The spark lives on: a tribute to Abdullah Hussein

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Mehr Afshan Farooqi

BAGH was his favorite novel. He asked me to translate it into English. Like most people who read Urdu literature, I had read Udas Naslain but not Bagh. I should have read it while he was alive, discussed it with him in our chats on messenger, and asked the questions that are bubbling in my head now that I have read it. Perhaps it was meant to be this way. I had no peace till I finished Bagh. The novel has a force, an energy that is tightly coiled, densely textured, but disguised in the slow-moving action of its first quarter. It gains momentum as the love story unfolds in unconventional, tantalising snatches leaving a lot to the imagination of the reader.

How does a tiger fit into what is self-consciously, essentially a love story? What does the tiger really stand for? Could the tiger be a metaphor for the novel’s protagonist, who is named Asad (lion)? The novel’s complex canvas eludes any simplistic explanation. The tiger exists in a nebulous space. It is never seen; only heard, and imagined. It is imagined as a grand, inspiring vision; sinewy, graceful, and mysterious — as mysterious and unfathomable as love. The love story is of Asad and Yasmin. Asad is an only child whose mother died when he was so young that he has no memories of her, who loses his father at the tender age of 12, and is brought up by his uncle. A budding swimmer, Asad is unexpectedly afflicted by frightening bouts of constriction of breath, a disease that perplexes doctors, and forces him to discontinue college.

In his search for medicine that will help normalise his life, Asad travels to a remote village called Gumshud in the mountains of Azad Kashmir. A hakim with a reputation for curing chronic diseases lives there and Yasmin is his daughter. The hakim’s tiny pills and the clean mountain air work like magic at first, clearing Asad’s lungs and he feels rejuvenated. The effect, however, is temporary. The hakim refuses to give him more than a week’s worth of medicine, so he is forced to live and work there. At night, when Asad and Yasmin meet in the deep forests they hear the tiger’s roar. It is unfathomable, cutting through the night’s silence like lightening. One night when Asad and Yasmin return they find her father, the hakim, lying murdered in his dispensary. Asad is arrested and tortured in jail for two weeks. He is released through the mediation of a secret service agent who recruits him for espionage across the border.

A section of the novel details Asad’s arduous trek through the mountains across the border. It is speckled with highly original descriptions of the stark lives of the farmers in the rebel group and their passionate struggle. There are hints of a war in the offing. A mission that Asad accompanies goes awry and he manages to get away, and then makes the long journey back to Gumshud. The re­­union with Yasmin is short-lived; she is also expecting their child. When Asad is taken away by the military, Yasmin tries to follow them, but she is restrained.

As Asad’s captors carry him away into the night, he peers at the darkness but the image of the tiger eludes him. The jungle seems empty. All he can see is the boy who emerges from a house with a satchel holding some possessions hastily thrown into it. The novel comes full circle. What will the boy cherish now? The tiger was a sustaining vision, it was his talisman.

Hussein published Bagh in 1982, almost 18 years after his first novel Udas Naslain. In the intervening years, the restless writer had moved around, living in England, working at different jobs, also trying his hand at writing in English. He wrote a novel titled Difficult Grass that was not published — Bagh is a recreation of Difficult Grass. I mention this simply because Hussein’s warm, unaffected prose style undergoes a remarkable transformation in his second novel. Perhaps the change in style was deliberate, because Asad’s character undergoes experiences that are clearly from Hussein’s own childhood. A distant or maybe toneless narrative voice helps to create a distance between the author and his creative reflection. One of the poignant, crucial moments in the novel is young Asad’s re­collection of hunting waterfowl with his father. Asad wades into the water to bring back the fowl his father has shot and notices that the bird has only a minor wound; it could live:

“‘Baba, look, he’s not really injured. We can wash the wound and put some sulphur salve, it will be fine.’

‘Beta, I told you it is an injured bird. It will die.’

‘But Baba, there is no real wound, it will be alright in a day or two.’

‘It won’t be able to survive at our house,’ his father explained.

‘Why not,’ he asked. ‘The wound will heal.’

‘It won’t eat,’ his father answered patiently. ‘It won’t accept even a single grain from your hands. Ultimately it will die. What’s the point?’”

The young Asad pleads some more but his father explains that there are hunting rules. One must avoid cruelty. The conversation then moves to hunting animals. His father mentions that he would like to hunt big game — lion or tiger, but never had the chance (ittefaq). Opportunity is something that is not in our control he explains to his son. The child asks if it is difficult. It is both easy and difficult, only time can tell, replies his father.

We have only scraps of information about Hussein’s personal life because he was an intensely private person who shied away from the limelight. We do know that he was close to his father, so much so that he had a nervous breakdown after his death. In a rare personal essay published in the journal Nusrat he wrote:

“I was his only son. In my childhood when the two of us went hunting, chasing game over long distances, often as long as 15-20 miles, he would tell me all he knew — about farms and fields, crops and farmers; clouds, rain, sunshine and seasons; about animals and birds. And later as we stood in the chilly waist-deep waters in the first light of winter mornings, waiting for the wild geese with our guns resting on our shoulders, he talked to me about men and women and sex, about childhood, youth and old age, love and hate, friendship and enmity, sacrifice and honour and other similar important things. As long as he lived, his gentle confident voice, endowed with strength and innate wisdom, provided me comfort, company, guidance.”

The similarities between the fictional and real father and son are apparent. The abiding experience of sharing stories, of learning from his father gave Hussein a powerful creative tool — introspective streaming of memories recapitulated through inner monologues of his fictional characters. He wove his own perceptions of life and its decay, time, and the freedom to live and love, that were formed in the foundational period of his life into the canvas of his novels.

The preoccupation with a love that is doomed, thwarted or unfulfilled is perhaps a corollary of a childhood spent without a mother’s love. Her absence is manifested in mother­less heroines such as Yasmin. Gul-e Yasmin, a delicate, fragrant white flower is also known as Yas which means longing. In Bagh, Asad often abbreviates Yasmin to Yas, a forewarning that their love may never be fulfilled. The tiger represents a longing too, a desire, its image on one occasion is suffused with Yasmin’s face. Life and love are intertwined in Hussein’s narrative, but there is also a nagging desire to find or identify one’s self. How does one step away from the self and look at one’s image squarely in the eye? It seems to me that Hussein suggests the moment comes in the face of death. When eyes that are shining with life become glassy, it is a moment of real­isation, to think of what lives on beyond death.

It is odd that someone who was crowned with success fairly early in life should struggle with the lack of fulfilment. It is also rare for a writer to run away from fame. Hussein rose like a shining meteor that disappeared into the far beyond. A writer’s hiatus plays havoc with their position in the shifting sands of the literary milieus to which they belong. Fortunately, in the last decade of his life Hussein seemed to have overcome his inherent shyness and apathy towards public platforms. He returned to Pakistan, settled in Lahore, showed up at literary festivals and enjoyed the attention. How would I have met him otherwise?

I will close my tribute with the last lines from Bagh:

“I have roamed all over the place because of my breathing affliction. But such afflictions can happen to a lot of people. What matters is that I am trying to keep that spark alive and will keep trying till my heart has strength. It’s a small thing. There are people who get a signal that they will go to hell, they accept it and keep on going, because what is this thing of heaven or hell? There is a sensitivity, that at some point in life escapes from us and we travel the remaining distance of our lives searching for it. I have created these signposts of love which can be seen shining on my path, and will never be dimmed. How will I leave them? That is the thing. Where these people are taking me, I don’t know. If they wanted to put me in prison, why are they taking me beyond this region? If they are exiling me what is the need to take me as a prisoner? This is a strange journey.”

Mehr Afshan Farooqi , “The spark lives on: a tribute to Abdullah Hussein,” in Dawn, August 23, 2015. Accessed on August 23, 2015, at:

The item above written by Mehr Afshan Farooqi and published in Dawn on August 23, 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 August 23, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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