A collection of short stories titled Hermitage by eminent novelist and short story writer Aamer Hussein was launched at T2F on Wednesday evening.
Hussein, who lives in London, had especially flown in from the UK for the launch. He sat between critic Muneeza Shamsie and writer Asif Farrukhi who asked him interesting questions during an hour-long event, and the writer responded to them in his trademark, free-flowing style.
Shamsie started proceedings by giving a brief introduction to the author’s life and work. She said Hussein was one of the pioneers of contemporary English short story by writers of Pakistani origin. His extensive works included a novella Another Gulmohar Tree, 10 short story collections, including 37 Bridges which won the Karachi Literature Festival prize for fiction in 2016. He recently also started writing in Urdu. Hussein was born in Karachi and migrated to England when he was 15. But he continues to visit Pakistan.
Since Hermitage ‘intersperses stories with family memories and retellings of parables with photographs and images’, Shamsie mentioned that her favourite piece from the book was ‘Lady of the Lotus’, which is about Hussein’s mother. Then she requested the author to read another story from the book. It was titled ‘Dove’. Hussein read the two-paragraph piece and when questioned how he’s able to compress so many ideas — migration, creativity, passage of time etc — into such a small tale he replied he had always been fascinated by the process — also, the story had something to do with poet Ada Jaffery’s memoirs.
Farrukhi resumed discussion on ‘Lady of the Lotus’, which focuses on Hussein’s mother, calling it a story about memories and loss. Hussein said his mother was dissatisfied with the way she sang (she had acquired training in music). Her diary, from the story was churned out, was about constantly trying to get that elusive glory [of singing].
Shamsie then touched upon his relationship with Karachi, the city he was born in and kept coming back to, and the way it featured in his stories. Hussein reasoned this [Karachi] was where all his childhood stories began, “Karachi is woven into us.”
The next round of queries that Shamsie came up with was on the portrayal of women in his stories. According to her — unlike their usual portrayal in fiction — the women in his writings became artists, writers and did all sorts of things. Hussein told her he saw a lot of such women in his younger days in PECHS, Karachi, such as, Mrs Majeed Malik and Attiya Faizi. He watched them indulging in all kinds of activities — paintings, stitching, writing etc.
This led Farrukhi to talk about Quratulain Hyder with whom Hussein had spent a considerable time with special reference to an essay that the author has written on her. Hussein said she was an absolute artist. When Farrukhi suggested she was an influence on him, he answered she was but not consciously. Hussein argued his favourite book by Hyder was Pat jhar ki awaz in which she had masterfully penned the pangs of migration.
Then Shamsie mentioned Hussein’s use of fables in his stories, to which he said fables always drew and fascinated him. When Farrukhi expanded on the question and brought in the Sufi factor, something that Hussein’s stories are also suffused with, Hussein pointed out he did not like to use the word Sufi. He said his father was a Sindhi, so he had heard stories of Moomal Rano and Sassui Punnu at a young age. His mother too would ask him to recite noted works of literature such as the masnavi.
After that Farrukhi turned his attention to Hussein’s ability to write in English and Urdu and whether he had the same [narrative] voice for it. Hussein said they were separate voices.
In between the chitchat, Hussein read some passages from his stories in Hermitage.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2018