Abdullah-Hussein
Abdullah Hussain -- Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

 

Men like Abdullah Hussain, with a talent that has marked them to be remembered for generations to come and a tendency to be self-deprecating about that very talent, are hard to forget. In his session at the Islamabad Literature Festival, Hussain, along with moderator Ahmed Shah, president of the Art’s Council’s Karachi chapter, touched upon the trajectory of the man who, at the age of 25, started writing a book that would come to be known as one of the greatest novels in Urdu, Udas Naslain.

The session started late but to a packed crowd that quickly vied for better seats as the sound system was abysmal; those unfortunate enough to be seated in the back had to make do with blurred video outputs and inaudible voice. So much of what Hussain and Shah shared and laughed over was sadly lost to the audience.

Hussain started with a reading from his novel, Raat. For many that was probably the highlight of the hour-long session. It conjured up an image of a time when the only source of entertainment was the radio and families sat around it, listening to a faceless man narrating the latest story or novel. The listeners were mesmerised, even though it took up a large part of the session which could have delved more into his inclinations as a writer.

Shah then steered the conversation to the language and expression that Hussain employs, most marked in Udas Naslain. Hussain’s response was: “Mujhey Urdu theek se nahin aati thi, to jahan mei atak jata tha aik naya lafz bana deta” (I did not know Urdu well, so wherever I got stuck, I made up a new word).

 

“I FEEL STIFLED [BY THE NOVEL]” 

— Aamer Hussein

The session with Aamer Hussein attracted a more intimate gathering. In 2004, Hussein was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature for his achievements in the genre of the short story. Though settled in the UK, most of his stories, lyrical in nature, revolve around the city of Karachi. Moderator Asif Farrukhi brought up this point to which Hussein pointed out that his initial work was set in the more familiar landscape of London. Karachi was finally woven into the narrative in his 1988 story, “Little Tales”. Hussein confessed: “I keep on coming back to Karachi in my imagination.”

Farrukhi then took the discussion to the short story form and asked Hussein why he chooses that over the novel. “Working on a novel is a tyranny,” Hussein replied. “I feel stifled … The short story is more flexible with more room to navigate and so I love this form.” Hussein recalled reading stories by Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as well as by Ghulam Abbas, Ismat Chughtai, Qurratulain Hyder and Intizar Husain that made him decide to write in this format. Further elaborating, he pointed out how people tend to undermine the tradition of short story in the subcontinent, which is, in fact, quite rich.

Hussein told the audience that Ghulam Abbas’s story “Ek Dardmand Dil” was the inspiration behind his long short story, Another Gulmohar Tree. Talking about his short novel, The Cloud Messenger, Hussein called it a more complex book which explores the popular belief that Persian is a language of excess.

The conversation then trailed off to Hussein’s latest venture of writing in Urdu. Having formally studied Urdu literature and read it extensively, he said that “I write with a full knowledge of Urdu yet with the modesty of someone who still doesn’t have complete control over the language.” Narrating how he came about to finally writing in Urdu, Hussein said that he sat down one day to write an elegy for a friend he had recently lost, and instead of English, he ended up writing it by hand, in Urdu. The rest, as they say, is history.

Farrukhi then read out from Hussein’s Urdu short story “Maya aur Hans” (“The Swan’s Wife”) partly inspired by a Jatak tale. Set in London in the late 1970s, it explores the themes of friendship and unexpressed love. Though set in England, the story demanded to be written in Urdu, Hussein said.

Urdu literary magazine Dunyazad will publish Hussein’s short stories by the end of the year. He is also working on another collection as well as on compiling some of his older stories. The readers are surely in for a treat.

-- Haneen Rafi 

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