Of Friendships and Nationalism: Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist

Qurratulain Hyder’s novel Aakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar (Fireflies in the Mist) takes its title from one of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’ famous ghazals. The novel, written originally in Urdu, was published in 1979 and translated into English by the author herself.

The novel evokes the landscape of East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), populating it with a range of characters who change and grow with the changing face of India (along with Pakistan and Bangladesh) between the years 1939 and 1979.

The Birth of a Nation(s)

The expansive and complex narrative that is Aakhir-i-Shab, allows for rich analyses along many axes. Four young characters—Deepali Sarkar, Rosie Bannerjee, Jehan Ara Chowdhry, and Rehan Ahmed—inhabit the changing East Bengal landscape of Hyder’s novel.

Each character presents a different (though not the only) strand in the shifting terrain of the nation-space. The reader follows these characters as they negotiate this space, questioning the ideologies that they inherit, to form their identities. 

In “The Novels of Qurratulain Hyder,” M. Asaduddin writes that 

[T]he fate of the [left] extremist movement, the larger movement for Independence led by the Congress Party throughout India, the movement for a separate homeland for Muslims—all these get mixed up with the fate of the personae in the novel.

Hyder’s novel, however, does not endorse one movement or set of ideologies over another. As Hussein notes, 

Never bound to a single ideology or perspective, Hyder articulates one viewpoint only to contradict it in another voice.

Aakhir-i-Shab is a critique of the nationalisms, the politics, and the violence that characterised the transitional period of Indian Independence.

The Characters

The first young character introduced in the novel is Deepali Sarkar. Deepali comes from an upper-class Hindu-Bengali family. Her father, Benoy Sarkar, is a doctor. He is known to have been a follower of Gandhi in his youth. Her uncle, Dinesh Sarkar, on the other hand, is described as a ‘terrorist’ who had taken to violent politics.

The reader meets Deepali as a young girl who has become a part of an “underground study circle” in 1939. Deepali tells her friend Rosie Bannerjee that they “learn a lot of important stuff which clears the cobwebs of our [their] minds” and study Marxism. 

Rosie is the daughter of Reverend Paul Mathew Bannerjee, a ‘native’ Christian. Rev. Bannerjee distinguishes himself from his fellow Bengalis who are always “plotting and scheming to overthrow the lawful [British] Government of India”. Rosie is initiated into the study circle by Deepali. 

Both Rosie and Deepali are friends with Jehan Ara Chowdhry, the daughter of Nawab Qamrul Zaman Chowdhry, a wealthy Muslim zamindar. Qamrul Zaman is a member of the All-India Muslim League and a supporter of the Pakistan Resolution. Jehan Ara is not initiated into politics in her youth and has a more sheltered upbringing.

Bound by Friendship, Distanced by Thought

Jehan Ara, Rosie, and Deepali are bound by the ties of friendship in the novel. They are distanced, however, by the differences in their social standings, their religious beliefs, and the political paths that they take. 

Deepali is drawn to the extreme left-wing of the nationalist movement. What begins with an episode of stealing expensive saris from her aunt’s closet, develops into a political consciousness under the guidance of Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim radical. Rehan tells Deepali that “there are two aspects of India, Hindu and Muslim” and that “at several points these aspects merge into each other”. 

Deepali and Rehan differ in their political opinions regarding the need for a separate homeland for Muslims. Rehan recognises the need for Pakistan which, he believes, will be a “socialist democracy”. Deepali, on the other hand, envisions a united India post-Independence. She criticises the politics of Qamrul Zaman, asking him why the leaders of the All-India Muslim League are wealthy nawabs, even as they evoke the plight of the Muslim poor.

Jehan Ara also questions Qamrul Zaman’s vision of everyone being equal in the new country. She observes how servant and master “stood side by side five times a day [in prayer]” but “the moment they stepped out they became master and servant once again”. 

A Minority Voice

Deepali, Rehan, and Qamrul Zaman consider the Bengali culture to be a syncretic heritage of two religious groups: the Hindus and the Muslims. Rosie Bannerjee questions this claim. When Rosie hears the story of her Hindu mother’s child-marriage and widowhood, and her seduction by Qamrul Zaman, she realises the “ambiguous position of her own social set-up”. 

She begins to dislike Hindu society which forced her mother to marry at the age of four and become a child-widow; she also considers the Muslims to be a “lecherous lot”. It becomes increasingly difficult for Rosie to align herself with Deepali’s political stance. She asks Deepali,

Is patriotism a monopoly of the Hindus?

Rosie also distances herself from Jehan Ara, though she recognises that Jehan Ara is “imprisoned within the fortress of her religious-feudal-cultural pressures”. 

Rosie’s voice, like that of her father’s, is a voice of a minority community that lays claim to the same Bengali culture. However, unlike her father who “had resolved the dilemma long ago,” Rosie seeks a change in the system. She criticises the alignment of the Indian left with the British during the Second World War and associates herself with the Quit India Movement and militant nationalism.

A Terrain of Struggle

Hyder’s novel, therefore, presents a picture of the nation-space as a terrain of struggle in the transitional period of Indian Independence through its characters. The critique of the nationalisms, the politics, and the violence is brought out in their contesting voices. 

It is also emphatically brought out in the dissolution of the political fervour and optimism that characterises the first half of the novel. A sense of pessimism descends on the latter half of the novel as the reader meets the four characters in their adult lives. 

Rosie marries a rich advocate from Calcutta and lives a privileged life; Deepali lives a wealthy life of exile in the Caribbean; Jehan Ara is murdered during the Bangladesh war; and Rehan gives up his revolutionary ways to return to his ancestral home as its rightful heir. 

Deepali reflects, “What did we do? What did our generation achieve?” and the novel bleakly announces, 

History is another name for humanity’s inability to learn its lessons.

One may, therefore, read Hyder's novel (as Hussein does) as a “post-nationalist epic” that 

...details the fervours of nationalist ideologies only to dissolve them in interlocking litanies of lost homes, blighted destinies and bitter civil wars.

No comments

Powered by Blogger.