By Kabir Altaf
Fireflies in the Mist, Qurratulain Hyder’s own translation of her Urdu novel Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar, spans the history of East Bengal from the time of the nationalist movement against the British, to the creation of East Pakistan, and finally to Bangladeshi independence. The novel centers around Deepali Sarkar, “a young middle-class Hindu who becomes drawn into the extreme left wing of the nationalist movement, and Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim radical with Marxist inclinations who introduces her to the life of the rural deprived. Their common political engagement draws them into a quietly doomed love affair. Through their relationship, Hyder explores the growth of tensions between Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims, who had once shared a culture and a history.”
In his introduction to the novel, Pakistani writer Aamer Hussain notes that Fireflies can be seen as another chapter in Hyder’s epic history of the Muslim presence in the subcontinent, and particularly in the era of the Raj. My Temples Too (Mere Bhi Sanam Khanay) chronicles Awadh; River of Fire (Aag ka Darya) takes us to newfound Pakistan; Fireflies adds the saga of East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Yet Hussain notes that the Muslim narrative of Fireflies is merely one among many. He writes: “Never bound to a single ideology or perspective, Hyder articulates one viewpoint only to contradict it in another voice. Colonial officers, native Christians, feminists, fishermen, artists, the victor, the vanquished, the exiled, and the dispossessed, all take the platform to recount their stories, or to be represented, in a collage composed of omniscient third-person narration, letters, diary entries, extended exchanges of dialogue, dream sequences, interior monologue, bone-spare chronicle, and oral history” (xviii-xix).
An example of Hyder’s presentation of opposing viewpoints takes place in “Arjumand Manzil”, the chapter that opens Part 2. Arjumand Manzil (the auspicious house) is the name of Nawab Qamrul Zaman’s estate in Dhaka. The time is July 1941. Hyder sets the scene by describing three portraits that hang in the Nawab’s library. They feature Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Rabindranath Tagore. Thus before the scene even begins, the reader is reminded of the complexities of the Nawab’s identity, as a Muslim, a member of the Muslim League, and a Bengali. The chapter continues with the entrance of Deepali, who has come to help her friend Jehan Ara, the Nawab’s daughter, sew clothes for her brother’s wedding. Deepali notices the map of Pakistan that is hanging on the wall of the front veranda. She is looking at it when the Nawab comes outside. She asks him what it is and he replies “Ah, that! You ought to know. When, Inshallah, Pakistan comes into being, you too shall be a Pakistani….” Deepali then follows the Nawab into his library, where they discuss why he believes that India should be partitioned.
The scene is worth quoting at some length:
‘Uncle…’ she said now, a little uncertainly, “I merely wished to say that we could work together for unity instead of partition.’
‘Where the hell is unity? The anti-Muslim Arya Samaj of Punjab and the Hindu militancy of Maharashtra and Bengal… are they symbols of peace and goodwill? Don’t forget that these movements were started before we thought of setting up a separate political platform.’
‘I don’t know about other provinces, but in Bengal Hindus and Muslims share a common culture.’
‘Did your community ever admit the fact that the folk music and folk literature of Bengal are largely the contribution of the Muslims? By ‘Bengali culture’ you only mean Hindu culture. During the last century your press even started the language controversy. They said Bengali was not the language of the Muslims, they declared that Bengali literature and culture were exclusively the heritage of the Hindus…By God, Deepali, we wanted unity. But now, such hatred for us! Such contempt. Like the Christians have for the Jews in Europe….
…. ‘But. Uncle,’ she cut in impatiently, ‘both communities started their revivalist movements and were encouraged by the…’
‘British! I agree. Well why did we let ourselves be manipulated by them?’ He collected his papers and carried them to the writing table.
Through the exchange between Deepali and the Nawab, Hyder presents the arguments pro and against Partition, without commenting on which one was right. We understand that the Nawab does not want a separate Pakistan in order to exclude Hindus, but because he feels Indian Muslims have not been appreciated, and even persecuted. It is also interesting that, in his vision of Pakistani, Deepali, though she is Hindu, would be an equal citizen of the new country.
What I found most interesting about Fireflies was the change in tone from the idealism of the first two parts to the bitterness and disillusionment of the third part. Parts 1 and 2 cover the years from 1939 to 1943. The Quit India movement is in full force and Deepali and Rehan are optimistic about the future of independent India. Deepali believes that Partition is not necessary because all Bengalis share the same culture. Rehan believes that after Independence, India will have a socialist government and even Pakistan will be a socialist democracy. They both hope that Independence will lead to a better future for the downtrodden masses. However, in Part 3 of the novel, which covers the period from 1950 post the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, we see what really comes to pass and how different it is from what Deepali and Rehan had hoped. In their personal lives, too, all the young idealists have compromised their beliefs and have become part of the establishment. For example, Rosie Bannerjee, the parson’s daughter had been arrested for throwing a hand grenade at British policemen. However, we now find out that she married the lawyer who bailed her out of jail, converted to Hinduism and has become a wealthy socialite in New Delhi named Radhika Sanyal. Rehan first became a provincial minister in West Bengal and then, after moving to Dhaka, he inherited his uncle’s title of Nawab of Arjumand Manzil as well as the ownership of his jute factories. Jehan Ara made a loveless marriage to a much older landowner while Deepali herself immigrated to Trinidad and married a wealthy expatriate. At the same time, East Bengal became East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh and through all these transitions nothing changed for the downtrodden. As Deepali points out a dinner at the Dhaka Club:
“If Mr. Jinnah had not created Pakistan, there would have been no Bangladesh today. Actually, he is the founder of this new country as well.”
People looked at her in surprise and said nothing. She continued to hold forth: “The concept of Mother India was given to the rest of the country by the terrorists of Bengal. They worshipped Divine Power in the image of Kali, the destroyer. They believed in the prehistoric Dravidian concept of the Mother Goddess. The British branded them as terrorists. Indians called them revolutionaries. Many among them were anti-Muslim as well. Bankim Chandra’s novel Anand Math was their Bible. The crosscurrents of the politics of Bengal’s Hindu bhadralok and Muslim gentry gave birth to East Pakistan, and the internal politics of West and East Pakistan created Bangladesh. Individual personality clashes, and the temperaments and actions of political leaders build or destroy entire nations.” (310)
Later, at her old college, Santineketan, Deepali asks a rickshaw driver his name. He tells her it is Ali Hussain. Deepali thinks to herself: “This famished rickshaw-wallah, Ali Hussain, was present in India as well as in Bangladesh. Nothing had changed for him.” (316)
On a purely literary level, Fireflies does not always succeed. The writing sags in Part 3 as Hyder tries to cover too long of a time period and there are several narrative gaps as we are brought up to date with the fate of each main character. Also, some of the dialogue doesn’t sound realistic. As is evident in the exchanges quoted above, sometimes it feels like the novel’s characters exist only to debate and lecture each other about ideas. One could fairly criticize Hyder by noting that she seems more interested in the ideas and issues than in the psychology of her characters.
Though Fireflies is not necessarily a great work of literature, it is worth reading because it gives a good sense of the complexities of East Bengal’s history and the nuances of the identities of both Hindu and Muslim Bengalis. The disillusionment of Part 3 also makes sense. The novel was written in 1979 and more than thirty years later, conditions in Pakistan have only deteriorated and are farther than ever from the vision of the idealists of the 1940s.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.