Fireflies in the Mist

Written by Qurratulain Hyder
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Author Qurratulain Hyder, who died in 2007, is, according to the cover, the “grande dame of Urdu literature.” Her story begins with a group of young people: Rosie, the daughter of a native Christian pastor, Deepali, the popular Hindu singer, Jehan Ara, the more obedient Muslim girl, her cousin Rehan, the firebrand who wanders the radical underground dressed as a Hindu holy man, and the Barlow family expats. These people interact on various sides of the radical left attempting to oust the British when Calcutta was “the second largest city in the British Empire and a kind of poor man’s London.” In a narrative that becomes more and more poetical, more and more sketchy as it progresses, we follow these interwoven lives through Indian independence, the partition along religious lines into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, then the violent separation of Pakistan from Bangladesh. No life ends up as we thought it might at the outset, fortune raises some, crushes others.

As a reader, I have some acquaintance with the literature of this region. I would have appreciated more help from the translator with foreign words. Familiarity with the broader historical events hinted at is a definite prerequisite, because if you are looking for immediate Hollywood-esque scenes of this nation birthing, you will not find them. The slaughter of a whole family lingers as only the nightmares of the mad maid. But surely this is required reading for those interested in the history of the subcontinent.