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Semeen Ali
A Firefly in the Dark
Semeen Ali

Shazaf Fatima Haider
A Firefly in the Dark
Talking Cub (Children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger), 2018
ISBN: 978-93-87693-32-6
Pp 231 | ? 299

Stories of East Bengal’s history of struggles

How many stories had she lost when Nani died?

When I picked up this book, the title inadvertently reminded me of Qurratulain Hyder’s Fireflies in the Mist or its original title – Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar. But that book dealt with a theme that was a painful one – of East Bengal’s history full of struggles and the creation of Bangladesh. A Firefly in the Dark comes under books for children but that does not mean that it is a light read as the stereotype exists for books that fall under this category. It was a pleasant surprise to read this book. The cover of the book (I shall discuss in detail later to point out its relevance) somehow manages to hide the dark undertones that run through the book.

The book is about relationships, it’s about imagination, about that thin line that exists between what is real and what we consider an illusion. Sharmeen, a twelve year old girl is fascinated by the stories her Nani tells her. The stories are not the usual ones-

“No cuddly creature scampered about getting into merry scrapes and happy endings here. Dark Ones lurked here…”

The stories are considered as morbid ones by Sharmeen’s mother Aliya but Sharmeen finds hope in them.

“But the ‘facts’ that her mother kept talking about had made her give up too easily, killed her hopes too soon with too deft a stroke… Nani’s stories were alarming but they gave her hope. There was something that could be done, a twist to be hoped for. This was what her mother didn’t understand. In a family where all adults were trapped in their own little worlds, Nani’s stories gave her comfort.”  

Sharmeen recalls her spending time with her father, wrapped up in books- reading stories about different and distant lands and its heroes. What comes as a breath of fresh air in this book is how Sharmeen questions her father as to why all the adventures are reserved for men while the women are sitting at home and doing domestic chores. The strength of her character comes from questioning the norms and the book hits the nail on its head.

Nani’s and Aliya’s relationship is a distant one- with Aliya tired of living under her mother’s roof while the mother irritated by her daughter’s weak will. A weak will to fight the monsters that are trying to get hold of their home. A sceptical daughter who stopped believing in her mother’s stories about Jinns and Janeerees (she-Jinns) and is consumed by the sadness of her husband Amir’s paralysed body that lies in one of the rooms in this house.

“And Amir was still fighting. But he fought alone, far from Aliya.

Perhaps it was kinder to let him go.”

The fragile relationship between Sharmeen and her mother Aliya-

“Aliya grew silent once more. Sharmeen wanted to comfort her but had discovered that when adults get lost in a distant space where they imagine the past and wish it were different, all you can do is wait for them to snap out of it.”

Memory becomes an important player in this book. There are flashes of past to show the relationship Amir had with everyone in the house. What is important to note is that it is the unseen narrator of the book that holds the reins of the story. There are insights into what each character thinks and is going through and their thought process creates and moulds their individual characters but none of them is given the ropes of the book. Each of them have a role to play including the house itself.

“…That’s why houses can feel happy or sad- because the words lodged in them are thus…”

There is a servant of the house – Aziz, disliked by Nani and trusted by Aliya. The back story shows his attachment and affection for his mistress Aliya and his love for Aliya that could not materialise. The sensitive depiction of that reminded me of Kamila Shamsie’s Salt and Saffron where Aunt Mariam’s running away with their family cook, Masood is looked down upon by the aristocratic family. The class and caste differences have been discussed in detail and even in this book; the way Nani treats and behaves with Aziz brings out not only the class divide that exists but also the fear that resides regarding the supposed vices this class brings with them. The book has sensitively dealt with many themes that make their presence known in subtle ways –

“Perhaps the dead were lonelier than the living? Perhaps they longed to be spoken to, to be remembered, to be touched, but the living just went on with their lives, forgetting because it was necessary?”

It’s a world of magic – of stories within stories. Nani’s endless stories, rather facts, seem like stories. While reading the book, I could not help but recall Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories and while the two books are very different – they both use fantastical elements to shed light on the problems of the real world. 

The friendship that exists between Jugnu (a Jinn) and Sharmeen. The cover of the book depicts the various forms Jugnu takes to be a part of the child’s life- the different portrayals  depicts the various stages in the child’s life as she grapples to find her own voice and save her family. The strengths she discovers and the weaknesses she struggles to hide. A time in a child’s life when she can neither go back to her childhood nor is considered old enough to be taken seriously – has been beautifully portrayed.

“…all you needed were your own fears and superstitions to hedge you in, keep you from the world.”

And the book teaches you how to be free.


Issue 81 (Sep-Oct 2018)

Book Reviews
  • Atreya Sarma U: ‘The Mogul
  • Deepa Agarwal: ‘Timeless Tales from Bengal
  • Deepa Agarwal: ‘The Other
  • Gagan Bihari Purohit: ‘The Legend of the Wolf
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Rereading Tagore
  • Gopal Lahiri: ‘Satisar – The Valley of Demons
  • Hema Ravi: ‘Eternal Art
  • Purabi Bhattacharya: ‘She goes to war
  • Rittvika Singh: ‘Moisture Trapped in a Stone
  • Semeen Ali: ‘A Firefly in the Dark
  • Sushmita Mukherjee: ‘Melodic Mélange
  • Tejwant Singh Gill: ‘Bridge across the Rivers