Fireflies in the Mist: An Exploration of Bengali Identity

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.

(Hyder, 127-128)

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.


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:24h, 21 July Reply

    “This famished rickshaw-wallah, Ali Hussain, was present in India as well as in Bangladesh. Nothing had changed for him.”

    This reminded me of two couplets by Sahir Ludhianvi:

    chalo voh kufr ke ghar se salaamat aa gaye lekin
    khuda ki mumlikat meyN sokhta jaanoN pe kya guzri

    zameeN ne khuun ugla aasmaN ne aag barsaiee
    jab insaanoN ke dil badley to insaanoN pe kya guzri

    well, from the land of unbelievers they came safely away, but
    in God’s country, what was the fate of those burnt-out lives?

    earth spewed blood, the sky rained fire
    when hearts of humans turned, what was the fate of human lives?

    The verses are on pages 287-288 of the remarkable book by Abdul Jamil Malik, The Politics of Language – Urdu/Hindi: An Artificial Divide – African Heritage, Mesopotamian Roots, Indian Culture and British Colonialism, Algora Press, New York, 2006. The translations are mine.

  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 01:05h, 23 July Reply

    Thanks – I ‘m inspired to read the book myself!

  • indiajones
    Posted at 08:54h, 28 July Reply

    It would be pertinent to recall that Bengal was first partitioned in 1905, by the British under Lord Curzon, and again reunited in 1911, and then partitioned once again in 1947 to become East Pakistan when political governance was handed over. Then of course, in 1971 came an Independent nation.
    The two Bengals will always have a bonding, not just because of the language, fish, and Tagore !
    As a young school-kid, I recall having strayed into Calcutta maidan, in 1971, where Sheikh Mujib began with the words “Amar Shonar Bangla” ( My Golden Bengal ), and the combined roar from over a million throats, reverberates in my ears to this day.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:08h, 30 July

      Indiajones: It is not clear what the bond between the two Bengals is if it is not language, fish or Tagore.

    • Shubhra
      Posted at 10:40h, 31 August

      definitely language, cuisine, music, literature. the love of for these will always unite us!

  • indiajones
    Posted at 15:35h, 30 July Reply

    Well, one bond could be the music, with Baul as the genre, and ektara as the instrument, which straddled the divide, just like Sufi music and song across North/West India, and Pakistan. Yet frankly, that answer too does not satisfy. Probably no one can put his finger on it, spot on, so we may have to just simply accept the status quo ante, that Bengal is one ! I personally like to think that the geography by itself renders the borders not just between the Bengals, but of Assam and Tripura to Bangladesh, so porous as to be practically irrelevant, especially the last mentioned Indian state; not to forget that Sheik Hasina, publicly acknowledged this in a state visit to Tripura this year, that in 1971 when the new country came into existence, this state had unwittingly hosted the maximum of the ten million who had fled to be refugees without shelter.
    Sheik Hasina would know – she herself would not be alive but for the fact that she was out of her nation, at the time when her own Father the Bangabandhu, and her entire family, was assassinated.
    Well, that is the tragedy of history that we have to overcome.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:23h, 01 August

      Indiajones: In that case, should one also accept the status quo ante that Punjab is one?

  • indiajones
    Posted at 15:51h, 07 August Reply

    Obviously a dicey question, and either way of the flip of the dice, the answer would be yes, the Punjaab is one.

    Someone said, one touch of nature makes the whole world kin; and when it comes to the Punjaab, it most certainly would, for forever would the name be rooted in the original five rivers that give its name. Water is THE resource, on which our contiguous countries would have to fall back on, with the burgeoning population figures year on year. Jhelum and the Ravi abutting Lahore strike me as particular, but overall it is the Indus that matters, after all, the punj-ab are all tributaries of the Indus.
    So too in the East, with the Teesta, Padma and the Brahmaputra, as well as numerous tributaries.
    Well, these natural resources are the major issues that the learned in the sub-continent should confabulate upon and come to a amicable sharing structure for the majority who inhabit it, sooner rather than later.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:40h, 08 August

      Indiajones: I feel we are moving towards an important conclusion. If Punjab and Bengal are one then clearly it is not religion or ethnicity or sect or caste that are the defining variables for the creation of a regional identity. What if the British had opted for language rather than religion as the dimension along which to organize electoral politics? This is what did happen ultimately in India after 1947.

      Any student of politics would understand why the British chose religion. At worst language would have pitted many units against each other, a situation in which compromise is much more possible, but religion split every single unit down the middle. And it was much easier to stoke religious fires than linguistic ones. The very opening of Karl Meyers’ article, The Invention of Pakistan, makes this clear:

      “In 1905, during Lord Curzon’s final, troubled year as viceroy of India, he won London’s approval for slicing Bengal into two provinces…The purpose, Curzon insisted over and again, was simply administrative efficiency — Bengal had grown too populous — yet his own advisers were well aware of the political implications. “Bengal united is a power,” one of them counseled. “Bengal divided will pull several ways…. One of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.”

      The success of the strategy was immediate as described by Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his An Autobiography of an Unknown Indian: “It was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for the Muslims, which sprang out of the present and showed signs of poisoning our personal relations with our Muslim neighbours and schoolfellows.”

      According to Meyer, it was here that “the seeds of India’s future division were sown.”

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:38h, 14 August

      Indiajones: Just a coincidence, an article on Punjabiyat showed up today. I am sure this holds up for the other side as well:

      “Nationalist politics and official patronage to a selective narrative of Partition have not succeeded in wiping out the memory of a composite pluralistic culture.”

  • indiajones
    Posted at 15:40h, 09 August Reply

    The link is brief and succint, on perhaps what is not merely the most pertinent period in the history of an entire sub-continent, but could have critical repercussions on world history ( affecting millions of people, that is ) as it unfolds.

    Let’s see some latest examples, that would never have occurred, without ’47:

    * There’s President Mr. Barack Obama calling Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, on a tragic incident in Wisconsin in his country, in a Gurudwara. This would not have happened without 1947, let alone any year that’s deemed as a critical turning point by any other country, including the US. So-called “9/11” may just be a blip.

    * There’s an elected Pakistani leader, for the first time in the history of that country to perhaps run full term of office, calling on Myanmar leadership to rehabilitate the Rohingya Muslims in their country, when the Ahmediyas in his own backyard, are still looking for full-fledged citizenship.

    The fact is though, that the world scenario has changed all too completely, more in the past decade than before.
    For the past year, I often tried ( in vain ) googling for the speech few years back, by former Indian President M.A. Abdul Kalam, at the European Union conference, where he had only praise for the Schengen territories, which barely at the same time as Partition, were on each other’s throats with much greater tenacity than in our sub-continent, but had come to a mutual understanding today, where they could move freely across their entire region. He said that this was a great example that could be emulated by others in the world, and no doubt he had our sub-continent in mind.

    Then again, this has to be taken with the pinch of salt, provided by our own Nobel Prize winner for economics Prof. Amartya Sen.

    The Professor seems to advise, that the European Union went for a common currency, before they could establish some kind of political unity for all the countries, rather, putting the cart before the horse, and this created the Herculean problems in Greece and to some extent in Spain. He seems to mean, that political unity should come first, before all others, and then only could economic benefits be distributed evenly among the countries and people that are inclusive in that political framework.
    Can we see, from all sides in our region, that kind of forward-looking leadership, in our sub-continent ? And is it possible that this kind of leadership will have the support of the masses in the respective countries ? I certainly hope so, for the less-privileged who inhabit it.

    Else, we have to agree that those who can continue to afford to send their sons and daughters to learn, work and prosper in the West, have taken the right decisions for the future.

  • Ejaz ahmad
    Posted at 03:20h, 19 November Reply

    fireflies in the mist is obviously a history of those people who have determinations to get rid of foreign invasion and cultural attack.They sacrifice their wishes for the sake of those who never knows their right and submit their desire before powerful enemies.tragedy of this novel ,on one side rehan ud din deceives her emotional lover jahan ara and depali on the other side submit himself before the changing scenario.when you submit your self for higher goal,never compromise on petty issues but leave example of sacrifice for others.Rehanudin compromise is message of defeated aims ,which is an obstacle for those who go for higher aims.

  • Pingback:Reading group: which book should we read to understand India’s partition? | Books – APG Editorial
    Posted at 19:59h, 29 August Reply

    […] epics like Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, books about Bengali identity such as Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist, vital female perspectives like those in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, ambitious books about the […]

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