Rereading Abdullah Hussein

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Aamer Hussein

A FEW days ago, when I went to my shelves to retrieve my copies of Abdullah Hussein’s two novels in English, I also found a bound typescript of his novel The Immigrants. I can’t remember who gave it to me, but within its covers I came across a typescript. It was my four-page analysis of the story Wapsi ka Safar, which concluded with these words:

“The Journey Back captures the constant sense of menace and suffocation, and the prejudices, both external and internal, that govern the lives not only of immigrants, but of all those marginalised by the dominant social discourse: minorities, prostitutes, provincials, the poor, the deviant, the different. Migration, in Abdullah Hussein’s world, is a metaphor for most forms of alienation. He doesn’t flinch from exposing the flaws and betrayals within the community, but by weaving them into a wider dialect of power and powerlessness, he indicts the inhospitality of the host society that exploits the labour of the incomers and simultaneously rejects them. By examining its roots, he portrays the stunted tree of many exiled lives; by speaking of yesterday, he displays today’s ambivalent attitudes to and within a polyglot society.”

I was writing a synopsis of the story at a friend’s request, for a filmmaker perhaps, but had entirely forgotten I ever wrote it. I do remember that I read the story and must have written these words in 1989 when I was 34.

However, when Abdullah’s novel was extensively reworked, retitled Emigré Journeys, and finally published in 2000, I was asked to write an endorsement for the catalogue. And at its launch, I was invited by its publisher, Pete Ayrton, to meet the author at Pete’s North London home. I found him personable, genial and even effusive. He was effortlessly bilingual, and amused by the fact that I’d compared his novel to Hanif Kureishi’s. Though he was a quarter-century older than I was, I felt no hesitation in calling him by his first name when he asked me to. I told myself that it was, after all, his pen name. The year before, I’d reviewed The Weary Generations, favourably, for The Times Literary Supplement; I’d commented carefully on the ways he’d changed it from the original Urdu version. We chatted about these and other matters, and he promised to be in touch when he was back in London. We met again with Pete that summer. He’d asked me to bring him a copy of my latest book, which I did, but I had the impression that he wasn’t a fan of short fiction, and he never did say anything about mine in the months that followed. I do remember him talking at length about another short-story writer we both liked, Shafiqur Rahman; and on that sunny summer afternoon Abdullah’s face lit up when he spoke, exuberantly, about the older writer’s story, ‘Barsati’, which he hugely admired. I preferred other, shorter, lighter stories from the collection we were discussing.

We also talked about Qurratulain Hyder. I mentioned that she was, or was soon going to be, in London. A couple of days later a sealed envelope arrived from Abdullah, with another sealed envelope in it, addressed to her. When she came to visit I passed the envelope to her. She asked me to read out his message to her as her eyesight was failing. She smiled at his elegant compliments, reached out for the note, and put it away in her handbag with an affable comment. I think he’d called her “the best among us”. It seems they’d put whatever their literary differences they’d had behind them. I don’t know whether they ever met after that.

I didn’t see Abdullah again for 14 years. Then I came across him at the inaugural Islamabad Literature Festival. We had a cordial chat or two in the dining room, but we didn’t talk for very long, though I attended his legendary exchange with Ahmed Shah, and I was glad to have been there. In between I’d heard from him once: he’d asked for advice about publishing his new novel, set in Afghanistan, in England. In Islamabad he said, slightly dourly, that he had never received the detailed reply I sent him. But now, whenever I log onto Facebook, I see a request from him that came some months ago, to which I never responded. I wonder what he might have had to say, had we ‘friended’ each other — we had an interrupted conversation. I didn’t know about his illness, or the circumstances of his death, until the news broke. I haven’t deleted the request. With his death, the great generation of Urdu writers has lost another of its guiding lights — we’re lucky Intizar Husain and Nisar Aziz Butt are with us and writing, but it’s hard to believe that Abdullah is gone.

I wonder whether I ever did tell him — I hope I did — that he was, in fact, one of the first writers I’d read in Urdu: not his novels, back then in 1989, but his collection Nashaib. And in that collection, my favourite story wasn’t the much-praised Wapsi ka Safar, but the title story — actually a novella — Nashaib and also the afsana ‘Muhajireen’, a beautiful two-part account of a father’s suicide, and the aftermath of that suicide in the son’s memory many years later.

The greatest tribute we can pay the writers we admire is to remember them for the work by them we most admire. I’ve spent a few days rereading Abdullah’s early Urdu stories, and his books in English. Time has been good to Wapsi ka Safar; less so, perhaps, to the longer and more elaborate English version he wrote of the story, but the real revelations for me remain the two stories I mentioned above. When I first read Abdullah’s work, I was probably drawn to those writers who, as he was meant to be, were influenced by western literature. He wore his cosmopolitan influences lightly, and very well. I also have noted that, like I was, he was drawn to writer-narrators who framed the stories of others with their own stories, and examined the complex and often destructive emotional patterns within marriages, families, friendships and love affairs.

Soon, though, I was to find Ismat Chugtai’s gritty domestic realism, Khalida Hussain’s surreal tales, and above all Intizar Husain’s subversive rewriting of myths and fables; they would open doors for me into a literary world I wanted to explore, and I moved away from reading Abdullah’s work for some years. I’m also attracted to shorter forms, and Abdullah’s novels seemed to grow longer, so I only read the English works he produced on the cusp of the millennium. But every few years I’d return to his stories, and every time I’d find myself drawn to the same ones. ‘Muhajireen’ is near-perfect on each fresh reading. Nashaib, when I reread the English version some years ago, seemed either too short or too long: the beginning is slow and too much happens in the last few pages — stories within stories, diary entries, and polyphonic narration. And yet it’s a masterpiece — one of those unique fictions that, even with its flaws, imprint itself on your mind like a lived experience. Reading it again on Saturday, I found it incomparable.

I’d like to end with a personal memory of writing under his influence. Something I admired about Abdullah’s technique was the way he’d jump forward in time to narrate the futures of the characters in his stories. And one day, when I was looking for a way to round off a story with a time shift, a phrase came into my mind: ‘there’s little more to tell’. I seemed to remember that this was a device in one of Abdullah’s stories, probably Nashaib, but at the time I used it without consulting his story, and sailed ahead to the end of my story. While I was rereading his story (in English) on a bus on Saturday night, I searched for the phrase and couldn’t find it. The story ends with the words “That’s all”. So I’d rewritten the phrase in my head. I came home and looked at the Urdu. It ends, as I will end this tribute, with a single word, with its double meaning that’s lost in English: Faqat.

Aamer Hussein, “Rereading Abdullah Hussein,” in Dawn, July 26, 2015. Accessed on July 26, 2015, at:

The item above written by Aamer Hussein and published in Dawn on July 26, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on July 26, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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