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the Complete Review
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Fireflies in the Mist

Qurratulain Hyder

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To purchase Fireflies in the Mist

Title: Fireflies in the Mist
Author: Qurratulain Hyder
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 341 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: Fireflies in the Mist - US
Fireflies in the Mist - UK
Fireflies in the Mist - Canada
Fireflies in the Mist - India
  • Urdu title: آخرِ شب کے ہم سفر
  • Translated by the author
  • With an Introduction by Aamer Hussain

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dynamic and sweeping look at lives caught up in the changes that occurred in the decades that (part of) Bengal went from English rule to Bangladesh

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hindu . 4/5/2008 Ziya Us Salam
The National B- 30/7/2010 Scott Esposito
Outlook India . 14/7/2008 Sohail Hashmi
TLS . 18/7/2008 Hirsh Sawhney
The Tribune . 31/8/2008 Rumina Sethi

  From the Reviews:
  • "Among her later works, Fireflies can be counted among the most subtle efforts exposing the paradoxical relationship between India and Indians with the British. (...) Often in translation, the soul is lost, even as the gist is retained. This time, the readers are saved that agony because it comes from the author herself." - Ziya Us Salam, The Hindu

  • "This approach to storytelling results in the paradox that, though Fireflies in the Mist is full of occurrences, it lacks anything resembling a conventional narrative drive. Rather, it is characterised by nothing so much as a lack of centre that constantly flings readers towards its periphery. (...) (U)nfortunately, however, Hyder's story sinks beneath the tiresome weight of its ideas. (...) That is not to say that Fireflies is without its charms. Hyder's intricate narrative is well conceived, and, at times, her writing shows much economy and momentum." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "It is a book to buy, read, keep and most importantly to gift to your children." - Sohail Hashmi, Outlook India

  • "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. (...) Her finest achievement in this novel is the series of mesmerising 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. (...) 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." - Hirsh Sawhney, Times Literary Supplement

  • "On such a terrain of deceit and treason, Hyder charts the amazing saga of relationships formed tantalisingly for nation and ideology but abandoned to a life of compromise and a mere remembrance of things past." - Rumina Sethi, The Tribune

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fireflies in the Mist is a sweeping story but no traditional saga. Its three parts cover (with some additional looks back) the period from just before the Second World War through the partition of India to, finally, an independent Bangladesh (after the 1971 war that severed East from West Pakistan). Hyder's focus is not on the larger events, but rather individual fates -- and here, too, she takes a sweeping approach, situating her main characters in their long family lines and picking moments from their lives as reference points rather than following them more closely across the years and decades. Major events and long stretches of individuals' lives are summarized in a paragraph or even just a sentence or two, with Hyder only focusing in and expanding on certain periods in her characters' lives.
       Fireflies in the Mist has a somewhat unfocused feel to it because no single character or storyline dominates. Hyder shifts easily from one character to the next; there is a great deal of overlap, but individuals are centerstage one moment and then submerged for long stretches the next; readers who like their fiction more orderly might find this annoying.
       The bulk of the novel is set in Dacca (now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh) around the years just before and during the Second World War. Most of the central characters are women, in their late teens and early twenties, of marriageable age but not yet married, living in a time of great upheaval. As throughout India, anti-colonial and pro-independence voices were growing louder, but Bengal was even more torn than most of the rest of the country, as many wrestled with whether their allegiance should be to their Bengali heritage or their Islamic (or Hindu) one.
       As one character notes, "in Bengal Hindus and Muslims share a common culture", but the strains of religious and political difference come to overshadow these. One of Hyder's major themes is this overlap of different identities and allegiances: on one level the Bengalis are unified by culture and language (Hyder emphasizes Bengal's culture heritage, with many of her characters involved in music, theater, and dance, and literature also figuring prominently), yet on other levels they share more with others, from those drawn to the English way of life (the Hindus, in particular) to those embracing Marxism and Communism to those who have adopted Christianity. Hyder is particularly good at showing how many characters have what amount to layers of identity. The mother of one of character is only an extreme example: the daughter of a Brahmin priest she was married off at four, widowed at six (while still living with her parents), and orphaned at nine; as a Hindu widows she had little future, but after running away from her in-laws she was turned over to the local missionaries, baptized, and married off to the native clergyman (who, as a converted Indian, had difficulty finding a wife, since no proper English family would want to have their daughter marry him). So:

     From Giribala, Daughter of the Mountains, goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva, she became an Old Testament figure. How easy and simple it all was !
       And yet eventually:
Despite her conversion, Esther Giribala was still basically a Bengali Brahmin housewife, uninterested in the problems of cultural identity.
       Her daughter Rosie, however, has more difficulty digesting all this once she becomes aware of her mother's background -- and more difficulty fitting in. Like most of the other characters her age she rebels by becoming politically active -- and she both takes the activism to its greatest extremes and then also opt outs in the most conventional manner.
       Deepali Sarkar is the daughter of a doctor whose family fell from great heights. An idealist, the doctor and his family live in close to abject poverty, and Deepali -- who earns some money as a well-known radio-singer -- also becomes politically active. She, a Hindu, also falls in love with the charismatic if flighty activist Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim, and while her father is actually among the few who would not oppose his daughter's happiness the religious divide is a major complication.
       Hyder shifts between the stories of these and other characters, often summarizing life-changing events in a few lines and occasionally drawing out a few central episodes longer. It's an energetic tour de force, occasionally almost tripping over itself in its condensed rush but also making for a vibrant and gripping read. Several of the episodes and storylines are truly exciting, too -- all in all the book feels like something of a mix of a condensed Russian novel of the grand tradition, serious modern political thriller, and sociologically-focused history text.
       The final part of the book bounds through the post-partition decades, all the way to Bangladesh's independence, with retrospective looks at the far-flung fates of the main characters, who have wound up in Trinidad, England and Germany, India, and Bangladesh. As one reflects:
     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. Some of our friends got on to a camel's back and returned to Mecca. Others climbed onto a bullock-cart and went back to Banaras.
       Their individual fates are often relatively cursorily related, but all are, in some way, disillusioning: "yesterday's rebels have joined today's establishment", in one form or another. Yet Hyder embraces the youthful challenges to contemporary situations (then and now), even as she smiles at their naïveté. Typical is the boasting one character hears in modern Bangladesh: "We of the Now Generation gloat in our frankness. Hypocrisy was the hallmark of your times." But the hypocrisy has not changed, merely the details -- and thirty years earlier the young generation was similarly proud of their own frankness against the established order (even if they could not be quite so loud and up-front with it).
       Fireflies in the Mist is a marvelously entertaining novel of modern Bengal and of Indian and Bengali history. It is not so much flawed as messy, and some may finds its messiness off-putting. It doesn't offer the easy satisfactions of fiction that spells out everything for its readers, carefully unfolding its story; instead Hyder heaps it on, by the shovel-load. Historic (and character) detail is often rushed over, the ideological points often put very bluntly, and Hyder occasionally gets too experimental in her translation (trying too obviously to attune some of the dialogues and descriptions to an English-speaking audience), but it remains a riveting read.
       American readers might have benefitted from some endnotes or an introduction that provides more information about the historic events and circumstances the novel deals with, but even without close understanding of the complicated background there is easily enough to Fireflies in the Mist to make it well worth reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2010

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Fireflies in the Mist: Reviews: Other books by Qurratulain Hyder under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of Indian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Noted Indian author Qurratulain Hyder (قرۃالعین حیدر) lived 1927 to 2007. She wrote both in Urdu and English.

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