Nehtaur, Aligarh, Jamia — How Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya Imagines India

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Aviral Anand

IT was a day of general holiday in December. I was returning from having visited Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) after the incidents of violence against its students. I thought of making small talk with the cab-driver.

Aaj aapne chutti nahin li? 

No holiday for you today?

Nahin – hum bahar ke hain na. Kaam karna padta hai.

No, I am not from here. Have to work.

Achcha. Kidhar se hain aap?

Ok. Where are you from?

District Bijnor. UP me hai.

District Bijnor. It is in UP.

I had to rack my brain for any recognition of or associations to Bijnor. Just to keep the conversation going, I followed up my previous question with an inane one:

Proper Bijnor se hain, ya…? Are you from “proper Bijnor or…?”

As if I knew what “proper Bijnor” was…

Nahin, main ek choti jagah, Nehtaur, se hoon. Aapne suna hoga. Goli chali hai udhar haal me.

No, I am from a small place, Nehtaur. You might have heard. There were incidents of firing there recently.

Accha. Kyun, I asked, though I suddenly recalled news about police firing on protesters in Bijnor among other places UP over CAA protests.

Woh Mohammedan log nagrikta kanoon ka virodh kar rahe hain na. Sir, main kehta hoon yeh log gaddar hain.

The Mohammedans are protesting the citizenship bill, that is why. I say these people are traitors.

I was stunned by this sudden and confident sharing of views by him. (He had also employed the term ‘Mohammedans’ for the Muslims – I wondered if he was with some people he knew more intimately, if he would have used the more common ‘Musalman’ instead?)

Gaddar…? I tried to compose myself, thinking of a proper, diplomatic response, one that would not confront him aggressively. I also wondered if I could seize this as a teaching moment.

Sab ke baare me aisa kaise keh sakte hain aap, is all I managed weakly, however. How can you say such a thing about an entire people?

Aapko us SP ke baare main nahin maloom sir, woh Bijnor main pakda gaya tha…uska ISI ke saath naata tha.

Do you not know about that SP, sir? He was arrested in Bijnor – he had links with the ISI.


Once back home, I decided to check what was happening in Nehtaur and elsewhere. It seemed bad. The UP police had cracked down brutally on supposed protesters; several people had died of gunshot wounds in Nehtaur too.

 In one news report I came across an interesting nugget of information about Nehtaur: “The town’s only claim to fame is Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder, whose family hailed from here.”

Qurratulain’s family on her father’s side had settled in Nehtaur. Her father, Syed Sajjad Hyder, later more famous as Sajjad Hyder Yildirim, went to Aligarh to receive his education, and it was in Aligarh that Qurratulain was born.


Earlier that day as I was exploring the area around Gate No. 7 outside the Jamia campus – the site now christened Jamia Square, and the nerve center of the continuing protests. I had noticed the Bab-i Qurratulain, the name of another of its gates. I had known that Jamia boasts probably the only academic center in India named after the brilliant linguist and activist, Noam Chomsky, and also a center named after Nelson Madela and another after Yasser Arafat.

Qurratulain was in good company at Jamia.

She also happened to be buried at the Jamia Millia Islamia cemetery.


How did a premier writer like Qurratulain Hyder think in terms of the nation, its people, and its intertwined, complex history?  Writers often work from intuitions and they employ creativity to approach multi-layered issues; they engage with complexity and investigate it using fictional techniques, characters, locations and the flow of narrative to tease out that complexity, rather than passing peremptory judgments and arriving at conclusions without proper deliberation, offering rigid, definitive answers.

We could re-read and refer to someone like Paul Brass or a Gyanendra Pandey, academics who have dug deep into issues of issues of identity and inter-community antagonisms in India (“communal violence and riots”).

If we were looking to literature instead, to seek more creative explorations, we would have Manto, Amrita Pritam and Khushwant Singh to choose from, among many others.

Qurratulain’s works recommend themselves for reasons articulated ably by writer Rakshanda Jalil who explains her draw to Hyder’s epic novel, Aag ka Darya (River of Fire):

I found that while there was much in both Urdu prose and poetry that dwelt on the idea of a nation, much of it was written in moments of crisis, whether it was in response to the atrocities of the colonial oppressor or the horrific genocide during the Partition or whenever the threat of war loomed on the horizon. And much of it was concerned with the here and now, the immediate and topical; it was almost necessitated by a hair-trigger response to a threat perception. I looked for something that explored the idea of nationhood in a larger, broader, more panoramic sense.

As Jalil says, if one were to seek a different scale and canvas of conceiving of and engaging with the questions of history, belonging, identity, space and nation than the immediate and pressing, then Hyder’s works offer a very rich and profound source to consider.

Here, in this current piece, we are not concerned with the craft of Hyder, which has its critics, including many in the Urdu literary world, especially for her anglicized depictions. What we seek to explore, building on the circumstantial encounter with the news of Nehtaur and also the visit to Jamia, is the kind of a world she dared to imagine and fashion, where identity and a sense of belonging were not narrowly defined and codified, but were instead rich expressions of human journeys.

Aag ka Darya is an “easy” novel to cite and trot-out when there is a need to contextualize and understand an episode which smacks of bigotry, ultra-nationalism – and cross-border tensions between India and Pakistan. Just in the past year Hyder and her novels, including Aag ka Darya, were invoked on a number of occasions, in the New York Times, The Nation and The Wire, especially with reference to cross-border tensions and matters related to the Partition of the subcontinent.

Great works of literature – and Hyder’s stories have several streaks of greatness – act as storehouses of wisdom, insight and understanding that can continually illustrate and add meaning to new episodes of history as they occur. But mostly such works offer us a new pair of eyes to look at our history, culture and ways of life, transcending the urgency of immediate events.

Hyder’s work, more specifically, offer the reader a bold imagining and re-imagining of a nation, especially one which is “multi-sourced,” like India (to use a description in the genetic context from Tony Joseph’s book, Early Indians).

Rakshanda Jalil points to the crucial aspect of Hyder’s work when she states that, “Aag ka Darya is, to my mind, a classic instance of Imagining India…”

The novel, at the beginning, situates itself geographically in the Shravasti-Saket region of eastern India, hallowed ground of the Buddha’s teaching but also home to Brahmanical learning. The novel traverses time and space in leaps and bounds, by means of its protagonists. Among the characters, there is a brahmachari scholar through whom we glimpse the Brahmanical-Buddhist world 150-years after the Buddha’s passing; an Iranian rationalist scholar in the employ of Hussain Shah, the Sharqi musician-king of Jaunpur (with profuse reference to the glorious rationalist traditions in Islam of the Mu’tazilites, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Arabi, among others, to provide the Iranian’s background); and an East India Company officer who serves as the interface of the meeting of east and west, in the form of a subjugated, “native,” eastern Indian culture and a ruling, “modern,” western, European power.

The novel is rich in historical references and also in illustrations of some elements of philosophical beliefs and cultural practices at various times. If Shunyata of the Buddhists and the poems of the Buddhist monks and nuns finds mention (from the Theragatha and Therigatha), so do the aforementioned rationalist beliefs of medieval Andalusian savants, as do Dara Shikoh’s translations of the Upanishads presented to the Englishman. Almost on theatrical cue, the reader is also treated to an instance of sati.

Admittedly, such a vast canvas with its made up characters, especially characters inhabiting very specific roles and time-periods, is quite a feat to accomplish. Hyder’s novel can come off as contrived at times and the treasure-trove of references seem a little artificial and forced.

But yet, what one cannot take away from this work is the boldness, openness, and the unabashed celebratory nature of its conception and unfolding. It seems almost against one’s will to make a statement that this was Hyder, a Muslim, lovingly assembling an epic tale about a nation that had seen bitter contestation over religion and nation barely a decade before this novel was released, in 1959 – in Pakistan.

Hyder puts everything in question, especially the solidity and singleness of identity and belonging. Like rivers, she fashions her characters who are in flux and take on different roles and identities over time. Hyder’s imagination is not limited and burdened by narrow boundaries, especially cultural and religious ones. She owns and embraces all of India not in some apologetic manner but in a manner of reclamation and re-creation.

Such an expansiveness, graciousness and majesty of imagination can be juxtaposed with another composition which has been of seminal influence in another “Imagining India” endeavour. Hyder’s works are representative of imaginings that differ significantly from this other imagining, and it is to this difference that we can probably trace the latest hostility witnessed at Nehtaur, Aligarh and Jamia – and elsewhere as well.

The other imagining we refer to here is encapsulated in some of the writings of V.D. Savarkar, especially his elaborations on the concept of Hindutva. His text on Hindutva also considers the sweep of India’s history and its peoples, like Hyder’s – but ends up drawing conclusions very different from her.

Savarkar’s intent in his book is to define and delimit the idea of a Hindu and that of Hinduness (Hindutva). The subtitle of his book “Who is a Hindu,” clearly signals an attempt to set in stone the exact contours of a Hindu. As Savarkar asserts, it is “Hindutva, the essential nature and significance of which we have to investigate into.” All along in his own exploration of the term and concept, Savarkar is concerned with pinning down an essence of Hindutva.

He too goes back to an early period to begin his narrative, when, according to him, the Aryans first moved into, and then beyond, the land of seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu) in north-western India.

But before Savarkar explores and chronicles the rest of the history of the land, he huriedly invests the Aryans with an awareness of a sense of nation: “Aryans or the cultivators as they essentially were, we can well understand the divine love and homage they bore to these seven rivers presided over by the River, ‘the Sindhu’, which to them were but a visible symbol of the common nationality and culture.”

So much for a sense of nation, culture, and heritage being fashioned and shaped over time and admitting of myriad influences from a wide-variety of cultures, provenance and backgrounds.

Hindutva, according to Savarkar is tied to the idea of a common Hindu race and common blood: “We, Hindus, are all one and a nation [Sindhusthan/Hindustan], because chiefly of our common blood.” To these two qualifications Savarkar also adds the necessity of common culture (sanskriti) further on in his book.

The Hindu nation, Savarkar elaborates, comes into existence “when the Horse of Victory returned to Ayodhya unchallenged and unchallengeable, the great white Umbrella of Sovereignty was unfurled over that Imperial throne of Ramchandra…[and]… the Aryans [of the Sapta Sindhu and the patriarchs of the Hindu race] and Anaryans [of South India] knitting themselves into a people were born as a nation.”

It bears mentioning that this task of imagining, especially of and by people as nations, is critical since some modern scholarship, like that of political scientist Benedict Anderson, has forcefully asserted the idea of nations as “imagined communities.” As Anderson explains, there is an imagined fraternity in nations which enables “so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

This is in line with what Savarkar formulates in his book about Aryans and Anaryans coming together and moving forward under a “common mission, common banner, a common cause which all the generations after it had consciously or unconsciously fought and died to defend.”

It is against this idea of the fixedness of a nation, of a happy amalgam of Aryans and Anaryans in mythic history on the basis of common blood, that one has to view the more open-ended, vibrant, and almost sacrilegious manner of commingling that Hyder puts forward as being constitutive of the Indian nation.

Savarkar’s imagining was narrowly defined and also exclusionary. By setting the consciousness and establishment of a Hindu nation at a time in remote history and based on the bond of common race, blood, and culture, Savarkar precluded all those appearing on the Indian subcontinent from outside after a certain time and not outwardly partaking of a culture whose parameters Savarkar himself outlines.

That the Muslims entered the continent as invaders was the only narrative he seems to have imbibed. The encounter with Muslims-as-invaders inaugurated, according to Savarkar, “the conflict of life and death…From year to year, decade to decade, century to century, the contest continued.” How does one transcend a language and an argument based on an imagined ancient and ongoing conflict?

The encounter with Muslims also operated in other ways for the Hindus, according to Savarkar: “Nothing makes Self conscious of itself so much as a conflict with non-self…In this prolonged furious conflict our people became intensely conscious of ourselves as Hindus and were welded into a nation to an extent unknown in our history.”

Thus was consolidated the Hindu identity, the Self, in opposition to the non-self, the Other, the Muslim. The mortal conflict whose origins Savarkar laid out continues till today through all those who hold Hindutva dear and also those who are in the grip of communalisation, which in many cases is sharpened by the former set of the Hindutvawadis. The policies such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) spring from a belief in a Hindu Rashtra and India as the refuge and homeland of the Hindus, which in its expansiveness can include Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists – but not the Muslims.


Even Bollywood movies utilize metaphors of rivers in nobler ways than those who stick to ideas of the Sindhu which supposedly established identity and nation once and for all:

Koi Vaju Kare Mere Jal Se Koi Murat Ko Nahalaye

Kahi Dhobi Kapade Dhoye Kahi Pandit Pyaas Bujhaye

Ye Jaat Dharam Ke Jhagade

Ye Jaat Dharam Ke Jhagade Insaan Ki Hai Nadani

Mano To Mai Ganga Maa Hu Na Mano To Bahata Pani

Har Har Gange, Har Har Gange, Har Har Gange

Gautam Ashok Akbar Ne Yaha Pyaar Ke Phool Khilaye

Tulasi Ghalib Meera Ne Yaha Gyan Ke Deep Jalaye

Mere Tat Pe Aaj Bhi Gunje

Mere Tat Pe Aaj Bhi Gunje Nanak Kabir Ki Vaani

Mano To Mai Ganga Maa Hu Na Mano To Bahata Pani

Some perform wazu with my water

Some bathe their murtis

Washermen wash clothes

The pandit quenches his thirst

On my banks still resound

The words of Nanak and Kabir

If you are a believer, I am Mother Ganga

Else I am just flowing water


Qurratulain Hyder’s capacious imagination was not a one-off thing, limited to Aag ka Darya. She exhibited a similar, albeit slightly less flighty, consciousness in another of her works, Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar (Fireflies in the Mist). This novel moves seamlessly between regions of Bengal before partition and after, till the formation of modern Bangladesh. The work is suffused with a sharp sense of place and time of Dhaka as also of Shantiniketan, for example, and peopled by a bewilderingly wide and diverse array of characters. It straddles Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and even Marxist worlds with elan and without artifice.


Nehtaur, Aligarh and Jamia have seen uncalled for repression and violence. A vengeful state has targeted citizens of India it harbours ill-will against. The state violence in UP against Muslims has been widespread and horrific as chronicled in a recent public hearing in Delhi. The inability to imagine the nation as multi-source, multicultural, and with a history that needs to be engaged with rather than interpreted as one of pure victimhood and hurt has led to a policy of wanton reprisal against and victimization of Muslims.

As Rakshanda Jalil discerningly tells us about Hyder’s grasp of India’s realities:  “For all her talk of expatriates living in St Johnís Woods, of high tea on manicured lawns…there is in Hyder’s literary sensibility a profound understanding of the real India that lived on the fringes of the Camelot she knew and inhabited.”

Some of those killed in the UP violence were dhaba-cooks, bangle-makers and bicycle-repairmen, people who worked small-time jobs to make ends meet. Qurratulain Hyder’s imagining had a space for them in her stories and in the nation she constructed between the covers of her books, which abounded with Princes and Paupers, rickshaw wallahs and revolutionaries, bhikkhus and courtesans.

But it is the poverty of imagination that marks the other stories crafted by those who can only think of  India in narrow, oppositional, exclusionary ways. Their stories are frozen in time; they are not flowing rivers.


The author is a socially-concerned citizen of the world, currently based in Delhi. He believes in all kinds of solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world. c.sabrang


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