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Of Jinns, humans and a secret pact

A writer’s passion to write a story from the heart is perhaps the most courageous act. While a writer does need to incorporate a steady story progression along with revealing the characters, showing protagonist’s journey towards a resolution while putting the protagonist in between conflicts, the writer also needs to bind all characters together while keeping the setting and plot in unison with the story. Shazaf Fatima Haider has accomplished all these tasks and more in her novel “A Firefly in the Dark.” (2018: Speaking Tiger Publishing, New Delhi) While her previous novel, “How It Happened” (2012: Penguin Books India) she narrates the unrest caused in Pakistani families when young people choose a life partner for themselves, “A Firefly in the Dark” on the other hand, focuses on how a supernatural entity or a Jinn create nuisance for a family.

The story begins with why Sharmeem’s mother, Aliya, had forbidden her to listen to her Nani’s stories of Jinn and other supernatural and paranormal beings. Comprising 21 chapters, the novel begins with some mellowness in its appeal. However, the more you read the more secrets you would come to know about the beings that Nani’s has been in contact with and the pact with the Jinn-world Sharmeen’s ancestor had made. It is heartening to see Sharmeen’s strong bond with her Nani, who is strict and has her own rules which she follows and implements in his home. Shazaf has brilliantly explained the persona and character of Nani along with that of Sharmeen and Aliya. While these three female characters make up most of the story, the male characters include Amir, Aliya’s husband who was in a coma and sleeping in the other room of the house, and Aziz, the servant.

The story picks up so elegantly that the reader does not have to make an effort in understanding the character’s person and his/her place in the story. Moreover, the author’s flow in describing the plot, setting and characters is simple yet so powerful. Interestingly, the entire story takes place inside Nani’s ancestral bungalow, which is old yet sturdy. Shazaf creates such an enchanted setting that with only five characters, the reading experience becomes marvelous. Furthermore, without saying anything, Shazaf says so much with her words. For instance, without telling the readers that Nani was in contact with Jinns, she writes, “…Nani watched her daughter walk away and mimicked her panting words, gesticulating to the rocking chair in the corner that nobody sat on…” Shazaf has so brilliantly used her prowess of using ‘show, don’t tell’ that will compel you to read a sentence twice. For instance, when describing Nani’s house, Shazaf writers, “Long, tapering cracks snaked along the slabs, as if they were tired of holding the roof up for more than half a century.”

It is in these small moments of excitement and perhaps anxiety does Shazaf establish the fact that Nani’s home is also abode to Jinns and she knows of their existence. What is the history behind this relationship is for you to find out. Furthermore, Shazaf also explicates with clarity and with one chapter at a time the doubts Aliya has in her mind about Jinns that makes her feel her mother has gone insane. However, Sharmeen has the credence that her Nani is telling the truth when she recounts the stories of Jinns and evil creatures. This also creates a tussle between Aliya and Sharmeen for Aliya lives a life of skepticism while Sharmeen is a believer of what she thinks is right.

While Sharmeen is close to her Nani, she is fighting an inner battle. In one room lives her Nani who has a larger than life persona while in the other lives her mother, who is torn between dreaming to live a life of happiness for his husband, Amir, is in a coma. However, another tragedy awaits Sharmeen and Aliya that will again change their lives. Shazaf has used her words and expression so well in explaining this tragedy it will give you goosebumps. However, when Sharmeen is heartbroken by the tragedy, she comes in contact with a Jinn through a process her Nani had taught her. While the Jinn could not reveal himself to Sharmeen, he first appeared in the form of a firefly and asked Sharmeen to call him Jugnu, and hence Jugnu became Sharmeen’s friend and kind of a guardian. Aziz, the servant, is also close to Sharmeen and Aliya, however, he never came in Nani’s good books for she always had doubts about him. These qualms did turn true in the most terrifying ways which led to more calamities befalling Sharmeen and her mother.