Young and restless
Rumina Sethi

Fireflies in the Mist
by Qurratulain Hyder.
Women Unlimited, New Delhi. Pages 378. Rs 350.

My only interaction with Qurratulain Hyder was in Chandigarh in the late 1980s when as a young student I was writing my Ph.D in Cambridge, paradoxically on Indian literature. Starved as I had been for contact with experts in this area in an all-white academic environment, this particular visit to India was fruitful in putting me face-to-face with Hyder at the auditorium of the Fine Arts Museum, where she was introduced to me by Mulk Raj Anand. I had not known of her until then. But listening to Qurratulain Hyder speak of women empowerment and nationalism etched an image of a flaming red-headed woman which was to remain with me for a long time.

I was to avidly read Aag ka Darya, her civilisational history of India, which had as yet not been translated by her. Aakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar and Chandni Begum were next read in quick succession.

Fireflies in the Mist, the author’s own translation of Aakhir-i-Shab which first appeared in the 1990s, has now been republished by Women Unlimited. The novel is located in erstwhile East Bengal. The plot involves a young woman, Deepali Sarkar, initiated into revolution and Leftist ideology while passionately pursuing the heady romantic Rehan Ahmed who rejects nawab-hood to throw himself into the national struggle, though not for long. But casting the layers aside, the novel is an expos`E9 of the bitterness that exists between Hindus and Muslims, the marginalisation of minority communities, the stereotypical lives of women, the question of the definition of culture, especially that of East Bengal, as we travel through four decades of its history during British rule leading to the Partition of the country and later the birth of Bangladesh.

The first part of the novel begins in the extravagant 1890s when Romesh Chandra Sarkar discovers an old photo album of burra sahibs and their mems, an era splendid but decadent. This is a picture of the bhadralok in all its cultural sophistication. Romesh Baboo’s desire to rub shoulders with the aristocracy—both nawabi and British—compels him to purchase Caledonia, the palatial house of MacDonnel Saheb, and rechristen it Chandrakunj. The later generations discover that this super-Anglicised patriarch was steeped in debt: the mansion now stands in faded grandeur where the last family heirlooms are stolen by his granddaughter, Deepali, and sold to keep her Leftist revolutionary comrades in the business of nationalism.

The youthful but headstrong characters of this milieu develop in the second part of this historical saga. Deepali, otherwise a radio singer who practices in the cold turret of the Sarkar mansion, has the unexpected radical streak which leads her to smuggle important government documents to Rehan; Rosie Banerjee, the daughter of the native parson, who throws a bomb at the British, even though she owes her new-found Christian status in society to missionary zeal; Rehan, the fiery rebel who abandons his betrothed Jehan Ara, the daughter of Nawab Qamrul Zaman, because she cannot find the strength to join him in his mission; "typhoon Uma", the eccentric daughter of a loyal British subject, all come alive to push us into the world of communist politics.

The third part contains letters and diary entries written by the central characters to their children, letters which betray their insecurities that led to enormous compromises such as that of Rehan, the once passionate revolutionary who later becomes the richest man in the post-national Dhaka having inherited his nawab uncle’s jute mills. Jehan Ara, herself the victim of bloodshed and betrayal, lives in a new Bangladesh, whereas Rosie, now married to a Hindu, cheers for her son’s success in the 1971 War with Pakistan. Deepali, the underground fiery revolutionary, is a hardened cynic as she lives out her old age in Trinidad. As she leaves Bangladesh for the last time, she is unable to hum raag Bhairav seeing her world crumble around her and within. "History," as Qurratulain Hyder has remarked, "is another name for humanity’s inability to learn its lesson." All that remains are fireflies in the mist, once aglow, now extinguished.

The novel is a story about loving and losing at both the private and the epic levels narrated in what critics often call Hyder’s "poetic prose". Where on the one hand, teenage love is both intense and adolescent, on the other, love of ideology is equally passionate and na`EFve. On such a terrain of deceit and treason, Hyder charts the amazing saga of relationships formed tantalisingly for nation and ideology but abandoned to a life of compromise and a mere remembrance of things past.