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Fireflies in the Mist

Qurratulain Hyder received India’s equivalent of the Pulitzer for Fireflies in the Mist, an epic, set mostly in Dacca, Bangladesh. The time period of its three parts, besides some earlier historical references, extends from 1939 to 1979, through India’s Partition and finally into partition from Pakistan to form an independent Bangladesh. As Aamer Hussein (who knew Hyder) said in the introduction, “history was an obsession with her; she saw time as a continuum.”

Qurratulain Hyder received India’s equivalent of the Pulitzer for Fireflies in the Mist, an epic, set mostly in Dacca, Bangladesh. The time period of its three parts, besides some earlier historical references, extends from 1939 to 1979, through India’s Partition and finally into partition from Pakistan to form an independent Bangladesh. As Aamer Hussein (who knew Hyder) said in the introduction, “history was an obsession with her; she saw time as a continuum.”

Her approach for handling such stretches of time is to make us care through paralleling the country’s history with the ironic fortunes of four girlfriends—Deepali, Rosie, Jehan Ara and Yasmin—plus a lover of two of the girls, Rehan Ahmed. Three are poor: Deepali, the daughter of a doctor, Rosie of a black priest, and Yasmin, Rosie’s student. Only Jehan Ara is wealthy, the daughter of a Newab. Deepali and Rosie become involved in the revolution against the wealthy and to keep India united—along with Rehan who is actually from a wealthy family. Muslim Rehan was betrothed from childhood to cousin Jehan Ara but refuses his wealthy inheritance in order to join the revolution where he falls in love with Hindu Deepali.

The revolution breaks up the girls’ friendship and also their parents’ happiness; further, a rich British woman, Uma Roy meddles in their affairs. Ultimately, as often happens, the revolutionaries become themselves wealthy, and marry not for love. Only Yasmin suffers, as her moving journal tells us in the most personal unburdening of feelings in the book. That journal brings Deepali back to Bangladesh from her Trinidad exile to confront her own foreignness but also hope in life’s continuum. One of the book’s many ironies is that ex-rebel Rehan does not know what to do with his niece Nasira, the only rebel left. Yet she may be the country’s hope with her pure convictions.

So what was the revolution worth? Deepali wonders, “What did we do? What did our generation achieve? Now it seems to me that we were hitchhikers who stood by the highway, raising our thumbs for a ride. A car stopped by and took some of us to Moscow. Others to Washington. The car that broke which stopped for me broke down in the middle of the road.” Hyder said, “History is another name for humanity’s inability to learn its lessons.”

Another way Hyder brings the broad canvas of history into the personal is to focus on houses and through them the nostalgia of the past. As Hussein says, Hyder looked for something “poignant, something elliptical, an intimate connection between place, fiction and memory.” There are two houses owned by two men of different backgrounds who even in old age remain friends. The first house Caledonia “grounded the connection between Britain and Bengal.” Originally a Scotsman’s planter’s house, it becomes Chandrakunj, “Luna’s Grove,” stripped of any former elegance by the time it is Deepali and her father’s home. The other is Arjumand Manzil (“the auspicious house”) where Jehan Ara grew up. In this book we come back to so much from the beginning but most poignantly to that house’s “stage-throne under the cotton flower tree” where Jehan Ara held court with her friends. By then, it is tinged with the house’s tragedy.

Hyder also covers time by, as Hussein says, “trying to capture landscape—its short, sharp, lyrical fragments,” where there are switches “from celebration to lament in the space of a few beats.” Most descriptions come as flashes of lyricism, poetic quotes, like “In the fireflies’ light she goes out to meet her lover.” Fireflies give only the briefest and tiniest of light but therein lies hope:

The clouds have grown old. The night has placed her moon-pitcher in the sky’s courtyard. The hot sun has saddened the waterfowl. Loafer winds roves from forest to forest. Uncle Sun is growing angrier by the hour. He has become red like the parrot’s beak. Famine stalks the land. Allah, give us rain. Then, he plaited his hair of dark clouds. He picked up his staff of rainbow and lightning. The sky turned into a dark banyan of rain, whose beard touched the earth.

Summarizing dramatic events reduces emotion in the personal tales. Major historical events are similarly bypassed. And conversations become too chock full of information for them to sound like real conversations. Also though Hyder does explain terms like staff names, the reader needs historical footnotes. However, this novel captures nostalgia for a beautiful country, ending with a poetic repeat of the opening—the river Ganges, young where it starts and old in Bangladesh—but still living.

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