Feminism and Incandescence by Mehreen Ahmed


“I leave no trace of wings in the air, But I’m glad that I had my flight.”– Rabindranath Tagore

Incandescence was inspired by Rabindranath Tagore’s The Last Poem—Shesher Kobita. I read it three times at different stages of my life. And each time, I construed a new meaning. At the most mature stage of my life, Shesher Kobita led me to reflect on the ethical aspects of romance and marriage, out of which this book came—but not entirely because Incandescence also reflects on the revolution that sheds light further on the characters’ nuanced ethical values.

What’s important in this book is the exploitation of the characters to the extent of what to expect from life, in general, both philosophically and materialistically? Is it always possible to do the right thing? What are its consequences in the event of failure, and how do we make compensations in a broader sense? For instance, if we attribute the benchmark to Mila Chowdhury and her grandmother, who are continuously trying to set guidelines, then we notice flaws on their end—different kinds of flaws but flaws nonetheless. Which gives rise to a fresh set of problems? How does one benchmark ethical behavior? Can it be benchmarked at all?

In attempting to tie these up, the book does not pursue an answer but leaves it open-ended. In the end, it’s left to the reader to reflect and find their own solutions. While it is an entertaining and heartwarming book absorbing a full depiction of culture, it is not a morality play, so to speak. In contemplating such realities, regarding matters of the heart, it is not always possible to condone the moral issues at the heart of the matter.

Either way, I hope my readers will find this enjoyable and not judge the characters too harshly. And take it all in their stride.

Incandescence is hinged on the civil war in former East Pakistan, out of which Bangladesh was born. The plot revolves around Mila Chowdhury, the protagonist. The timeline is a nonlinear journey, where the plot periodically takes off to the past in a back-and-forth movement, following the characters’ mind’s journeys—particularly those of Mila Chowdhury and her grand-mother, Mrs. Chowdhury.

Mila Chowdhury grows up in a dysfunctional, amoral, and fallen aristocratic family. In her formative years, this exposure lends her a unique experience. Living with her extended family consisting of her grandmother, uncles and aunts, mother, and father, and fumbling through her adolescence, life’s predicaments make her privy to a paradoxical existence. She wants to learn about the true nature of morality, the correct path to life, and how life manifests after death—the relationships of life with time in life and afterward. Time, teetering on the edge of life and death, is a teaser that steals away surreptitiously the essence of life to the bare bone.

The story spans three generations, and every generation adds a new perspective to the novel. Mila finds out more about her mysterious family from a diary bequeathed by her grandmother. As she jots her thoughts to it, the pages of the diary transform into an intergenerational family saga. More jottings are imminent with the new generation, which is as unstoppable as life is. The diary has a life of its own. It evolves in its own right as characters are intrinsically drawn to add a new entry every time—like an open book of life with unfinished stories of many dots, waiting for the next entry to connect to a new dot.

The family sagas are as ongoing as the diary, but they reshape into something new, like the human genome. When a child is born, it takes the genes of his/her parents but becomes a new personality. The weather-beaten brown diary is thus old and dilapidated. Its pages are torn, used, and tired—it has had a long life, but life is continuing, as is the diary. 

The book ends nearly after about three generations when the diary is also handed down to the fourth generation. The protagonist has a nominal role. However, she strings up all the characters into a spirit of togetherness, which brings vibrancy to the book. The old house in which they live is not a relic but an extension of characters that has silently taken in the sighs and the despairs and the love and the happiness of its residents. It immortalizes them somewhat in an unspoken history imbibed on its cold, old walls.

In a tale within a tale, the novel continues to weave many a tale from its various takes leading up to the emotional maturity of the characters as viewed through the moral prism of Mila Chowdhury—her growing up, the civil war, and her relationships with the members of the family, all tell many a tale of an unforgettable chain of events and memories.

Esoterism is another binding factor as an insightful observation of a visionary, a naked fakir who sees time and its relationship with humans not in the narrow sense of life but broadly into the afterlife. Hence, there are several depictions of visions that contextualize the narrative.

From a feminist angle, Incandescence can be viewed as a novel that has slowly been woven into one without any deliberate attempt at any particular agenda. The protagonist is a female greatly influenced by her equally strong grandmother, who led the pushcart at a time when the feminist movement wasn’t even born. The grandmother made radical choices, as did her granddaughter. Although, by then, the movement had established itself. Unbeknownst to the movement thereof, the novel falls straight into an untapped territory of feminism.

Written by Mehreen Ahmed

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