During the culminating week of our class discussion of Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire, we spent one complete class session on close readings of selected passages. My purpose, simply stated, was to encourage my students to train themselves to go beyond the text to perform a deeper and layered reading. I also told them that just as we do not expect Faulkner, Woolf, or Joyce to gloss their terms or annotate their cultural reference for us, we should also not expect the postcolonial authors to do this as well. It is our responsibility as readers to familiarize ourselves with the temporal, spatial and philosophical context of a psotcolonial novel, especially a novel like River of Fire, which, even in translation, does not offer itself as a mere commodity for metropolitan consumption.
We covered only a few passages in our entire class passage as the purpose was to display to my students that all texts have layers upon layers of meaning require more than just the language expertise to conduct a “thick” reading. Below is one of the passages we discussed with additional material (from the public domain) that was absolutely necessary to discuss this passage:
I, Abul Mansoor Kamaluddin of Nishapur, begin in the name of the Merciful God this travelogue of mine which I have called The Marvels and Strange Tales of Hindustan. In the preface I have mentioned how my honourable mother, that august lady of royal Sassanian lineage married my father, an Arab apothecary settled in Khorasan. Since my lady mother is fiercely proud of being a Persian (a weakness shared by all of her compatriots), she wanted me to study in Merv, Balkh, or Herat, or even go to Samarkand and join the observatory of Ulugh Beg. But I am more interested in history and linguistics. A professor of Tunis who was taught by a student of the great Ibn-i-Khaldoon had come to Baghdad, so off I went to Iraq and, in due course, I received my black gown of graduation and my turban of scholastic eminence. (55-6)
This is just the surface reading of a passage. I have only provided links to the factual aspects of some of the names and places mentioned. An ideal discussion should, however, go beyond the facts to cocepts and philosophies.
This, I must say, is a humbling exercise as a teacher. Maybe that is why most of us avoid the text and try to run circles around it. But there is no way around this: we must teach as deeply as possible even if we fail in the end.