QURRATULAIN HYDER: Voice of the South Asian Frontier

Fireflies In the Mist was released by New Directions in November 2010.

The late Urdu writer Qurratulain Hyder published deeply erudite and imaginative fiction that has become especially vital for English speakers, who are bombarded by simplistic ideas about culture, history, and religion. Hyder was born into an Indian Muslim family in 1927. Before her death outside of Delhi in 2007, she received India’s highest literary awards, served as writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writers Program, and translated Truman Capote into Urdu. Hyder is best known for her iconic novel River of Fire, a mesmerizing, radical retelling of South Asian history spanning two millennia, but to solely view her as an author of epic historical fiction is to misapprehend her vast stylistic and thematic repertoire. Her work is also set in contemporary Georgia—the nation, not the U.S. state—and it contains characters who pose nude for Playboy. In her short story “Beyond the Speed of Light,” Padma, a Syrian Christian with a Ph.D. from Columbia, is returning home from work in southern India when she comes across a rocket ship. The vehicle is actually a time machine that transports her to ancient Egypt, where a Pharaoh seeks to marry her, and beleaguered Hebrew slaves offer her protection.

What unifies this multifaceted body of work is Hyder’s wry wit and cosmopolitan sensibility, which pervade each one of her narratives. Her fiction reveals that the barriers separating seemingly distinct groups—Christians, Muslims, and Hindus; Europeans and Asians—are in fact hazy. It locates the roots of modernity in a diverse set of eras and peoples, subverting the notion that colonial Europe gifted Modernism to the rest of the world. These themes echo throughout Fireflies in the Mist, a novel which Hyder herself translated into English. Parts of Fireflies were printed in Urdu journals in the 1960s, but the book was first published in its entirety in 1979. The novel traces the history of Bengal from the onset of the British Raj to the 1971 war between India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which led to the birth of Bangladesh. It spotlights the racism that underpinned colonialism without being moralistic or naïve and resounds with Hyder’s distaste for hypocritical ideologues, irrespective of their nationality or faith. The book’s protagonist, Deepali, is a Hindu girl who joins an underground communist movement led by Rehan, a secular Muslim. Deepali preaches the gospel of Marx to her Christian friend Rosie, who becomes embroiled in the more violent, overlooked side of India’s anti-colonial movement.

New Directions has recently published Fireflies in the Mist in the United States, and we are pleased to offer Rail readers two excerpts from this poignant work. In the first excerpt, Rosie—who has changed her name to Radhika—is writing a letter to Deepali that describes her recent experiences in a colonial jail. Rosie was imprisoned for killing a bystander with a hand grenade. The second excerpt is a series of journal entries made my Yasmin, a feminist friend of Rosie and Deepali's. Yasmin, once a renowned dancer in the subcontinent, has migrated to Europe, where Gerald Belmont, her gay, English husband, has abandoned her.



Rail Contributing Editor Hirsh Sawhney’s Delhi Noir anthology is published by Akashic Books. His writing has appeared in the TLS, the Guardian, and the Financial Times.


A Letter to Deepali: Shrimati Radhika Sanyal

My dear Deepali,

I must apologize. That fearsome night of August I was so rude to you before setting out on our perilous mission. I’m sure you’ll un­derstand. All of us have been through a dreadful crisis. Mahmoodul Haque was shot dead right in front of me. Mushir and Jyoti succumbed to their bullet wounds a little later. They were such fast friends and they died together. They were also my “teachers” during the study cir­cle days, and they gave me a practical demonstration of their militant philosophy.

They had thrown hand grenades at the police station. The police baton-charged and teargassed the mob; later they opened fire. I don’t remember what happened afterward, because when I regained con­sciousness I felt a terrible pain in my left leg. I was handcuffed and ly­ing on the stone floor of the women’s lockup. After a while two war­dens came in carrying a stretcher. They took me out and put me in a van. I was driven to the district jail and locked up in a cell in the female section. They placed a lantern outside the barred door and left. The cell buzzed with mosquitoes.

After half an hour an old hag shuffled in, jingling huge keys. She looked at me and went out, grumbling. The jailer arrived. I was taken out again on a dirty stretcher, and put in a Black Maria. Two armed po­licemen sat inside. The van rumbled through the darkened town and reached the civil hospital. I was carried to the female general ward and dumped on a filthy bed. There was great commotion when the pa­tients saw me handcuffed. An old woman began to lament loudly—her son had been killed in the uprising.

The doctor came late at night. He was followed by a surly nurse. My wounds were cleaned and dressed. I was given watery rice and lentils and a lukewarm cup of tea. The policemen continued to guard the en­trance. I don’t know why they didn’t take me to the prison hospital.

I remained in the general ward for three days. Since I was sur­rounded by sympathetic patients I was transferred to a single room.

Fortunately, none of my injuries was serious. The doctor treated me with great care. They were government servants, but secretly most of them were sympathetic to the Quit India Movement. At nightfall some of the women patients of the general ward sneaked in. They brought me fruit and sweets and tried to look after me as best they could.

A week passed. One fine morning an English lady arrived. She came straight to my bed, bent over me and gently said, “Good morn­ing, Rosie.”

I was taken aback. A drab, middle-aged woman. Gray hair tied into a neat bun. Gray frock. Heavy boots. A typical soul-saver. She was Miss Alice Barlow, Charles Barlow’s famous missionary sister in the Garo Hills. She spoke mildly and said my Papa was in a state. He had gone to see her brother and sought his help. He had come to know that she was here. Mr. Barlow trunk-called the English clergyman in this dis­trict. It’s all part of the Merciful God’s plan, my dear, she added, and took out paper and a fountain pen. She said if I signed on the dotted line of the typed letter of apology, I would be released forthwith. The district magistrate would send me home with an armed escort.

I refused to sign. Miss Barlow didn’t insist. The following morning she came again. A uniformed orderly carried a flask of coffee and a hamper full of fruit, cakes, and sandwiches. The policemen and some of the hospital staff were impressed by my new importance. The na­tionalist doctors resented the attention. Miss Barlow resumed her preaching. She had begun talking at me as though I were one of the Naga tribals she wanted to convert.

The same evening a young patient from the general ward came in. The policemen on duty turned a blind eye to these nocturnal visitors from the female ward for they, too, secretly sympathized with me.

There was a very poor Muslim girl called Razia. Her father, she told me, was a petty clerk in the civil court. She said: Apa, all of us in the general ward have been praying for your speedy recovery, but if you sign the letter of apology we will never forgive you.

I said, Razia, I shan’t disappoint you all, don’t worry. Just then the sentry at the door coughed as a caution and Razia made herself scarce.

A couple of days later Miss Barlow arrived again. She was not alone. A Bengali gentleman accompanied her. She introduced him as Robi Kumar Sanyal, a senior district official. Mr. Sanyal would like to talk to you, my dear, quoth she. Mr. Sanyal repeated Miss Barlow’s words:

I wish you well. Don’t you realize so much bloodshed, destruction of national property, and lawlessness will lead us nowhere?

I remained silent. Miss Barlow still hoped I might relent. “Look, Rosie, the Buddha was called the Prince of Peace. I do not have to tell you about Jesus. Mr. Gandhi also preaches nonviolence. Why must you follow the path of terrorism and— ”

The visitors noticed that I was dozing, so they left with a sigh.

On the fourth day, Mr. Sanyal came again. Instead of Miss Barlow he was accompanied by a young man who resembled him. Mr. Robi Sanyal introduced him as his cousin, Mr. Basant Kumar Sanyal, advo­cate and journalist from Calcutta. Said he wanted to interview me for a Bengali magazine.

I was confused. How was Mr. Sanyal, a senior government official, permitting me to give such an interview? But these were abnormal times. Anything was possible. It was difficult to distinguish between friend and foe.

Mr. Basant Sanyal blinked rather foolishly. I am supposed to be very pretty and all, and used to such attention from men, but at that mo­ment I must have looked awful. Bandaged head. Unkempt hair. Un­washed face. I was peeved. He asked me routine questions: family background, education, hobbies. And whatever I distinctly recalled of the skirmish of which I was an eyewitness.

Since I had refused to tender an apology and my injuries had been completely cured, after exactly two weeks I was told that I would be taken back to jail.

That last evening in the female ward the girls sang, in undertones, the revolutionary songs of Qazi Nazrul Islam. In the morning when I was handcuffed again and taken out of my room many women fol­lowed me to the veranda. Some wept. They knew that if it was some­how established in the court of law that I was one of those who threw the hand grenades (which killed two policemen) I would be impris­oned for life.

I was taken back to the district jail. When I was locked up in a cell I realized for the first time that I had become a political prisoner.

Mr. Basant Kumar Sanyal turned up during the visiting hour. He was carrying a bundle of brand-new cotton saris. A bit shyly he said, “My sister-in-law, Ranjana Sanyal, has sent you these. You said the other day that the sari you had on in Isherdee had been torn.”

I felt awkward. He said that his elder brother was a leading barrister of Calcutta and that he would defend me.

“Tell me, why are the Sanyals so concerned about me?” I asked.

He laughed, and said nothing. He continued visiting me daily and kept me informed about the legal position.

Then it dawned on me that Basant Sanyal had fallen in love. That was why he had not gone back to Cal. As a nationalist he was keen to help me—but there were a whole lot of girls imprisoned during the uprising. Why didn’t he worry about them? I asked him, and he said those girls had their families to help them out or arrange for their legal defence. I had nobody. I had told him earlier about Papa and his loyal­ist views, but obviously that was not the only reason.

I think two things floored him: my looks, and the courage of my convictions.

One evening he came looking aglow. Said that I could be bailed out after furnishing a bond of ten thousand rupees.

Who would bail me out? The information was useless. As a matter of fact I had resigned myself to the idea of spending the next fourteen years in prison, maybe in the penal settlement of Andaman Island. I had also accepted the possibility that Papa would lose his eyesight cry­ing silently for me or would simply die of shock and grief.

Miss Barlow had also come to the jail, but after realizing the futility of her mission, had returned to her mountains.

Early next morning the door was unlocked. The jailer came in and said, “You can leave, Miss Bannerjee.”

Basant Kumar Sanyal had furnished the bail.

He was waiting for me at the gate; Mr. and Mrs. Robi Sanyal were in the motorcar. They took me to their bungalow in the Civil Lines. When I got there I was hit by the incredible difference in atmosphere. The hu­man misery and squalor of the female general ward and the female prison belonged to a different world.

After a long time I bathed in a clean bathroom, wore a starched cot­ton sari and had proper food.

In the evening Basant said to me, “Pack up. We are
leaving tomorrow.”

“I don’t have much to pack,” I replied.

“I said this out of sheer habit,” he was grinning. “I’ll take Rosie to the bazaar tomorrow,” said his cousin’s wife, Ranjana.

“She can do her shopping in Calcutta,” said Basant.

“Why Calcutta . . . ?” I cut him short.

“Because I am going to take you home as my wife.”

Does this read like one of those bourgeois women’s magazine ro­mances we used to be so snobbish about?

Was I bailing myself out of the situation I had landed in because of my politics? Was it not as bad as signing the letter of apology? Would I have helped the cause of India’s freedom by serving a long term in jail? Had I wondered that if I said no, eventually I might have had to settle for somebody only slightly better than Luther Biswas?

I must be brief. A civil marriage in the present circumstances could create problems. So the very next evening a Brahmin priest was called. He ignited tiny pieces of sandalwood in a brazier and performed the Vedic rites (whatever they are). Basant and I went around this “sacred fire” seven times. I was renamed Radhika. Had the Sanyals been wor­shippers of Kali, they told me, they would have renamed me the mili­tant Durga. They explained to me that they were Vaishnavs, worship­pers of Krishna, so they renamed me Radhika, symbol of sublime devotion. Basant told me that in Bengal’s Vaishnava sect every man is an image of Krishna and every woman, Radha. Lovely idea, that.

Look. Religion has no meaning for me. In church the parson would have repeated a few words. That Brahmin also intoned some mumbo-jumbo. Love, my dear, is the real thing.

Yes, I am also very fond of Basant. He may not be the world’s most glamorous male, but he is quite presentable and a real gentleman.

After a few days we came down to Calcutta. Basant has this large bungalow in Ballygunj. They are a distinguished family. They wel­comed me warmly. Mother-in-law and some aunts didn’t seem ter­ribly enthusiastic, because after all I am the daughter of an insignificant upcountry native clergyman. But they are a cultured lot and do not for a moment make me feel unwanted or odd, for they know that Basant adores me.

They are probably richer than the Woodland Roys.

Nirmalendu Roy is our next-door neighbor in Ballygunj and a friend of my husband.

I grew up in want, now I’ll have the good things of life. You have seen how we lived in Lily Cottage . . . Papa’s ideals of Christian pov­erty and all that.

Papa also used to talk of Divine Mysteries. So look how Basant met me through our enemy, Charles Barlow . . . If Barlow had not asked his sister to see me in the hospital, and if she had not come with Robi San­yal and Robi had not brought his cousin Basant along . . .

Papa, of course, has not forgiven me for having married an infidel. As soon as we came here, Basant and I wrote a joint letter asking him for his blessings.

The other day I received his brief reply. He thanks the Lord that I am alive and well. But since I have left the fold and gone away with a poly­theist and an idolator, he will never see me again. He will continue to pray, however, that the Lord deliver me from sin and evil.

Basant sends you his greetings. Why don’t you come and stay with us during the vacs? I’ll keep a guest room ready
for you.

Yours,

Radhika Rosie Sanyal

Ballygunj,
Calcutta,
22 October, 1942




GOOD LUCK DIARY

January 1, 1967. Poosh 16, 1333. Ramazan 19, 1386 A.H.

Puh 18, 2023. Name: Yasmin Majid Belmont Address:

If this diary is found please return to the above address.

New Year’s Day. I begin this brand-new notebook, with the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Beneficent. Somebody has brought it for me from Dacca. It is called Good Luck Diary, but I am writing in it so it will turn into Bad Luck Diary. Tut, tut. Mustn’t be ungrateful to God. I am better off than many. Forgive me, God, Thou knowest everything about me. I have been disobedient to Thee. I hurt my pious father, be­came a professional dancer. Married a non-M. Allowed my daughter to become a non-M. Lord, I tremble before Thee in fear of Thy wrath. O God, save me from punishment in the grave. I beseech Thee in the name of Thy Beloved Prophet.

I telephoned the senior Mrs. Belmont to wish her and my daughter a Happy New Year. They had left for Mass.

Dear Diary. Even old women in this country have no family feeling. Scheherezade is ill. Old Mrs. Belmont has dumped her in a hospital. I go there by train on Sundays. Come back dead tired at night. Mon­day morning I must be in the factory on time. Doc says I have a weak heart. Must not dance.

Dear Good Luck Diary. It happened three days ago. I came out of the hos­pital and walked down to the bus stop feeling miserable. My daugh­ter had been exceptionally cold toward me. Perhaps her grandmother does not want her to have anything to do with me. S. is a little girl, but calculating like her father, and callous like her grandma. Perhaps she also doesn’t want people to know that her mother is a colored woman. She is a hazel-eyed brunette and has inherited the stunning good looks of her father. Obviously she does not wish to be known as a mulatto. Today she said bluntly, “Mummy, why do you take the trouble of trav­elling all the way from London every week to see me? I am all right.” This broke my heart.

While I stood waiting for the coach, my tears mingled with the rain that lashed my face. Suddenly I felt that someone was watching me.

The stranger had heard me muttering “Allah, Allah.” Also, I was clad in shalwar-kameez. So he gently asked me in Urdu if I had a relative in the hospital.

I looked up at him hesitantly. A fair, tall, broad-shouldered hulk of a man, perhaps a Pathan or a Punjabi. Not at all bad to look at. He was also waiting for the same coach. A moment ago I had been feeling to­tally lost and abandoned. His words seemed to me like a lighted safe boat appearing on the dark and stormy Brahmaputra. With deep grat­itude I told him that I had come to see my daughter. Now she was all right and should be discharged soon.

Why then was I crying so bitterly? He didn’t ask, but looked con­cerned. The brightly lit coach emerged in the gray rain. We got in. He sat down next to me. Told me he was coming from Bedford. His car developed some trouble near this village, so he had left it in a garage and was going to London where he had his own business.

He belonged to Rampur, U.P., India. Migrated to Lahore, Pakistan, in 1949. Second migration to England six years ago. The usual pattern of immigrants. He seemed highly educated. Said: You are a Bengali but speak Urdu so well, and that too with a Punjabi accent! Told him that for the last so many years I had been working in a garment factory where most of my co-workers were Sikh women.

You work in a factory? he asked, surprised.

Yes, I said briefly. Didn’t tell him that I started out as a celebrated dancer, ended up stitching shirts. That’s how the mighty fall.

Dear Good Luck Diary. Maqbool and I spent the evening in Hampton Court gardens. He is going to buy a big house in Barnes. Didn’t say anything else. But as a Persian proverb says: a wordless hint is enough for the wise.

Maqbool says I could join his firm at a much higher salary, but I don’t like the idea. Don’t want to be beholden to him.

He respects me. Meets me with great decorum. We are equals as friends. Then, he’ll be the boss and I his employee. No, that won’t do. Aren’t I right, Allah? You go on leading me on the right path.

Old Mrs. Belmont has never invited me to her place in the coun­try. Bitch. It is a regular manor house. Belonged to some rakish lord who left it in his will to the bloody woman. She used to be a high-class whore, as far as I can gather. Who else would dance in the Redmill The­atre? She is rolling. That’s why S. flatters her. She has disowned Gerald for some reason. I never bothered to find out. Why should I?

My daughter is so rich but she has never given me a present, except a small handbag she brought for me last Christmas. Sees me once or twice a year. Anyway, may God keep her in good health and happiness.

My father has disowned me. I’ve been forgotten by my relatives. A woman from their straitlaced family went astray. My case rests with God. When my countrymen meet me here, especially the fellows from Dacca, they say with great enthusiasm, Come to Karachi. The govern­ment will set up a dance academy for you. When I write to the min­istry at Karachi dealing with cultural affairs, there is no response. I am a person of no consequence. Who will pay any attention to me? That was in the very beginning—they wanted to please a Central Minister from East Pakistan, so they sent me on a foreign tour. It was part of East-West Pakistan politics. I didn’t realize it then. Dear Diary, the world makes me sick. Did you notice the Indian Minister Rehan Ahmed’s turnabout? Avoided meeting me here, in London.

One of the Sikh girls in the factory has taught me a song of the Pun­jabi Sufi, Baba Farid:

I am not scared of dying, O mullah,

Let me have my fill of death.

I don’t demean myself if I turn into a dancing girl.

Let me dance to please the Friend, for He is cross with me.

Sunday, July 30, 1967. Rabi-ul-sani 1387.

Sawan 15, 2024. Sarabon 14, 1474.

Seven months have gone of this year as well. One is alone and sur­rounded by so many calendars—Christian Islamic Bikrami Bengali. I don’t know why the printers of this diary didn’t include the Persian calendar as well. It would have added to the confusion of Time.

O boatman, O Rower of the Painted Boat. Turn your canoe around, tie it to the quay. How long will this stream flow? How long will you row this canoe? In what mood do you row, morning and evening? What mysteries do you carry in your heart? O brother boatman, does this river have no end?

I remember these bhatiali songs of the boatmen of my unhappy land, East Pakistan.

Wrote to Deepali today.

Rosie is visiting London with her husband and daughters. They have come on a pleasure trip. Happy and affluent. Staying with relatives in Hampstead. She got my address from Deepali and contacted me. Asked me to dine with them in a Piccadilly restaurant. I went. Didn’t invite her to my dingy bed-sitter, nor told her what I did for a living.

Eventually we fell to talking of old days when both Rosie and Dee­pali were active revolutionaries. Rosie’s children were accompanied by their hosts’ teenaged London-born daughters. When I mentioned that as young girls our greatest ambition used to be to become hero­ines like Pritilata, Kalpana Dutt, and Kanaklata Barua, the girls asked me sweetly if they were famous film stars of our time!

Kafka says that you can discern the meaning of certain words only through your own wounds. And Tagore also said something like that.

Keep quiet, Yasmin, you are crazy, I am looking at important busi­ness papers.

Tinkle tinkle tinkle . . .

Dancing again? The doctor has forbidden it . . .

Let me dance to please my Friend . . . Listen, Tagore has said that Mem­ory is a worshipper who kills the present and offers its heart to the dead past.

What else does your Tagore say? He is boring me to tears.

Tinkle tinkle tinkle . . . Say you love me . . . I pleaded.

I love you, he replied.

Suddenly he got up, looked at his watch and said he had to rush for an important appointment. Went out and drove away. Maqbool is a self-made, successful businessman. Such men are usually v. selfish. He is also an egoist and arrogant and much pleased with himself. Though honest and truthful.

He had forgotten one of his files in my room. When I picked it up an open letter slipped out. It was a childish, feminine scrawl. Some­how I could not help glancing through the note. It said in florid Urdu:

My dear honorable crown-of-my-head, Khan Maqbool Ahmed Khan Sahib. The slave-girl pays her respects to you with folded hands, and begs to state that she has received the remittance. Further: the undersigned is fine, the children are also fine and remember you. Further: you have been away in England for so long. Come back and show us your auspicious face, or call all of us over there as soon as you can. And look after your health. My honorable parents-in-law send you their fondest love.

Remembering you all the time,

I am your humble wife,

Maimoona Khatoon, by her own pen.

October 3. Deep night. The eye of the owl. The eye of the cat. The eye of the forsaken woman. Silence sleeps. Yellow autumn is a weak, help­less woman whose man has run away. Maimoona Khatoon Autumn.

In Arjumand Manzil they had a gramophone record of Harimati or Dulari which Jehan Ara Apa often played: Let this world burn down where love is rejected and hearts are trampled upon, where nobody is a friend of anybody. Don’t grieve, Maimoona Khatoon.

Dear Diary. You belong to 1967. I have discovered you after so many years, in the bottom drawer of the dresser. All the pages are blank after October 3 . . . What happened? Heart attack. Prolonged illness. Hospi­talization. Living on dole. Scheherezade has become a photographer’s model. Doesn’t meet me.

Maqbool suddenly stopped seeing me. Why should he waste his time on a sick woman? I am told a pretty English girl lives with him.

Nadir dam . . . tana dire na . . . na dir dam ta na di re na . . .

Gerald Belmont has become the editor of a Gay Lib magazine. I am told that now a German boy lives with him.

Dear Good Luck Diary. Today after many years Maqbool rang up. Sounded worried about me. Said in case I needed a job he had a vacancy in his Hamburg office. Light job as a receptionist. I refused politely.

Dear Bad Luck Diary. Today I went to Maqbool’s office myself. Time turns proud people into beggars. Asked him to give me the recep­tionist’s job in Hamburg. He was v. courteous and helpful. From next month, God willing, I shall be working in Hamburg. Sherry has van­ished. Gone off to America, I am told. Snow is falling like silent mu­sic. Christmas is two days away.

Once during Krishna Chaturdashi, on a moonless night, I accompa­nied Deepali to the banks of the Padma. There, Deepali made banyan leaves into tiny boats and lighted earthen lamps—one each for all of us friends. She placed the lamps in the leaf-boats and floated them in the water. An old Hindu custom to decipher the future. Some of those lighted boats sank, some sailed away and disappeared in the dark.

Rehan Ahmed, I gather, has gone back to Dacca from Calcutta. In E. Pak. as well, I am sure, he’ll become a Cabinet Minister.

A Punjabi devotional song: Whoever once comes to Thy door, he crosses the ocean of sorrow . . .

Now I am not too sure if He exists.

Dear Good Luck Diary. Maqbool turned up yesterday. Stayed for quite a while. Said Maimoona Khatoon was an imbecile. It was an arranged marriage. Didn’t stay much with her. Up till now he was too busy ex­panding his business. Would I . . . ?

Couldn’t believe my ears. “Yes,” I replied.

He has disappeared once again.

The manager of Maqbool’s Hamburg branch is an aggressive Punjabi. Ever since the outbreak of war in East Pakistan he has been calling me a traitor. I keep quiet. Can’t afford to retort as I have nowhere to go. Time makes one a coward, too. Maqbool’s sister and two brothers were all killed in Chittagong. He has had a nervous breakdown. I don’t know about my own people—they are in Dacca. How can I find out? They may have been killed, too. This morning a delegation of former East Pakistanis (present Bangladeshis) came to see me and demanded that I stop working for Maqbool, who is a Pakistani. What do I do if I leave this job? I won’t get another, my health being what it is. I have no aca­demic qualifications. Maqbool is giving me a sort of pension because he has a bad conscience. My compatriots quarreled with me and left.

This morning the Punjabi manager gave me notice. My services are to be terminated because I am a Bangladeshi. Horrified, I trunk-called London. Maqbool had left for Karachi.

Once again Bengal has sunk deep in the ocean of fire and blood. It is a big Dance of Kali . . . Oh, these are such
clichés...I am so tired.

Four years have passed. Four years I have waited patiently. He may turn up again. It seems impossible now. He has shifted to that house in Barnes. I am here in West Germany, drifting from town to town doing odd jobs, lost in the crowd of Turkish and Asian workers. Better-off Bangladeshis avoid me, fearing that I’ll ask them for help. The new gen­eration of Bangladeshis does not know me, they have not even heard of me. For the older generation I am an embarrassment. Some of them have floated the rumor that I have gone round the bend. Am I really heading for a crack-up? After washing dishes in this café, I sit outside and watch the passing scene. A graying, colored woman in Western dress, smoking in a corner, staring at the street—that’s me. Waiting for nothing. Can Maqbool still appear out of the fog? Not possible.

One late evening I sat drinking my black coffee. A terrible, hawk-nosed Gulf Arab spotted me. He took out a wad of currency notes and showed it to me.

I have stopped sitting on the sidewalk.

Last night I didn’t see my reflection in the mirror.

Frankfurt, January 4. Today I have written a black-robed ballet in Ben­gali. Sad, melancholy Indian mode, Purvi. The corpses are coming back home the corpses are coming back coming back . . .

Gosh, I can be morbid. Okay, I’ll choreograph the ballet of spring in the happy mode Basant . . . One must try to survive.

All these people walking along the strasse are in fact heading for a cemetery or a crematorium. All living people are potential corpses. All people staying in my boardinghouse are going to die.

Jan. 24. Nothing happened in Frankfurt, going back to Hamburg. Now the river and the sea meet the ice. I tremble like a low-down bitch.

My heart is like the over-crowded temple at Calcutta’s Kalighat. Sac­rificial goats are being cut around-the-clock, before the terrible idol of Kali. Her three red eyes stare into Gehenna. Pie dogs loiter on the tem­ple floor. Women worshippers slice the goats’ red flesh.

My heart is the Harlots’ Alley of Sonagachi. My wishes and regrets, all garishly made up, stand against dirty walls, hoping that the next man will bring salvation. All doors are locked. All lanes are closed. How do I go to meet Hari? asked Mirabai. When the telephone rings, I trem­ble. It may be Maqbool, or my daughter, Sherry. From this moment on, my punishment will increase.

My unseen persecutor will go on lashing me till my last breath. God Who is Merciful and Compassionate, Thou created me so that I live thus? And how will I die? In my life, O Magnificent Lord, many a time I have said to myself: this is the most horrible moment of my existence, not knowing that worse moments were yet to come. My God lowers my head in front of mine enemies.

Dear Bad Luck Diary. I am cracking up. A seventeenth-century Urdu poet said:

A perverse wind has blighted the entire garden, but the bough of the Tree of Sorrow called “heart” has remained evergreen . . .

O boatman, put your oars away. Your canoe has broken apart. It’s time to go.

Second heart attack. I have written to Rehan Ahmed’s sister, Rabia, (at her old Dacca address) that in case I die here and she hears the news, she may please have my funeral prayers arranged in a Dacca mosque.

I read somewhere about the second principle of thermodynamics. The world shall soon come to an end and the sun grow cold. Religion says it will be the Day of Judgment. The optimist says No, everything remains. Humanity shall live on.

Allah knows best. Who am I to understand His mysteries?

I want to die with dignity.

The Unknown Bridegroom is about to arrive.

Pain and happiness. Sanity and insanity. Hatred and love. War and peace. Poverty and affluence. Defeat and victory. Sin and virtue. Life and death. They are all separated from each other by a hair’s breadth. In a fraction of a moment one can cross over from one state into another.

Dear Good Luck Diary. Last night my daughter, Scheherezade, called from Chicago. I wasn’t at home. She left a message that today she will ring up again. After a long time I’ll hear her voice. I am v. happy.

(unfinished)

Contributor

Hirsh Sawhney

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