IF memory serves me right, it was 1963. Like many young adults of my generation, I too had — as Manto’s idiotic Trilochan had with his Kirpal Kaur in ‘Mozail’ — fallen “up to my knees in love” with Blanca Williams, the sad Canadian young woman of Abdullah Hussein’s debut short story ‘Naddi,’ just published in Savera. Blanca couldn’t deal with the fact of her abandonment at birth by her biological parents. The canker gnawed at her soul until, finally, she threw herself into the cascading, misty embrace of the Niagara Falls, but not before giving a protracted lecture much earlier to her drooling Pakistani little-more-than-an-admirer Sultan on the decadence of North American society and the valiant efforts of the Beat generation to overcome its human shortcomings through love, music, and what have you. And Blanca was not the only apparition I had fallen for. There was another: the French conflicted Dominique of Françoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile. She read Sartre’s L’Âge de Raison, had Bertrand for a lover, but allowed herself to be seduced big time by her lover’s uncle Luc, who loved his wife Françoise no less. My adolescent love of these women led me to translate ‘Naddi’ and A Certain Smile. But while I continued translating most of Hussein’s short fiction over the next 20 years (three novellas and six short stories), I didn’t return to Sagan until recently; her 1961 novel Wonderful Clouds, though still suffused with the explosive rhythms of her earlier “passion,” is nonetheless a more mature work.
As I worked through Hussein’s translations, I began to feel a sense of inner exile and alienation pulsating like a vital nerve through almost all of Hussein’s work. And although the stories — ‘Naddi’ (‘The Brook’), ‘Samandar’ (‘The Sea’), ‘Phool ka Badan’ (The Body of a Flower, translated as ‘The Rose’), ‘Jilavatan’ (‘The Exile’), ‘Muhajereen’ (‘The Refugees’), and ‘Dhuup’ (‘Sunlight’) — and the novellas — ‘Raat’ (‘Night’), ‘Waapsi ka Safar’ (‘The Journey Back’), and ‘Nasheeb’ (‘Downfall by Degrees’) — vary in tone and texture, they do not, perhaps, vary in their final concerns. The adolescent fervour, the burning impatience of youth, and the razor-sharp edge of raw emotion that characterise the author’s earliest fictional work (‘The Brook,’ ‘The Sea,’ ‘Night’) appear to have finally been tamed in his later writing. In the remaining six pieces we meet a more mature writer; his preeminent concern is now how best to capture the subtlest modulations of feelings, and capture them in a language as stark as he can possibly make it. His microscopic eye is trained, it would seem, on the slightest movement of minute crawling life in the subterranean rot, on the underside of pain, as it were. The tools to probe it, although remarkably simple, are applied with infallible certainty of touch. Overripe lyricism, which envelops his earlier work like a dense, obscuring mist, has given way, or nearly so, and less of its syntactical gyration intrudes upon the narrative flow; instead, the rhythms are gentler and free of dissonance, the style taut and distilled. The palpable tension generated by feelings of exile and nostalgia does not here lead to a violent end but to the sobering realisation that exile and guilt allow no escape, that termination of life, often with explosive force, is hardly a viable option, and that, finally, it is in living through these predicaments that one approaches more nearly the proportions of a tragic sense of life. The adolescents of the earlier stories — so full of themselves, indulgent, even self-destructive — have at last come of age in their adult acceptance of “exile,” of their status as permanent “refugees” in a world moving “by degrees” toward inevitable “downfall.” In bearing their fate with proud but quiet dignity, the many characters in later stories leave us with a more enduring impression of their doomed struggle.
The thematic preoccupation of Abdullah Hussein remains unchanged; he has been writing a single story from the start: emotional disorientation resulting from a harrowing sense of some real or imagined inadequacy, the unbridgeable gulf between longing and becoming. The sources of man’s dissatisfaction are many, and most are found in his environment. But for the larger number of Hussein’s characters, the malaise is produced, rather, in the interior landscape of the self, is inevitably pointed inward, and is therefore the more tragic. They cannot blame others for their existential condition; they are poised fatally against themselves.
Doomed from the start, these characters ultimately reach a tenuous state of grace in the act of knowledge — which, ironically enough, only deepens the sense of tragedy because it does not save, is not even meant to save, but only to enrich the pained consciousness in an abstract sort of way.
Thus, after 10 years of being married to a man she respected but did not love, and pining all her 32 years for the man she did love, Sarwat of ‘The Rose’ finally gets what she wanted: a night of uninterrupted intimacy with Naim, her childhood love. But is she the happier for it? Has she been set free, as she thought she would be, after the delayed encounter of bodies? Hardly. The morning after, she wakes up to the bitter realisation: desires — fulfilled or unfulfilled — give us nothing; they only rob us. For once two hearts have lost their ability to beat in harmony, they drift apart, unlikely to come back together, not even through a sacrifice of the flesh.
On the other hand, Naim is pleasantly surprised to discover that the woman he had all along considered utterly devoid of sexuality, and had therefore ignored, had turned out to be so filled with astounding sexual energy, “so […] incandescent […] so vibrant with life that she carried him to the summit of unimaginable bliss.” By her true giving and spontaneity, she had awakened him to a new reality: “When passion has run its course, and the blood has chilled, love is what remains behind […] like the fugitive scent of a rose” which, however intangible, “is still more real than its bloom.”
But the knowledge comes — alas — too late to do either of them any good. As true exiles, the two must now drift inconsolably in their orbits of loneliness, equipped with a knowledge that does not redeem or soothe, but only picks away at the scab to expose the raw, throbbing wound.
Likewise, it takes a long time for the narrator of the story ‘The Exile’ to realise — in a different time and place and quite by accident — the true reason for the self-imposed loneliness of the old head clerk with whom he had worked in an establishment some years earlier. Yet in no way does this knowledge afford any salvation, either for the narrator, or for the old, wistful recluse. The fate of the latter is even worse: knowledge for him is the acceptance of the inescapability of alienation. A mild misanthrope, he comes to prefer the company of animals and birds, but is never quite able to transcend his subliminal longing for human company.
For Aftab Umar of ‘The Refugees,’ on the other hand, it takes considerably longer — in fact 30 years, and then only through the mediating innocence of his son — to begin to fathom the mystery of the terrible suicide of his father, who had thrown up a formidable wall around himself and lived behind it in a state of lethal solitude. Trained to be a minor civil servant, he rather wished to be a movie star — and loved horses.
‘Downfall by Degrees,’ as Muhammad Salim-ur-Rahman has aptly put it, “treats exile and alienation as a state of mind, as a destabilising mood. […] The narrator, a writer of fiction himself, tries to fathom what made an otherwise decent, unimposing civil servant kill his equally decent wife. Ostensibly he does this to help one of his closest friends, a distinguished lawyer, who is defending the husband. It is not idle curiosity that spurs the narrator to find out all he can about the husband and wife and establish a motive for murder. He realises, at a subliminal level, that in some way the case mirrors the inner, suppressed emotions of his lawyer friend. By wanting to defend the husband and discover a motive, the lawyer is in fact defending himself. He is on trial himself. The narrator, standing as a communicative barzakh between the two married pairs, manages ultimately to show, implicitly, that the murdered wife and her husband, who gets a life sentence, both faced up squarely to the emptiness and meaninglessness of their existence and acted without flinching from the consequences, while the successful lawyer and his wife, with the same emptiness in their lives, have lacked the courage to act, to make a choice and therefore, in spite of worldly glory, they are mere empty, defeated people.”1
‘The Journey Back’ is a journey to the back of beyond, to nowhere, or perhaps to the dead center of a gnawing emptiness rarely encountered in contemporary Urdu fiction. Seemingly less subtle, even artless in comparison to other stories in the present collection, its narrative simplicity hides a more assured art. It is this simplicity in the end that invests the grim lives of the characters with a tragic density. It explores, with brutal poignancy, the devastating effects of “alienation” on the lives of a group of semi-literate, lower-class Pakistani expatriates living their bleached-out, wraith-like, insubstantial existence in a ramshackle building in a Birmingham ghetto of Great Britain. Because they are illegal aliens in the country, they live out their days in cloistered isolation, in constant fear of deportation and the sundry humiliations their precarious status might expose them to. In the end, they are so dehumanised that they begin to fear even their own shadows. None of the main characters come out of the ordeal emotionally intact, not even when some of them have acquired legal residence in the country and made it in this affluent new world. Economic sufficiency — the temptress that lured them to their dank, chilly, sun-starved, British exile — has exacted a terrible price: it has robbed their lives of all meaning and joy. Indeed the effects of alienation are so pervasive that they reach even to some of the minor characters, among them the narrator’s wife, whose presence is felt, albeit fleetingly, across the fictional space of the work. In spite of all the trappings of material comfort, she is at heart a very sad and lonely individual, which makes her narrator-husband wonder:
“I don’t know what’s eating her away. She has been unhappy since the day she set foot in this country. She has all the comforts anyone can ask for: her own house, a car, a TV which she watches all day long. Why, we have plenty. She lives a life of ease. The kids are in school. And yet, there’s never been a glimmer of happiness on her face. I ask her, ‘Don’t you like it here?’ And she tells me that it doesn’t matter to her; she’s happy wherever I am. Now what kind of [an] answer is that? What I can’t figure out is this: what is it that makes her unhappy?”
By contrast, the fate of some of the main characters is infinitely worse. Husain Shah and Irshad — uncle and nephew — are mutually eliminated, ostensibly, by a quarrel over money, but in reality by their jealousy over a white woman. Saqib — the delicate youth, radiant, if also naïve and inexperienced, who inspired only the most tender feelings of affection — is made permanently insane by a violent act of romantic love. When we next meet him, it is in a mental institution. Unable to feel or remember anything, he is now little more than catatonic. And his vacant gaze mirrors life’s potential sadly gone to waste. But if he is the most thoroughly destroyed, a none-too-enviable fate awaits the narrator as he finds out that Saqib was after all innocent of the crime pinned on him. How this knowledge will poison the rest of the narrator’s days and how he will deal with the nagging question — “What did Saqib do to deserve this?” — is anybody’s guess. Yet knowledge, though brutal in its exposition of alienation as an unalterable human condition, does not, as a rule, make these characters sluggish, unambitious or inactive. Bleak though their lives may be, they still strive for perfection in their own small way, aware — always aware — that their longing for meaning might prove in the end to be no more than a desire for the unattainable. It is the unflinching application of the self to a courageous — but ultimately doomed — struggle that sets the tone of the later stories apart from the earlier ones, in which knowledge is the other name of self-destruction.
1“Modes of Survival,” Pakistan Times (November 24, 1981), p. 4.
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of *The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.*