Sometimes I’m struck by the number of books I have loved and left behind. There is a shelf in the corridor of my flat, just to the left of the entrance, full of glossy hardbacks that look unread. They aren’t; I read all these books by Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa, John Berger, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Handke and John Banville, Margaret Atwood and Tahar Ben Jelloun, a quarter of a century ago. Some of them are signed by their authors. But the sight of this shelf, just above eye-level as I pass, makes me feel mildly guilty; I ranged books there to be read again and again, but haven’t taken them down in at least 20 years, except to dust their covers.
But many of the books that have most inspired me are from the same period, 1986, the year before I abandoned a postgraduate dissertation in psychology and philosophy to concentrate on writing fiction and essays. I was 31; I’d lived in London half my life. I had started reading my way around the world’s fictions in search of an orientation and decided that the dusty, fusty public Westminster libraries and the leftwing bookshops I frequented on Charing Cross Road, with their ‘third world’ and foreign languages sections, were my real alma mater; Colette and Junichiro Tanizaki were more challenging than Freud and Jung and Klein.
My ’86 books are shelved in my bedroom, which doubled as my study then. There are the collected works of Lu Xun, the early 20th century Chinese genius who taught me what a short story could do with the simplest, finest strokes. There are Egyptian editions of Naguib Mahfouz, including Wedding Song, possibly the first of his books I read and at that time his most recent work available in translation, a couple of years before the Nobel Prize catapulted him to international fame. I took it down from its shelf when I was correcting the proofs of my novel The Cloud Messenger, and detected echoes in my penultimate chapter of the finely-crafted conclusion of Mahfouz’s novel, which ends with the last of its four narrators, Abbas, setting out for the station “with new vigour ... as full of promise as great clouds laden with rain,” though he’s actually “penniless, pursued, and carrie[s] sadness” within him.
How subtle and pervasive influences can be, I thought as I corrected my manuscript: that passage from Wedding Song had remained in my mind more vividly than any part of Miramar, which at the time I’d designated my favourite of all Mahfouz translations. (I wasn’t entirely surprised to find in my notebooks of that year an eight-page synopsis of a novel that seems like the template for The Cloud Messenger; I was too immature to write it then. I hadn’t lived enough; instead, I turned to short fiction.)
Alongside Mahfouz, I was also reading, in French, the Algerian Assia Djebar, whose work I’d discovered by chance in a bookshop. Her L’amour, La Fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), quite new when I read it, remains for me her seminal achievement. It interweaves historical narratives with memoir and meditations on language, belonging and loss. These meditations — on the author’s bilingualism, and her choice, during colonial times, to write in her ‘stepmother tongue’, the language of the coloniser — are at the core of the novel. Djebar’s choice of French as her language of self-expression still seemed to fill her with agony decades later. Why, I was to ask myself, had she never bothered to perfect her Arabic, a living, thriving language, instead of lamenting the loss of it? But Djebar’s dilemma remains a burning issue today, when we look at the international hegemony of English and two or three other ‘global’ languages.
At that time, before the era of the writer who, by courtesy of virtual technology, inhabits two simultaneous spaces, there was a split in my mind between two kinds of writers: those who were rooted, like Mahfouz, living in his birthplace and writing in his own language, critical of social norms but also contained within his society and addressing a ‘natural’ readership; and the exiles, often driven away from homelands by ethnicity, gender, or politics; they often (Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Said) but not always (Nina Berberova, Milan Kundera) wrote in a borrowed language. Djebar, transnational though not in exile, seemed to commute between two countries and cultures, at home in neither.
Where, then, did an uprooted writer like Qurratulain Hyder, who had left India for Pakistan, then Pakistan for England and India, fit in? I heard her read that autumn of ’86, at two venues: The now-defunct Commonwealth Institute, the last outpost of empire, and SOAS, that bastion of oriental studies: two exquisite stories, the whimsical pseudo-memoir “Memories of an Indian Childhood” and the picaresque “Catherine Bolton,” one in English, one in Urdu. I’d always taken for granted her way of flitting, with seeming nonchalance, between literature and journalism, languages and cultures, an attitude that made the writers who moaned about lost languages seem quite suspect to me. (Take language lessons, I can hear Annie say.) I could read her in either language, but there wasn’t much fiction she’d published in English; though I took pleasure in listening to her read in her mother tongue, I was still too lazy to read her longer works in Urdu.
Hyder also wanted to be recognised as an anglophone writer; within 10 years her wish would begin to come true. Her books in English have a shelf of their own in my library, but my favourite among her works — Patjhar ki Awaaz, a volume of her stories, which I didn’t read from cover to cover until ’91 — is on my bedside table. It contains three or four of my favourite stories in any language, including the title piece and “Jilawatan,” that bleakly beautiful evocation of post-Partition exiles in London. The book is tangible proof that in the end the Hyder who inhabited Urdu still means more to me than her anglophone twin.