Mehreen Ahmed’s Incandescence folds into its pages the intriguing story of the making of Bangladesh as a nation in 1971. A mere gleam of an idea in the eyes of visionaries in the earlier years, this yearning emerged as a revolution and then a nation with a suddenness, with seemingly nothing preordained about the upsurge other than a swelling of protests and rallies.
But the bridled energies and emotions of people suppressed over centuries, gathered high amounts of precipitation in a short period of time like the monsoons in this region, exploding hard and fast into unrelenting violence, one that cleaved this region from its earlier geographical loyalties and devastated lives, lifestyles and destinies. Restoration has been slow in the making and is, as yet, an enterprise in progress. After all, social engineering takes time to come to fruition and comes at a price.
While the book subtly yet tangibly juxtaposes the past history of the region against the revolution and its entailing current realities, what runs as a leitmotif is the many other contrarieties that prevail within this milieu. An elitist way of life with ancestral homes, manicured gardens and orchards that contrasts with the popular will of people and their lives in the filth of slums. The raw-edged contradictions between cultural continuities and cultural pluralism. Secular values at variance with polemical views. Community cohesion in dissimilitude with individualists seeking a discrete identity for themselves. And, outgrown traditional values of morality turning incongruous with the unfolding new norms, the tentative new normal. And just so many more of such thorny anomalies.
Mehreen Ahmed’s Incandescence opens strikingly with the exploration of the intense longings of Mila who is torn between staying in her marriage that has lost its appeal and integrity and following the trail of a promising romance, one nipped in the bud. It follows the contours of her emotional fault lines and keeps up with her storyline with meticulous attention to detail till she arrives upon her decided-upon destination.
The tale, meanwhile, also, draws us in effortlessly and completely into the lives and incipient dreams of several women in her family and friend circle, across four generations, all associated with the House of Chowdhury. This is an enormous, magnificent residence, whose glory, riches and values are caught in a double whammy: its already diminishing influence now plummeting into irrelevance with the change in the societal matrix; the pincher effect proving too much to withstand for its residents.
In this regal, elegant house, Mila’s grandmother Raiza Chowdhury fights to retain the legacy of her home and her values even as she tries to control the lustful ways of her sons. Her mother Nazmun Banu holds on to her thrice-married husband which on the surface may appear to the readers to be submissive and weak-willed but if one cared to take a closer look it reveals her tenacity to stay rooted against all odds. Her aunt Lutfun follows her childhood sweetheart’s dreams by marrying the second Chowdhury son but eventually finds her own felicity with a spry that defines her. Prema, her other aunt, who in an audacious move abandons her husband and three children to marry the youngest Chowdhury son, says her truth is hers alone and she will stand by it even if others don’t understand or empathise with it. Shreya, her best friend, has her own journey to make, to find closure and her peace for the horrors of the revolution visited upon her sister, and, thus, on the family as a whole. Her orphaned maid Shimul has to find the courage to create her own new world when a kitchen wall literally collapses on her and injures her severely. And, Saima, her very own daughter, in complete contrast to her, wants to retrace her steps and find her paternal roots from which she has been severed.
Each of these women attempt to find their inner incandescence in their own way as the accepted and right way stands subverted. Are they all completely, perfectly and incandescently happy as they find the lives they have been denied? Maybe, maybe not. But their personal breakthroughs and choices are theirs, theirs alone, theirs to own and theirs to spurn. Some accept the conditions as they exist and others take responsibility for changing them. It is their journeys recounted with such vibrancy that lends the book its élan vitale.
The men in the book are given to licentious behaviour and don’t waste time agonizing over their wildly oscillating moral compasses. But the author’s gaze sweeps through their lives with compassion as the world as they know it begins to collapse before their alarmed eyes with each passing day, and they increasingly lose control over their lives, their self-assuredness. So despite their flaws, they demand our empathy as they are treated with compassion.
Binding all her character’s individual struggles survival together is the larger issue of the real nature of life, its elemental truth seeded in the daily-ness of living. One that has the potential to lift one from sadness to hope, from darkness to incandescence. That is if one wishes to discover it, dares to explore it and take it to an afterlife, an issue touched upon repeatedly through the book and not so fleetingly.
Mehreen’s control over the storyline is masterly as she switches from the large historical canvas to the everyday routines within a home and then into the intimacies of personal spaces, into the language of longing. The spare and sprawl of her content is in balance.
Her prose is one of liquid grace like the rains of Bangladesh, evocative and flowing. Both the rains and her words gird us and hold us within their spell. She captures the volley of gunfire as brilliantly she does the whooshes of bamboo groves.
Her gift of description is such that you can taste the history, culture and daily experiences of Bangladesh. An inkling of just how is here in these lines: “No one would understand or even care, why her love had increased lately for the incessant rainfall, and the swishes of the gusty winds, or the mists of the opaque drizzles, the frolicking birds such as the crows with their measured picks off the lake’s surface.”