Avshok Chopra — author, book editor, publisher, columnist and now a novelist — is a man of many facets. A voracious reader with a remarkable memory and the ability to recall what he wants at the right moment, in his novel, Memories of Fire, he quotes profusely from the works of poets and writers such as Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Anton Chekhov. Sometimes, though, the quotations are long-winded and digressive, reminding one of films songs from the 1950s and ’60s that were melodious and quick on the lips, but impeded the flow of the film’s plot.
However, to be fair to Chopra, he grabs your attention from the word go when he takes you to the village of Rasoolpur in Himachal Pradesh, where people from different castes and creeds live peacefully and participate in everyone’s religious festivals. This harmonious coexistence is best exemplified by the Sikh medical practitioner, Dr Waryam Singh, and his jigri yaar [bosom friend] Seth Raja Ram Upadhyay. Immense warmth is also present in the relationships between the ladies and children of the two families. Cementing this harmony is Bansi Bua, an old lady loved and respected by all. She quotes profusely from Hindu and Sikh scriptures and it is not until the end that one discovers she was a Muslim; her remains are not cremated, but buried, and her face turned towards Makkah.
Peopled with realistic characters, Memories of Fire chronicles the lives of five friends, four of whom converge at their old haunt 54 years after having parted. There is Deepak Kumar, a man of letters; Balbir Singh, son of Dr Waryam Singh; Reza Ahmed, son of a Pakistani United Nations employee who was once posted in New Delhi; and the ever helpful Vijay Thakur.
A multilayered novel punctuated with contemporary history that deserves to be read more than once
Unable to join them is the Hindu seth’s son Radhey Shyam, who is serving life imprisonment. We learn that decades ago when they were in school, a pretty young widow, Miss Aneeze Karim, came to teach Hindi. Young Radhey Shyam was attracted to her and the feeling soon turned mutual. Even though her Muslim nawabi parents and the young lad’s Hindu parents could not accept the bond, the two — who shared a deep interest in fine art — married when the young man completed school. Later, Aneeze discovered she had advanced cancer and no drugs could bring relief from the unbearable pain. Out of sheer love for his wife, Radhey Shyam took her life in an act of mercy killing. His friends remain in touch with him, corresponding and visiting him at Burail Jail whenever possible.
Vijay, after a short foray in the world of theatre, is a journalist posted in Simla [Shimla] — very much like his creator, Chopra, in real life. The only day scholar of the five friends, Vijay lived in a large haveli where his mother hired Rani as a household maid. Four years older than him, Rani seduced Vijay. He fell in love with her, but not having any place for romance in her life, she disappeared from the haveli. Years later Vijay discovers a child waiting tables at a roadside restaurant who bears a remarkable resemblance to his own self. He realises the boy is his illegitimate son, at which he takes on the responsibility for the boy’s education and better standard of living.
Balbir is a doctor in the United Kingdom. He is on his way to visit his parents in the village, but anti-Sikh riots break out after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh guards and he is stranded in Delhi. Balbir is given refuge by a benign Hindu family and when Vijay learns of his friend’s plight, he undertakes a risky trip from Rasoolpur to meet him. To take Balbir safely to the airport, Vijay and the Hindu family cut off his long hair, shave his beard and remove his metal bangle. It is a conflicting moment for the young Sikh man, but when his Chinese-British girlfriend suggests that outward appearance has nothing to do with one’s inner beliefs, he adopts a different approach to life.
Chopra paints a fair view of both sides of the picture of the crisis following Gandhi’s assassination. It is a moving moment when Dr Waryam Singh, Seth Raja Ram and their families go to the bullet-riddled Golden Temple, where the Sikh leader Bhindranwale and his armed colleagues took refuge from the Indian army. Even a Pakistani Muslim reader (read: this reviewer), who had once visited the sacred place and been touched by its serenity and solemnity, finds the description disturbing, to say the least.
Deepak — expected by teachers and classmates at the missionary school to become a great writer, but never making it beyond professorship at a university — exchanges letters on and off with Reza, who became a respected accountant in Pakistan as well as a sought-after figure in literary and political circles.
Reza keeps his friend abreast with political developments in Pakistan; these passages would sound familiar and not particularly interesting to readers on our side of the Wagah Border, but Chopra’s narration of other developments in India should be informative. For instance, details of setting up a railway along a stretch of inhospitable terrain between Simla and Kalka would fascinate railway buffs anywhere. Likewise, even an Indophile such as myself was unaware about the Bishnois — a religious group created in 1485 by an environmentalist — who wouldn’t even wear blue since the colour was obtained by cutting large amounts of the dye-producing plants.
Chopra weaves such details skilfully into his narration, but what seems totally out of place is the essay on Chopra’s favourite fiction writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, written by Manto’s nephew Hamid Jalal. It would have been more appropriate had this been added to the book as an appendix.
Chopra’s raw material is primarily his own life. His characters are drawn largely from people he has known and even objects such as the naan khatai that his Lahori friends bring for him, are real — if one may use the word.
No assessment of this novel can be complete without complimenting the writer on his evocative style. Chopra can, for instance, write highly poetic prose about the breathtakingly beautiful Chambal Valley, but when descriptions of the Hindu-Sikh riots demand a change of form, his style becomes hair-raising and his narration blood-curdling. Memories of Fire is a multilayered novel punctuated with contemporary history and it deserves to be read more than once, because one is likely to miss some nuances of narration and description on reading the book for the first time.
One last point: Chopra quotes Mir Taqi Mir at the beginning and at the end of the novel, which shows his undying fondness for Urdu poetry, a quality he infuses in the literary-minded Deepak, who had learned the script of the language.
The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities
Memories of Fire: A Novel
By Ashok Chopra
Penguin Random House,
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 18th, 2018