Joint Narratives , Separate Nations – Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya
(This a very good article sent to me by Pervaiz Kazmi from Sweden – Muslim Saleem June 22, 2012)
Joint Narratives , Separate Nations –
Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya
By Kumkum Sangari
In Aag ka Darya , for the first time a woman writer, Qurratulain Hyder, annexed over twenty-five centuries of Indian History as a subject matter. The grand nationalist visions of a pluralist civilization had till then been a male domain elaborated, among others, by Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru, while women had been for almost two centuries the subjects of colonial, nationalist, or sectarian histories, often invented and usually patriarchal.
`Civilization’ has of course been a heavy and fraught term, laden with the baggage of colonial superiority, imperial design, and anti-colonial assertion. In late-eighteenth-century England, the term `civilization’ signified a state of social order and refinement in conscious historical or cultural contrast to savagery and barbarism. In the nineteenth century, `civilization’ became an expansive European project that progressed, in colonial ideologies and practices, by `educating’, subjugating, or eliminating inferior races. In India, a colonial indigenism, jointly crafted by Indian elites and British administrators, helped Hindu chauvinist to appropriate the term. This Hindu chauvinist discourse of culture and civilization made a double move; on one side it posed as anti-colonial and sang the glories of an ancient Vedic-Hindu India, and on the other, it ascribed all the evils of this newly minted Hindu civilization to medieval Muslim invasions to build a xenophobic `nationalism’. The end of direct colonialism did not, however, consign civilizational contentions to the archives of history. At the end of the twentieth century, American neo-conservatives refurbished the discourse of civilization to justify a resurgent imperialist, anti-Islamic, and professedly `Western’ formation – an aspiration that is neatly encapsulated in the title of Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order . In 2003, the remaking of the world order sanctioned the loot, plunder, and vandalization of the invaluable artifacts of a great ancient civilization in Iraq, artifacts that ironically were as pertinent to the early history of Christianity as of Islam.
At this time, when the term `civilization’ has been pressed into such sectarian use, or relegated as a politically incorrect master narrative, it may be illuminating, even elegiac, tore turn to a moment when the very need to invoke a `civilization’ arose from the desire to go beyond narrow religious identities. In the 1930s and 1940s, the more inclusive and non-sectarian Indian nationalists upheld the idea of a secular civilization that could encompass settlers and residents, support wider cultural formations, and contest the pernicious two nation/two culture theory that preceded the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. In this period, the discourse of antiquity also carried the more ambivalent anti-colonial and nationalist resonances of the `already civilized’: old civilizations like India did not need to be civilized by new nations like Britain. The more significant meaning, however, stretched into carrying the anguish of partition: that of a civilization as having greater binding force than a nation. Civilizations were not divisible into nations, national boundaries came and went; civilizations endured. Civilizational unity was perceived as made up of long-term and contemporary bonds, the textures of lives and memories and friendships. Culture consisted of an embeddedness that gave an identity but not a separate identity. Indeed a `separable’ identity spelled grave loss, suffering, and evacuation : the `separable’ identity was thinner, less substantive, depleted, and artificial. Though published in 1959, Aag ka Darya belongs to this moment.
The innovatie structure of Aag ka Darya had no precedent. The novel is staged in four historical periods : first, the expansion of the Mauryan empire under Chandragupta in the fourth century BC; second, the end of the Lodi dynasty and the beginning of Mughal rule in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; third, the late-eighteenth-century beginnings of East India Company rule until its consolidation in the 1870s; and fourth, the two decades leading up to the 1950s that encompassed nationalist struggle, Partition, and Independence. These constitute four sequential yet discrete experiential moments that can neither be made amenable to a causal and teleological reading, nor slotted in as the discontinuous fragments characteristic of a high modernism. They are more readily grasped as a single constellation, as an individual attempt to apprehend a `civilization’, and as a doubled gesture repeated in a different conjuncture when the author’s own English version, River of fire , appeared in 1998. This was a fifth moment, rendered invisible by labels of transliteration or mistranslation, yet so powerful that I was compelled to reread Aag ka Darya backwards from River of Fire . It is a novel recomposed by the author: the changes in some narrative sequences and narrative voices remodulate it both in intention and effect. The basic spatial and temporal structure, however, remains unchanged; the four movements remain linked to each other through sedimentation and retrieval.
In each of these moments, a set of characters reappear with partly altered names either as different persons or in recognizably similar situations. Women and men, scholars, historians, travelers, seekers, and (potential) artists, they relive individual trajectories of mutilation, desertion, uprooting, exile, wandering, and settlement, often repeating a `cycle’ of withdrawal into personal and/or spiritual resolutions in the face of gross violence. For instance, Champak in the first story, daughter of the chief minister, is deserted by her prince-fiancé who becomes a Buddhist bhikshu but she rejects the same option for herself; she is separated by war from Gautam Nilambar, captured and forced to join the harem of an old mantra ; she becomes fat, middle-aged but remains attached to Gautam. Champavati in the second story is the sister of a learned Brahmin pandit in Ayodhya; she agrees to wed Syed Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin and seems ready to convert to Islam but Kamal, the traveling scholar, never returns; she searches for him, then joins a band of Vaishnav sannyasins and retires to Brindaban. Champa Jan in the third story is a rich and intelligent courtesan in Awadh who dallies with a British nabob and members of the Muslim elite such as Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin Ali Reza Bahadur known as Nawab Kamman. She falls in love with the bhadro Gautam Nilambar Dutt, a loyal East India Company servant, she waits for his return in the train from Calcutta. Her middle age is spent as chowdhrain of tawaifs in Lucknow. Looted and destroyed in the 1857 revolt, she eventually becomes an old beggar who still lurks at the railway station, still in love with an ultimately indifferent man. Champa Ahmed in the forth story, daughter of a gentle lawyer who supports the Muslim League, is a petit bourgeouis, self-fictionalizing social climber, an outsider in the upper class Lucknow circle, who plays out a series of relationships with various men including Gautam Nilambar and Cyril Ashley in England, ends up not marrying any of them, works in England for a while, and returns in 1954 to set up a legal practice with her father in her home town, Benares.
Another central character, Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin of Nishapur appears for the first time in the second story. The son of a Persian mother and an Arab father, he comes to `Hindustan’ in 1476 in search of fortune on the advice of a Phoenician Jew, becomes a court translator in Jaunpur, and begins to write The Marvels and Strange Tales of Hindustan . He passes through an `intellectual’ romance with Ruqqaiya Bano Begum, a kinswoman of Sultan Husain Shah, then falls in love with Champavati. Separated by war, he makes no real effort to find her until it is too late. When Jaunpur is destroyed by Sikandar Lodi, he deserts the sultan he serves, encounters Chistiya Sufis, Buddhist bhikshus and Kabir, and finally settles down in Bengal, tills the land, and marries the Sudra Sujata Devi. His elder son goes into Mughal service, and because of this Kamal is dubbed a traitor, beaten, and left to die by Sher Shah’s soldiers. In the third story, he is symbolically split between two characters who mayor may not be his descendants: the impoverished Bengali boatman Abdul Mansur, and Kamal, a hereditary landowner in Awadh. This Kamal, though married, is an admirer of Champa Jan and befriends Gautam Nilambar. Later he recounts the events of 1857 to Gautam – as a sign of Hindu-Muslim unity, a tale of British atrocity, a proof of the valour of militant women. He goes to England with Mallika Kishwar’s party to plead against her deposition. When he returns two years later, after the revolt, he finds his city, Lucknow, in ruins. Kamal in the fourth story is split between two cousins: the Switzerland-returned Amir Raza who does not marry Champa Ahmed and migrates to Pakistan and the ardently socialist and nationalist Kamal Reza who studies in Cambridge, comes back to a derelict Lucknow, but cannot find a job; the land reforms impoverish his parents, their ancestral property is unfairly confiscated as evacuee property; dispossessed, they are compelled to emigrate to Pakistan.
In each part, the characters become more complex as they are inflected by their previous persona – they are distant from yet related to the earlier characters. For instance, each story revolves around waiting and/or deserted women: Champak of the first story and Champavati of the second story are deserted women, Champa Jan of the third story is a woman who waits, while Champa Ahmad of the last story breaks the pattern and decides, after a series of failed relationships, to set up a legal practice. Or, in the second story, Syed Abdul Mansur Kamaluddin is a travel writer, scholar of comparative religions, translator, and composer of popular Bengali devotional poetry: as historian, exile, wanderer, seeker, and in the male privilege of deferral, he is a counter part of Gautam of the first story; both are uprooted by war and weary of continuous bloodshed. As a multilingual cosmopolite, and potential renunciate Kamaluddin carries traces of the Buddhist prince Hari Shankar of the first story. Caught in political calamities, connected to each other through relations of love and friendship, the characters exist in the fullness of each historical moment as well as stretch across time.
Aag ka Darya acquires its coherence as a narrative not in its content (the four stories are not of equal length, they can be contracted or enlarged, episodes can be replaced by others, as indeed they are in River of Fire ), but in its structure – the spatializing of four (five) moments. Even as it occupies the linear time of recorded history, it also unfolds a spatial concurrence.
The spatial concurrence of different temporal periods in Aag ka Darya is distinct from a simple cultural continuity; it involves both continuity and retrieval, and, more broadly, an idea of history that is itself infused with forms of concurrence. The objective historical coordinates and semantic analogues for this metaphor spread across the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in historiography, theatre, early cinema, and literary modernism. Again, many notions of recurrence and concurrent time, old and new, indigenous, colonial, and imperial were circulating in the country that preceded Aag ka Darya , and these lurk beneath the structure of the novel. They are variously acknowledged, incorporated, or displaced. for instance, the colonial period spawned many theories of `decline’ that ranged from T.S. Eliot’s conservative notion of decay and fall of a monumentalized Europe and his vision of history as a debris that had to spatially reassembled, to the imperious and Eurocentric Spenglerian world view of cyclic decline. These theories of decline are noted and startlingly inverted in the novel in which becoming modern is both old and new, heartbreaking but still promising. Aag ka Darya belongs to, and River of Fire records, a particular moment when popular culture and popular colonial-national retrievals were yet not-quite-archive, not-yet-postmodern-pastiche, but a sedimented overfull and paradoxically contemporaneous archive, which gave a sense of fullness, a fullness that was destroyed by Partition but remembered and experienced as loss and as pressure. Though concurrence had become a modernist device as with T.S. Eliot, here concurrence is still affective, a historical sediment, that was secured, temporarily, by a secular nationalism.
Aag ka Darya thus enforces a secular nationalism imaged as civilizational strength with still retrievable potentials that is nationalism in itself is a source of and support for concurrence. This is borne out in the structure of the novel: a series of historical tableaux that stretch across time through repetition, affinity, and inflection, `familial’ lineages of disposition and vocation without, necessarily, blood descent, a dialogic arrangement of sections and characters in the river of fire that as metaphor flows backwards and forwards, a topographic stability in which the same space is crossed and recrossed in different times by different persons. The affinities across time, character, and religion make `religious’ divisions unsustainable: true nationalism (regardless of its origin) become s a recession of parochial identities. Evidently this was a particular sort of nationalism, one that was closely linked to Nehru’s civilizational vision.
Ancient and medieval `culture’ for Hyder, whether Arab, European, or Indian was a cross-national traffic, always conflict-riven, yet always familiar with, affected or influenced by, and aware of `other’ cultures, and at times almost cosmopolitan. Hyder’s preface to the 1968 edition, tries on the lines of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India to make a creative relation between in-migration (including that of Aryans, Arabs, and Turks) and cultural diversity, and also celebrates the civilizational capacity to synthesize and develop a varied and mixed culture. For her too India is part of a unique civilization, a unity that encompasses diversity, a complex of linkages and differences that defines the entire subcontinent, and contemporary Indians are products of this Indic civilization rather than of its nations. As in Nehru’s text, in Aag ka Darya the syncretic is not just secular and multi-religious, it is also the dynamic of constant change, always poised on the new, that surrenders neither to an `insider’s’ hegemonic assimilation nor to an `outsider’s’ imperious hegemony.
For Hyder, as for Nehru, civilizational unity did not regiment cultural diversity into a single pattern, it lay in a common popular culture comprising philosophy, history, myth, epic, legend, and in the liability of traditions which were adapted, changed, and invented. Similarly, the modern adventure is not limited to national boundaries, and it is neither a repetition nor a denial of the past. The first story displays the ancient commingling of Green, Vedic, Buddhist, Persian, the second peak of medieval religious syncretisms, while the third and fourth explore the hybridization both of the British – from innkeeper to nabob – and the Indian – from feudal aristocracy to the colonial middle class. In each period, there is an interplay of different epistemologies, languages, and literatures.
Hyder’s civilizational view has been borne out by historians. Ancient and medieval `India’ was part of a large Asian constellation stretching to the Middle East, parts of Europe and China, a geographical universe that persisted till the nineteenth century (evident in north-Indian dastaans which encompassed Central Asia, Sough Asia, and China). In such a continuously re-constellating view, `India’ is never an insular or ingrown entity. If for Hyder, civilization is a category that extends beyond national, religious, and state boundaries, and includes not just literature, music or art but also affective structures, then these affective structures have in turn produced many of the coherences of that civilization. Aag ka Darya seems to bear out Irfan Habib’s contention that the `idea’ of India as a cultural unity was not a modern secular invention but a much older one, that it was a product of conquest (Mauryan emperor Asoka’s inscriptions in 250 BC) and travellers’ visions or a view from outside (Alberuni’s Kitab – ul Hind in the eleventh century), while the affect-laden idea of India as a distinctive composite culture or a common heritage emerged from immigrants and converts (such as Amir Khusrau’s Nuh Sipihr in 1318).
Indeed the basic problematic of the novel, in which much revolves around love, seems to be a classic secular one: how was the subcontinent to be defined as a historical community shaped by ancient, medieval, colonial and ongoing interactions and intertwining of languages, settlements, and religions, and how was the line between diversity and systemic inequality, between religion and culture, to be drawn and navigated? How as historical evidence to be used to refute stereotypes, how was religious difference to be understood in ways that were at once historical and experimental, how could this complexity be narrated to reclothe the denuded stereotypes of communal propaganda and the stark evacuation of Partition?
At one level, of course, each character makes his or her `India’ – therefore civilization is a dynamic and changing concept, also an inevitably contested one. (The most poignant is Kamal’s India in the fourth story.) At another level, the novel insistently grounds these individual visions in chunks of history, projects the persona of a scholar novelist, and annexes what had largely been the provenance of male writers of the historical novel (few women wrote historical novels.) The persona harks back to the tutelary woman of the nineteenth-century popular writing, and usurps the pedagogic authority that had been bestowed on `good and dutiful’ women in the past century, but with anew confidence that exploits the social, political, and nationalist legitimacy of the teacher in the 1940s and 1950s. The pedagogy too is in a new register. The authorial persona appears as a learned woman, a `vidushi’, who displays her learning and ability to read Indian history and world history, the history of religions and of music, but who subverts the exclusive `Vedic-Hindu’ model of the learned woman. Indeed as a woman learned in multiple traditions, she puts this nineteenth-century stereotype to a secular use.
The `answers’ in the novel go beyond the Nehruvian problematic and arrive at what can only be called an `ex-centric’ or centrifugal nationalism, as opposed to an insular or sectarian nationalism, a culture constituted by travel, worked out through love configured in tropes of travel and transience. In other words, a diffuse civilizational identity that is as much a matter of political modes of discovery and retrieval as of direct lines of inheritance, and an `ex-centric’ nationalism that can look backwards and outwards and be a space for commingling.
The novel is densely populated with travelers. They travel because of the dislocation of war, famine, poverty, economic need; for conquest, profit, pleasure, education, (Buddhist) proselytism, curiosity, spiritual quest. The exigencies of wandering, settlement, and uprooting structure families and relationships, bonding and desertion. Love, cohabitation, and marriage across boundaries are not only a part of this episteme of travel but also subject to the exigencies of travel – desertion and separation recur in almost every story. Travel within India is as important as in-migration and out-migration. The proper history of the subcontinent seems to be a history of travelers from time immemorial; the overlap of `separate’ historical periods, the way they shade into one another, the way narratives, artifacts, and ideas of one-time travel across time and space, and how these come to be linked through life histories, through the continuations of poverty, domestic service, the caste order, social hierarchy, and instrumental modes of legitimation. This entire complex is gained through `repeating’ a set off protagonists over twenty-five centuries.
Every traveler is literally or metaphorically entangled in a multi-religious web, a web that has a certain resilience, and persists despite Partition, for instance in East Pakistan. Hyder obviously prefers anti-institutional and anti-caste religions, and is drawn to webbed multi-religious terrains, to devotional traditions that explicitly deny religious division, and to universalistic monotheisms or Vedantic abstraction that could be read in generously non-sectarian ways. The question of belief, around which most lives circle, is not fixed into Orientalist versions of a `spiritual East’ or read through traditionalist frames, rather it is an intellectual and philosophical journey primarily concerned with time and death . All religions deal with those existential questions and that is why religions have always been so attractive and persuasive. There are many traveling students of the meaning of mortality in Aag ka Darya . And yet in the novel all religions `fail’ either to bring solace or to effect a permanent closure – the references to materialism, skepticism, atheism, agnosticism, and so on are designed to display the other currents which flow along with religious belief, eddy around it, even submerge it. If religions unfailingly raise questions of time and death, they equally unfailingly cannot supply definite answers.
Indeed, the diagnosis of transience which lies at the heart of the impulse to believe in something permanent and unchangeable has more continuity than religious sects. This diagnosis of transience, that coils inside a number of ancient and medieval religious options, and was attached to a variety of religious and renunciatory systems – Buddhist, Vedantic, Bhakti, Sufi – is the overarching trope in Aag ka Darya . The understanding that all things pass holds together all transient phenomena including travel.
This may well have been a way of winning a certain poise and distance from 1947. It was certainly a way of reclaiming the subcontinent from the violence that had torn it apart, bulling it into a consoling civilizational lounge duree in which the repeated destructions of the composite culture of Awadh (in 1846, 1857, 1947) could be accommodated to the recurrent rise and fall of kingdoms (reminiscent of Ibn Khaldun’s fourteenth-century philosophy of history). It was also a position that could at once mourn a loss and demand a future. Aag ka Darya held together, concurrently, a vast temporal and spatial `civilizational’ spread that asked now for a loyalty that was different from older loyalties of region, religion, or language; a loyalty to the idea of civilization that was wider, deeper, and more compelling than its division into separate nations.