex syncretism as a method to find a real identity that can sensibly counter the fictitious ones each country confers on its citizens and in its approach to history—one that Hyder doesn’t shy away from being explicit about ... Hyder’s sheer prescience, writing in 1959, is hard to understate.
A sweeping saga that covers over two thousand years, River of Fire weaves the lives and fates of several recurring characters into a glorious tapestry of India’s history ... Although it may sound chaotic, somehow the text winds seamlessly from the wanderings of a Buddhist monk (circa 300 BC) through the empire of the Great Moguls and then that of the English Raj, down to Partition and its aftermath. Brilliant and thought-provoking, my only caveat on River of Fire is that readers not familiar with India’s history may find some of the leaps of time hard to follow. But don’t let that stop you; this book is fascinating!
Qurratulain Hyder...has a magisterial ambition and technical resourcefulness rarely seen before in Urdu fiction ... Hyder employs diverse genres—letters, chronicles, parables, journals—to present her melancholy vision of the corrosions of time. In confidently writing about India’s Buddhist and Hindu past, Hyder, a Muslim by birth, also provides an example of the secular literary culture of the subcontinent that has largely remained untainted by sectarian tensions.
...Qurratulain Hyder’s epic novel, River of Fire is as relevant in 2019 as it was when she first wrote it in 1959 ... Oversimplified, the book is about partition: about life before and after. But Hyder, who died in 2007, transforms this singularity into cyclical phenomena. History repeats itself from era to era, enduring rift after rift, until the reader is primed for the ultimate split, of one country into two—even if her characters aren’t ... It takes inventive writing to evoke such a seasonal narrative ... What makes Hyder harder to enjoy is that she doesn’t give readers enough time to catch their breath. Sometimes 100 years pass in a chapter, at other times in a line break. Group dialogue reads like a serious play rather than friends gossiping over tea. Letters and monologues become dense with rhetoric ... In River of Fire time is running in circles. Even if that isn’t entirely pleasant for the reader, Hyder’s tone of confused déjà vu seems appropriate for the subject matter. The relationship between India and Pakistan continues: fraught, repetitive, no end in sight.
There is a greater emphasis on relatively modern times, but Hyder offers an excellent survey of all of Indian history. Some of the expected highlights are here, but Hyder does an excellent job of skirting along history's periphery, giving a better sense of the day to day life and general feel of India across the ages. The book is decidedly North Indian, with regrettably little mention of the south ... Hyder tells a fascinating and fast-paced story, and she is generally able to sustain the narrative through the short and often separate episodes of the novel ... The amount of history presented makes aspects of the book difficult for those not entirely familiar with Indian history. With only a few footnotes the text may not provide enough support for those overwhelmed by the barrage of names, personages, and events ... Hyder's 'transcreation' of her own text into English generally works quite well. Quite frequently, however, her English is anachronistic—too modern for the times described ... an interesting, valuable, and entertaining read. The quick sequence of so many events and the obscurity of the subject matter may put off some readers. It is, however, highly recommended, well worth the effort.