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Trenchant but inspiring

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ZIYA US SALAM

An expose of the relationship between Indians and British, it is vintage Qurratulain Hyder.

Fireflies In The Mist; Qurratulain Hyder, Women Unlimited, Rs.350Death has failed to take Qurratulain Hyder away from us. Annie Aapa lives through her works. And, no, she is no prisoner of Urdu ustaads to communicate with posterity. In life she chose Urdu as the preferred way of expression. But when she wanted — as in the wonderful translation of Fireflies in the Mist — she could communicate with those who could not make out a rafiq from a raqib.

Cutting edge

Her words had a cutting edge that was rare even among the literary community she graced for many a decade. She was many things to many people in the Urdu world, but principally, she was a woman who carried on the good, even intrepid things, started by the likes of Manto. She could be trenchant, but hope always resided in her bosom.

She won the Jnanpith award for Akhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar, now brought out as Fireflies in the Mist by Women Unlimited. And Annie Aapa, is as irrepressible here as at any other time.

Subtle effort

Among her later works, Fireflies… can be counted among the most subtle efforts exposing the paradoxical relationship between India and Indians with the British. Early in the book, she talks of the Muslim gentry in East Bengal and the gradual shift of power first to the British, then to a Hindu who did not have an aristocratic past, but nurtured the manners of one to the manor born. Even as she narrates the story of Deepali Sarkar, a young Hindu leaning towards extremism and Rehan Ahmed, the man with a Marxist inclination, the author exposes the little traditions, the sub-culture with a veracity unattainable to lesser mortals.

For instance, she talks of the Muslims in Bengal writing poetry in Bengali and Urdu and the bhadralok or westernised Hindus in English! Then there is a very subtle dig at those who paint the entire community with the same stroke. No diatribes, no sermons, not even plaints about times that were and the people we have become. Instead, there are just little asides. And passing anecdotes that convey the meaning. Again, without shouting from the rooftops, she manages to show the difference in the attitude of two Muslim men, Ahmed Ali, who prided himself on his top hat and suit in the company of the English; and Sher Ali, who had assassinated the enemy of the nation!

Similarly, the author recalls the profligacy of the Nawabs and the Zamindars, and the consequent penury a few decades later. But never does she allow herself to slip into a mountain of pity or the reader to be accustomed to sorrow. Of course, it does not mean that the story lacks pathos or depth. It has both, in full measure. What is missing, mercifully, is an overriding feeling of despair and deprivation.

Great canvas

The English version of Fireflies… was supposed to have come out much earlier. Annie Aapa had added a chapter ‘Caledonia’ for the English translation and had told Aamer Hussein as much. Somehow, it did not. Now, there is a reason to appreciate its value. It has a rhythm not easy to decipher for the inattentive, a fine structure and a criss-crossing narration that lends itself well to the great canvas of the book.

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. Annie Aapa, as Aamer Hussein says in the introduction, wrote, and how! Others could write. W oh likh sakte hain. Annie Aapa, named after an Iranian poet, wrote. ‘Woh likhti thhi’.


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