Over a period of years, I have returned to Aamer Hussein’s stories for their quietude, silence and the meditative texture of his prose. We live in cities, and big cities are full of loud, sharp noises; the shor [cacophony] in these cities also means that we live fast-paced lives, and many of us are too quick to form opinions and thoughts and arrive at conclusions about each other that are not necessarily the whole truth. We have hardly learned the art of observing, quietly or ethically, our own lives or those of others.
In times such as these, my desire is to read stories that slow down the pace of life, that teach the impulse to look at each other without judgement. Hussein’s stories are those stories, and one finds the best of these in his latest collection — his first in the Urdu language — titled Zindagi Se Pehle [Before Life]. In this book, Hussein sustains his lifelong engagement of writing about the life of the other with aesthetic, narrative and ethical care. The life of the other presented in many of these stories is that of the migrant.
‘Hauslamand’ [Courageous] is arguably the most endearing tale in this collection. It depicts the trials of Beg Sahib and Safia, two migrants who arrive in London for employment. Both characters seek out, at different points, the favours of Amma, the narrator’s mother. Beg Sahib and Safia are capricious individuals; they often disappear on Amma, hide things from her and never reveal fully about their whereabouts.
The story, however, slowly links their actions to the understandable confusion and anxiety experienced by migrants as a result of travelling to a new place. Hussein keeps Beg Sahib and Safia’s actions radically open to interpretation, extending them the benefit of doubt. By the end of the story, when the suspicious narrator pushes his mother to pursue the matter further, Amma replies in her acerbic tongue: “Main kyun poochhti yeh sab? Main koyi khudai faujdaar tau nahi hoon!” [Why should I ask them these questions? I’m not some godly police officer!]
Thus emerges, in my opinion, one of the most memorable lines in the book. Not only does it capture the quintessential spirit of the beloved Amma, it is also a statement to which the book’s poetic and ethical vision can be tied: the writer is not some kind of khudai faujdaar [godly police officer] who must offer a final word on the life of the other. Rather, things are left in their ambiguity, training the reader to relate to the characters in more ethical and complex ways. The very use of the word “khudai” by Amma to critique the narrator’s desire to probe the characters is telling: Hussein does not believe in a god’s eye view when writing a character; the writer does not claim to possess some godly knowledge about others. Rather, events are narrated from below; the intent is always to approximate, never to master.
Aamer Hussein’s first book of Urdu stories sustains his lifelong engagement of writing about the life of the other with aesthetic, narrative and ethical care
‘Maya’ returns us to similar concerns about narration and judgement. It tells the story of Maya, also a migrant, who holds a fascination for swans and longs for a sense of security in life. Maya hopes to find a suitable partner, in order to gain some financial stability. She is pathologised as a volatile and manipulative person by two supporting characters in the story. It is primarily Shahana, the narrator’s sister, who serves as a figure of judgement:
“She’s playing a vulgar joke on you,” she tells the narrator in one scene. Farhad, the narrator’s best friend, repeats these claims: “To hell with such a friendship,” he advises.
Yet the narrator refuses to form a solid opinion about Maya, linking her anguish not to some private pathology, but to the legitimate and very public pain of longing for a home. In a revealing scene, he compares her status to that of a kaala hans — a black swan often seen swimming in a lake he frequents. The comparison to swans is effective: Maya’s life, like the status of these birds, is forever in flight, suspended and without a permanent home. Birds are also, like Maya, fragile creatures and vulnerable to injury. In the penultimate scene of the story, Maya’s identification with birds and the theme of vulnerability come full circle when she is seen “descending into the waters of the lake”, “calling after an injured bird.” At the end of the story, Maya ruminates that “animals are being subjected to constant abuse.”
Not only does animal imagery allow Hussein to speak about Maya, vulnerability and the nature of injury, it returns in subsequent stories as a general description of otherness and the sense of pain often experienced by the other, as Taha Kehar also observes in his essay ‘The Voyage Between Two Languages’. For example, in ‘Kabootar’ [Pigeon], it is the violent evacuation of a pigeon by human characters from their Jamshoro home that becomes a metaphor for displacement. Likewise, in ‘Kavvay Aur Hans’ [Crows and Swans], it is the brutal attack on a pair of hans — swans, yet again — by a group of crows through which an allegory of power and evil is staged.
In this latter story in particular, Hussein anthropomorphises, attributing human characteristics to animals in order to narrate themes of power, bodily harm and hurt. Overall, the recurring attention to animals enables Hussein to sustain his engagement with the other — migrant or otherwise. By doing so, Hussein follows a long line of Sufi writers who have invoked animal metaphors to write about the notion of otherness. When reading ‘Kavvay Aur Hans’, for example, one is particularly reminded of Fariduddin Attar’s Mantiqut Taayr or The Conference of the Birds, a poem which also recalls the figure of the crow to describe the nature of evil.
In fact, there is a story about Attar in this collection, called ‘Attar Kehta Hai’ [Attar Says], impeccably translated from one of Hussein’s English stories by Shahbano Alvi. In this story, a Sufi novice’s refusal to injure a bird is contrasted with another Sufi’s mistreatment of a dog, to suggest the difference in their ‘spiritual stations’ — in both stories, the figure of the animal returns, this time recast in a Sufi vein, to describe the relation between the self and the other, between human and animal.
The Sufi preoccupation of the book is not only witnessed in Alvi’s genius translations, who renders another one of Hussein’s stories about Majnun into her magical Urdu, but also by Asif Farrukhi’s sound assertion, in a critically solid foreword, that these stories are, alongside narratives of exile, also narratives of firaq — the Sufi conception of separation or being torn — and that some of these stories, when read intimately, take on the appearance of a hikayat or conventional Sufi tale.
The placing of Sufi narratives of power, pain, and injury alongside reflections on migrant life and otherness makes for a holistic meditation. It reveals the writer’s timeless depth in linking seemingly disparate worldviews into a singular and highly original vision. Attar, Majnun, Maya, and the hans gather on the page to meditate upon absolutely universal emotions that bind them across time and geography. And the reader joins them, too.
The reviewer writes on gender, literature and society for various national and international publications
Zindagi Se Pehle
By Aamer Hussein
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 31st, 2020