Lost in the mist of time: Qurratulian Hyder

Fiction Qurratulian Hyder is revered as one of the finest Urdu-language novelists but a new English education of an intricate, elliptical work from 1979 offers only a glimpse of her talents.

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Qurratulian Hyder is revered as one of the finest Urdu-language novelists but a new English education of an intricate, elliptical work from 1979 offers only a glimpse of her talents, writes Scott Esposito Fireflies in the mist Qurratulain Hyder New Directions Dh63 When the Indian author Qurratulain Hyder died in 2007, many believed that the Urdu language had lost its greatest modern novelist. Although little-known among English-language readers, Hyder counted among her fans Salman Rushdie, as well as the 2008 Nobel laureate JMG Le Clézio, who included her among the writers to whom he dedicated the award. If Hyder is still obscure to the English-language audience it is probably due to a combination of subject matter and style. Hyder defied conventional ideas of what post-colonial fiction looked like. Moreover, her books are uncompromisingly steeped in the politics of the subcontinent. Their proliferation of names, dates and places can be difficult for an uninitiated reader to assimilate, particularly in Hyder's clipped modernist prose.

Of course, great literature transcends national boundaries, and bedevilling place-names and historical events need not impede the enjoyment of great books. This is a fact that is evident in Hyder's acknowledged masterpiece, 1959's River of Fire, which has been acclaimed as the greatest Urdu novel of the 20th century. A quasi-epic that covers 2,000 years of history and mythology in an attempt to tell the story of India and its major religions, it has been called Urdu's own One Hundred Years of Solitude. When New Directions published the first English edition of River of Fire in 1999, it received praise from such stately periodicals as the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

In the years before and since River of Fire's English publication, various attempts have been to build an audience for Hyder in English, but her books have largely failed to catch on. The difficulties - as well as the rewards - of Hyder are evidenced in Fireflies in the Mist, her 1979 novel that New Directions has just published in English. A domestic/political drama set in Dacca (now Dhaka, a city of seven million and the capital of Bangladesh) during the time of the Partition of India in 1947, Fireflies is the tale of young Indian leftists coming of age against the backdrop of social and political turmoil attendant to their nation's independence.

Though the majority of the action occurs over the course of just one decade, the book has an expansive sweep. Its cast of characters is huge, and a list of its many threads offers a distillation of 20th-century Indian history: the interaction of societal strata ranging from British colonials to Indian peasants; the story of Partition; conflicts among the region's Hindus, Christians, and Muslims; and the domestic dramas of three young women growing up in a modernising nation. These elements are subsumed into what is essentially a story of young idealists trading their political struggles for middle-class families. For all the weighty ideas wrestled with in Fireflies, Hyder makes a valiant attempt to ground the story in the lives of its three young female leads: Deepali, the bourgeois daughter turned young communist; the feudal heiress Jehan Ara; and Rosie, the daughter of a Christian reverend converted from Hinduism. There is much to like here, but Hyder's at times lively narrative is too often blanched by laborious prose that strains to serve its political subtext.

Insofar as Fireflies has a main character, it is Deepali. Born to the son of a Bengali aristocrat who had come down in the world, Deepali defines herself early on when she steals some family-heirloom saris to raise money to purchase the release from captivity of a member of a group agitating for communist rule in India. It is typical of Hyder's exceedingly elliptical narration that as we see Deepali steal the saris no explanation is given for the theft. It is only several pages later, after the story has digressed through Deepali's radio singing career, a school day at the 19-year-old's academy, various subplots, and the introduction of about five characters that some explanation for the saris is given in the form of a mere two lines of dialogue.

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. Although Deepali is quite clearly the novel's central figure, she vanishes for chapters on end, and important events from her story are only glimpsed in between the lines of other characters' thoughts and conversations. Fireflies can be so elusive that readers would be forgiven for believing that Hyder's narration is haphazard. During some stretches, the book begins chapter after chapter from a different character's point of view, not even providing names and locations to situate a weary reader. A closer look reveals that the book does in fact proceed by a very carefully calibrated narrative logic, albeit one that may only be evident on a second reading.

All that is to say that Fireflies is an exceedingly fragmented, complex story whose structure only adds to the burden of reconstructing it into a recognisable whole. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that most English-language readers will lack ready knowledge of the cultural references and place-names that proliferate throughout the book (as with the great Russian novels, simply keeping up with all the diminutives and nicknames can be a struggle).

That alone would certainly not be enough reason for readers to shy away from attempting Fireflies in the Mist; unfortunately, however, Hyder's story sinks beneath the tiresome weight of its ideas. It is not at all uncommon to find paragraphs that are stuffed with seemingly unnecessary anthropological detail, as in, for instance, this scene-halter: "Many such wandering minstrels passed through Bolpur, which lay in the region of Birbhum. Here, four centuries ago, Chaitanya had founded the cult of Krishna which continued to be popular in Bengal. The devotees of Lord Krishna sang and danced ecstatically like the 13th-century Sufi poet Maulana Jelaluddin Rumi's Whirling Dervishes of Turkey."

Such painful and unnecessary digressions sap the story of vitality, as does the fact that Hyder doesn't always succeed in making her characters feel like more than embodiments of philosophical principles. Readers will find much simmering adolescent angst and youthful idealism in this drama of generational strife, but the momentum of these melodramas is undercut by pages of prose that read like a transcript from an economic forum.

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. One or two lines of Hyder's terse prose is enough to bring to life even minor characters whose existence is confined to one or two chapters; she is also artful at revealing the web of complexities beneath the book's many dramas. When, for instance, Rosie scuttles an arranged marriage with a few well-placed insults, her father wallows in despondency, not so much for the failure of the marriage as for the sudden realisation that he has lost track of his daughter: "After a few minutes he moved to his bed, feeling hollow inside. As he crouched in the dark he suddenly burst into tears. What had shocked him more than Rosie's refusal was the sudden realization that the world had changed and he didn't even know." The movement throughout the scene from Rosie to the would-be mother-in-law to Rosie's father is perfectly balanced and surges with life.

Hyder also shows much range with dialogue. In addition to having an excellent sense of the rhythms of speech - with its many interruptions, digressions, and interjections - her work is attuned to the many variants of spoken language found in a nation as diverse as India. Hyder's world is one that recognises that for most of us conversation is a daily, all-important business, a space where individuals are constantly recapitulating their lives to one another and redeveloping their senses of world and identity.

But these positives are outweighed by the negatives. While Fireflies in the Mist certainly shows signs of the writer that Hyder's fans claim her to be - a challenging, rewarding author who could make the political realities of her region live on the page - it is still a labour. It does, however, offer a tantalising glimpse of a genuinely different and original literature that must certainly exist on the subcontinent, waiting to be translated. Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation, an online literary journal.

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