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March 04, 2018


What an absolute delight it was to hear Adrian A. Husain read from his collection of sonnets, Italian Window, at a rather unusual, star-studded English poetry session of the 9th Karachi Literature Festival. Poets from countries as diverse as Germany and the Maldives, including Amit Chaudhuri, Salman Tarik Kureshi, Jose Oliver, Farida Faizullah, Ibrahim Waheed ‘Ogaru’, Sadaf Halai, Ilona Yusuf, Tehmina Ahmed and Mehvash Amin, also read from their works at the same session. Husain was the last, perhaps in keeping with the tradition of the Urdu mushaira where the finest from among the senior poets presents her or his work at the end.

Husain recited nine out of the 70 sonnets in his collection, one after the other without bothering too much about the allocated time. He was right in his judgement — the audience was mesmerised and some of us wished he had carried on. He said the sonnets were about a part of his own childhood spent in Italy and thus autobiographical in nature, but even without him explaining that, the sonnets obviously embody a lived experience. The listener could have felt that acute sense of intimacy between the feelings and the words, blending them together and making them inseparable, leaving no choice for another word or phrase to express that sensitivity and mood. This was a master at play. In a calm and composed rendition, Husain’s intonations, lilts, rhythms and pauses brought out the intensity and enormity of the emotional world of a child.

Rome is the backcloth to many of these sonnets, a backcloth which is crimped, pleated, wrinkled and faded with the events of ancient history, but remains perfectly intact in the glow of the present. This invocation of a civilisational narrative with all its told and untold stories, its seen and unseen characters, helps Husain weave a tale of grief — a grief that stays forever long after some tragedy is over: “I imagine a time neither present nor past/ Words unsaid/ Are mulled over, not abandoned. Memory clings/ Like a shroud. We are made to belong.”

Deeply affected by the tensions that run in his family, he says about his father: “Austere/ But sensuous, you stand six feet tall not far/ From your diminutive wife with bleak stars/ In her eyes…” Husain’s world revolves around his mother: “Like you Mother, outsmarted though never at a loss/ Losing all, though without counting the cost.” It is the pain of this child and his groans that reverberate through history and lead us into the present.

I remember in 1998, I had approached Husain to sign my copy of his Desert Album. I had felt a little daunted. It was never his demeanour, but the authenticity of his knowledge and the command over his craft which he exudes without even being aware of it that had overawed someone like me. It took me 20 years to tell him how excited I was about his work and how his verse had stayed with me all these years. Desert Album contains 45 poems drawing upon animals, human beings, the past that petrifies us and the present that we take in stride. His subjects are varied: from a ‘Kashmiri Rug’ to ‘The Museum in Taxila’ and from ‘Salvador Dali at the Tate’ to ‘The Music Leaves Antony’. Whether he is specific or cosmopolitan, history never leaves him. In ‘Carvings’, he says: “Hundreds of years old/ Radiant sandstone tombs/ Depict their dead:/ The horseman/ Jaunty about flower motifs/ Or archer/ Credible by his seal./ Homelier devices come to light/ In the desert — lesser graves/ Clamouring to be known/ For their tracery/ Amid silent insinuations of thorn.”

Husain dangles between the innate loneliness of an individual and the illusion of collectivism favoured by civilisations. For an artist such as him, when the suffering of an individual overlaps the suffering of the masses, collectivism becomes a tangible illusion. This is what makes him write elegies for Murtaza Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto with such compassion.

Husain, like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skylark, offers us “profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 4th, 2018