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Old Insurgencies

On Qurratulain Hyder's Fireflies in the Mist (Women Unlimited, 2008)
by Hirsh Sawhney
The Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 2008

Modern scholars who rewrite history from the perspective of the colonized, or describe the Eastern hemisphere's cosmopolitanism which preceded the European enlightenment, are considered pathbreaking. But Qurratulain Hyder, who died last year at the age of eighty-one, had been retelling history along these lines since the 1950s. Hyder, a woman of Muslim origin who wrote in Urdu, is the author of the epic novel River of Fire (1959). Her work forms a bridge between the Urdu fiction of the colonial era and the English-language South-Asian novels that have been in the limelight since India's Independence. While Hyder's fiction is essential reading for those seeking a nuanced understanding of the subcontinent, her imagination knows no national or cultural boundaries. Her characters include a dead Byzantine nun who comes back to life in Cold War Georgia, and, in her Bengal opus Fireflies in the Mist, she writes from the perspective of a British Bangladeshi woman who poses for Playboy.

Parts of Fireflies in the Mist were printed in Urdu journals throughout the 1960s, but the entire book was not published until 1979, and it didn't see the light of day in English until the 1990s. Women Unlimited, a pioneering Delhi-based feminist publisher, has re-issued the English-language version of the book translated by the author herself. The book's protagonist, Deepali Sarkar, is the wide-eyed, giggly granddaughter of a land-owning Hindu who created and then squandered a fortune pandering to the British. One evening in the early 1940s, Deepali leaves her family's decrepit Dacca mansion to sing at the local radio station, where she is approached by a stealthy messenger. The messenger explains that Rehan, a young secular Muslim, needs her to carry out a secret mission. Rehan, it turns out, is the elusive leader of an underground Communist movement who has a degree from LSE, despite his claims of humble agrarian roots.

Distressed by the inequity that defines her society, Deepali agrees to do her part for his revolution. Disguising herself in a burkha, she infiltrates an English administrator's bungalow in order to intercept anti-insurgency plans. As Deepali gets sucked into Rehan's movement, she also preaches the gospel of Marx to her best friend Rosie Banerjee, the daughter of a Hindu widow who escaped persecution in Hindu society by converting to Christianity. "This entire system must be changed", reasons Rosie. "A system which allowed such atrocities as were perpetrated on her own mother." The pair begins to "learn a lot of important stuff which clears the cobwebs" of their minds. "Britain had turned India into a raw-material producing colony. That led to hunger, unrest, unemployment and HinduMuslims clashes. The situation also gave the White missionaries ample opportunity to convert the starving Indians."

Hyder is an outspoken anti-colonial critic, and her take on the racism that underpinned British colonialism recalls the unsparing precision of James Baldwin. What validates these fierce critiques is that she always manages to appreciate the complexity of humans and history. Radio is certainly a tool for colonial war propaganda, but it also fosters the preservation of folk music. The colonial project might have thrived on giving "Indians a massive inferiority complex", but it also gave India the printing press as well as the ideas that fuelled a Hindu reformation.

Rosie is seduced by stories of the militant anti-colonial activists who paved the way for Independence but disappeared from the pages of history, women like Pritilata Wadedar, who "led the attack on Chittagong's European Club", an establishment which flaunted a sign reading "Dogs and Indians not allowed", and killed herself "before she could be handcuffed". Inspired by the example of Wadedar, Rosie throws a hand grenade killing a bystander, and she is put in prison. Deepali, however, forsakes further revolutionary activities to concentrate on her studies and becomes increasingly infatuated with Rehan, who summons her to his jungle hideout in the Sunderbans. Soon she is not only suffering heartache but also worried by Rehan's past and nascent sympathies for the pro-Pakistan Muslim League. "Who was he?" she wonders, "What were his antecedents?"

When Hyder attempts to evoke Deepali's passion there is sometimes a stiltedness that slows down the narrative, and this stiffness is also apparent in some of the book's dialectical dialogues. These flaws suggest that the author may have been a clumsy translator of her own work. Hyder, relentlessly striving for objectivity, seems to have been aware of the problem. She mocks Deepali's love affair as reminiscent of the "Gothic romances she used to read as a schoolgirl". Hyder's descriptive passages, however, recall the artful Urdu poets and short-story writers who came before her, and she is most compelling when rapidly propelling characters through bygone eras. The novel's countless historical and literary asides form an erudite subtext that forces readers to reconsider their most basic assumptions about events like the Quit India movement. Her finest achievement in this novel is the series of mesmerizing letters and diary entries that make up the book's final section, in which Hyder conjures up the harsh realities of multicultural Europe in a way that present-day novelists still find difficult.

It is through these letters that we learn the painful, ironic endings to her characters' lives. Deepali emigrates to the Caribbean and marries a wealthy plantation physician. The object of her affection, Rehan, abandons his earnest Communist rhetoric for the jute mill he inherits from his wealthy Nawab uncle. Rosie is freed from jail with the help of missionaries. Despite the victimization of her mother by Hindu society, she marries an elite Hindu and takes a Hindu name. When her son goes to fight for the Indian military in the country's 1971 war with Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh, Rosie becomes his jingoistic cheerleader. Fireflies in the Mist is a poignant, resounding indictment of ideology and politics. Woven into its bleakness, however, is some solace for present-day readers. Hyder reminds us that the starkness and depravity of today's world--our own frustrating politics and deceitful ideologies--are merely examples of history repeating itself.