Ashok Chopra’s Memories of Fire is a picturesque novel written in such an appealing style that I was transported to my own younger days. An extraordinary blend of fact and fiction, it is an enough read, covering a variety of subjects. Though there is no specific plot with any suspense or mystery, the author has presented a fascinating portrayal of five schoolmates from Edward’s School in Shimla Hills and their life’s journey.
The hero of the group, Vijay Thakur, plays a leading role throughout the book. Among the five, he is the only day scholar, others being boarders. In Vijay, everyone has a true friend. Not very bright in studies, he is drawn to theatre and acting but is unable to achieve his ambition of becoming an actor. He then turns to journalism in Shimla and later ventures into hospitality business, turning his ancestral haveli, Pari Mahal, into a hotel.
Balbir Singh and Radhey Shyam Upadhyay both hail from Rasoolpur, a small town near Jullundhar in Punjab. Balbir Singh’s father Dr Warayam Singh and Radhey Shyam Upadhyay’s father Seth Raja Ram (a chartered accountant) are close friends. Both the families are prosperous and both men have chalked out a career plan for their sons in their respective professions. So Balbir Singh, with his medical degree from England, settles down in London. There he marries a young Chinese girl, Li Lipong Hong. He is so in love with her that he even shaves off his beard, and keeps this act a secret from his parents for over a year. When the secret is revealed, his parents disown him.
Radhey Shyam falls in love with the school Hindi teacher Aneeze Karim, daughter of Rai Sahib Tariq Karim of Lucknow. (The author seems ignorant of the titles doled out by the British to loyal Indians. Hindus were given the title of Rai Sahib, Muslims Khan Sahib and the Sikhs Sardar Sahib). Aneeze is seven years his senior and a widow. Nevertheless, Radhey Shyam marries her in a temple following which both of them are disowned by their respective parents. Their marital bliss too is short-lived, as Aneeze is found suffering from advanced stage of cancer. Radhey Shyam is so deeply attached to her that he cannot see her in pain. To alleviate her pain, he kills her and is sentenced to life term in jail. The author considers life term to be not the usual 14 years but until the death of the accused. Hence, throughout the book, spanning 50 years, Radhey Shyam is shown in prison.
Deepak, a brilliant student from Chandigarh with a passion for literature, achieves his goal of becoming a university professor.
Reza from Pakistan is a descendant of two famous brothers holding high ranks in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court. Reza excels academically and goes to Germany for higher studies. Back in Pakistan he has a flourishing career, and later in life becomes an art historian and political analyst.
Another interesting character in the book is Bansi Bua. A popular figure in Rasoolpur, she is loved and respected by everyone. She is quite fond of this group of friends and goes out of her way to welcome the boys who are disowned by their parents.
Memories of Fire, set over a span of 50 years in the hills of Shimla and Punjab, does more than just describing and conjure the beautiful landscape of mountains and valleys in the region. The author writes extensively about the history of the construction of Kalka-Shimla railway line, an outstanding feat of imperial engineering.
There is extensive coverage of the political happenings in Punjab from the 1960s to 1980s — Punjabi Suba demand, militancy led by Bhindarwale, Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and 1984 anti-Sikh riots — which wasn’t really required.
Similarly, the political developments in Pakistan since its inception, conveyed through Reza’s letters to Deepak, take too much space in the book and are of little interest to the reader.
The author’s deep interest in literature, art and culture is revealed through Deepak and Radhey Shyam. There is a reference to Radhey Shyam meeting the famous filmstar Devika Rani and her husband Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter of repute. (Here it should be pointed out that Devika Rani never left her husband Himanshu Rai as stated by the author; Rai died in 1940. Devika Rani eloped with her co-star Najmul Hasan. Hasan was sacked by Bombay Talkies and Devika Rani, on the condition that her finances be separated from her husband’s, came back to Himanshu Rai).
The author’s knowledge of Indian classical music and its famous exponents comes out through Radhey Shyam who talks of listening to famous celebrities like Annapurna Devi — daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, first wife of Ravi Shankar, the sitar legend, and ghazal queen Begum Akhtar whose voice was sheer magic.
Through Deepak, the literary genius of the group, the author has shown his passion for literature. Through this character, he talks of famous poets and writers of all times like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Saadat Hasan Manto and Anton Chekhov, among others. The author’s fascination for Manto persuades him to dedicate 25 pages of the book to Hamid Jalal’s essay on Manto.
The author is at his intellectual best when it comes to romance, sex and love. There is a titillating account of the sexual encounter between Vijay and his housemaid Rani, four years his senior.
“One afternoon, when Vijay’s parents were out, Rani went straight to Vijay’s room, closed the door, pushed him on the bed, threw herself on top of him and darted her tongue straight into his mouth, plunging her right hand into his trousers. The whole thing happened so swiftly and with so much intensity that Vijay had no strength — or the desire — to resist.”
Further descriptions of Vijay and Rani’s sexual escapades are more vivid. Rani is Vijay’s first love and he often visualises her as “Tess” and himself as “Alec” (the two main characters from the Thomas Hardy’s famous classic, Tess of the d’Urbervilles).
The book ends when the four friends (Vijay, Balbir, Deepak and Reza) meet after a gap of 54 years, at Edward’s School on the occasion of a farewell function for their housemaster, Brother Brian Welsh.
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