May, 2021. In about 10 days it will be 51 years since I came, at the age of 15, to study in this city, London. But it’s a very different place we live in now. After weeks of meeting outdoors in parks and private gardens, or sipping coffee in open air cafes, we are allowed, from today, to dine in restaurants and socialise in each other’s homes. Yet, the solitary habits we formed during our 13 months of almost constant lockdown are here to stay — people rush home at a given hour to ‘attend’ Zoom events or simply to watch television.
Last weekend’s television highlight was the new adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s once very popular comic novel, The Pursuit of Love, which I read in my early 20s like a minor rite of passage. When I watched it on a dreary Sunday night, the silly antics of silly aristocrats in the years between the two world wars worked better than any pill to put me to sleep.
Is this because my sense of history in my adopted country begins only from the time I arrived here? I wish I could ask my father, who was packed off to study at Oxford in his teens, if the new version of Mitford’s story echoed his perception of the time. He had witnessed — though with a degree of detachment since he neither smoked nor drank — many of the antics described in the novel, and said some of Mitford’s characters were modelled on people he had known.
My father told me he was summoned back to what is now Pakistan in 1939 just before the Second World War began, because my prescient grandfather said he didn’t want him so far away from home in dangerous times. He continued his studies in Aligarh and Lahore, and returned to the Bar here only when the war was over. He spent the rest of his life between two countries. I suppose that’s why I was born and brought up in Karachi and then relocated, with my consent, to London in 1970.
I wish I’d asked my father how he felt about his family sending him off so young to England; he’d lost his mother, so the men of the family must have decided for him. The thought came to me as I reread a ‘lost’ novel of the early 20th century, Roshanak Begum, which begins with a teenaged boy’s struggle to go to Oxford during the height of the Raj as the English principal of his school feels that education in India isn’t up to the mark.
The author, Mahmooda Begum, uses the first chapters to dramatise the conflict between the forces of progress and those of tradition, with Humayun’s parents claiming that young men who go to England become gamblers, spendthrifts, drinkers of alcohol; they adopt wicked habits of the sort we see in the new version of Mitford’s novel. Worse still, his mother says, they bring home laundresses, seamstresses and gardener’s daughters as wives, if, indeed, they ever return. The best way is to marry them off before they leave home, if indeed they have to leave.
I wondered what some of my British students and friends — who still apologise for the dated snobbery, prejudices and (covert or overt) racism of some of their fiction — might say were they to see the mirror image of these in Urdu novels written during the Raj. Even when depicted as the attitudes of a few characters, they reflect deep-seated antagonisms towards colonial impositions perceived as alien, and only superficially espoused by a tiny elite. (Roshanak Begum, for all the guilty pleasures it offers, isn’t likely ever to find a translator.)
Returning to May and lockdown, it’s been eight months since I visited Karachi and, after an aborted trip in winter, prospects of travel seem distant with red zones everywhere en route. So in my leisure time I’ve been reading a writer who has been found worthy of translation in recent years: the much-loved Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, whom, I confess, I’d never read before.
I retrieved from a trunk the Urdu version of his autobiography, Zarguzasht, and a translation, My Long Flirtation, on Kindle. I wandered with the author through Karachi neighbourhoods, often unnamed, and unfamiliar from my years there, though I do know Burnes Road with its delicious foods, the onslaught of rain and consequent flooding and, most of all, the characters from every part of the Subcontinent (who, in one memorable scene, hold an impromptu concert in Malayalam, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi and Sindhi) that played such a significant role in his memories.
Reading Zarguzasht offers me all the cultural nostalgia of an Urdu interleaved with quotations from classical and modern poetry, musical performances, references to epochs of history from ancient times to the post-nationalist present, political skulduggery and a constant mapping of the Subcontinent. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of his acknowledged masterpiece, Aab-i-Gum, in the original Urdu, but have finally managed to make incursions into Mirages of the Mind, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmed’s dense, ambitious and multi-layered translation of this genre-defying work.
Speaking of language, Yousufi writes of Urdu as it is spoken in Karachi by Pakhtuns, Punjabis, Balochis, Sindhis and migrants from parts of India (he claims to be a native Marwari speaker): “The new language that has formed through the amalgamation of these folk dialects is very powerful, fresh, sweet and expansive.”
I’d need much more space to analyse the challenges of reading — particularly for someone, either a native speaker or an outsider, untutored in its allusions — so formidable and erudite a work of literary craftsmanship. Yousufi’s afterword, written in London during a time I knew well, is in itself a master essay that evokes not only the period in which it was written, but is relevant to our internet-ruled time: “... One clear benefit of travelling and spending time away from your country is that your love for it and your people not only grows, but becomes both demanding and unconditional ...
“The problem with living so far away from home is that each bit of news (and each rumour) makes your heart pound and your blood run fast ... Living like this for 10 years or so means that if you’re the sensitive sort, your spirits jump up and down like the lines on a seismograph during an earthquake. The life-blood of politics? For us, it’s molten lava.”
The columnist is a London-based novelist and short story writer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 23rd, 2021