Restless: Instead of an Autobiography
By Aamer Hussein
Ushba, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699154546

As a short story writer, Aamer Hussein gave Pakistani English literature a new voice, one which drew on his multilingual and multicultural inheritance to create tight, nuanced narratives that are cosmopolitan and yet influenced by his Pakistani heritage, particularly Karachi where he grew up.

He still carries a strong association with the city, although he has lived in London since his mid-teens. The many issues which have forged his work include identity, belonging and language, and are poetically illuminated by his new creative memoir, Restless: Instead of an Autobiography.

As British poet Ruth Padel writes in the ‘Preface’: “Aamer Hussein moves through the literary cultures of East and West like an undersea river surfacing in unexpected places. The book he slips politely into his pocket when he meets you at the London tube station may be in French, Italian or Urdu. He teaches world literature, but his deepest attention often goes to writing by women from the 1930s to the 1970s in any of six languages and from any nation … The heart of his own writing is the short story, but he blurs and fuses genres, criss-crossing lines between memoir and fiction in a lightly worn, but radical hybridity which comes from his own life.”

These overlapping borderlines are intrinsic to Restless, which is built up through a sequence of memoir-essays, cleverly framing a sequence of short stories, which are then revealed to be autobiographical and provide a thought-provoking discourse on life writing, fiction and the choice of a specific form. The whole combines many personal insights and anecdotes with an important comment on the literary process, including colonialism and language.

Aamer Hussein’s creative memoir is a book of such great riches and, indeed, courage, that it is difficult to put it down

Themes of migration, dislocation and identity permeate Restless, which is divided into four parts. In the title sequence, Hussein tells of his arrival in alien London in 1970 with his two sisters, to join their parents and elder sister. He was 15. In a few spare paragraphs, he captures his exploration of the city and its ambience, including the pop music, the films and the fashions of the day. He mentions, too, the novelty of being able to wander around with cousins and siblings, “unaccompanied in streets and public parks”, which they would not have been permitted in India or Pakistan, and how they learned to negotiate moments of confusion, doubt and the unfamiliar.

He describes his Kensington tutorial college, his loneliness there and the companionship of the books from the public library — Yukio Mishima, James Baldwin and Cyprian Ekwensi among others — until he starts to make friends among classmates: Lebanese, Japanese, Korean, Columbian.

He reclaims Karachi through his discovery of an English translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The Urdu original alongside helps him “relearn” his “native script” — in his Karachi home, both English and Urdu were central to his family’s rich cultural life, though English was his stronger language. Faiz lived in their neighbourhood.

But during the process of his family’s migration from Pakistan, Hussein had left “Karachi and the sea” to spend almost two years at boarding school in India. There, he “had had to do exams in Hindi”, which he began to read and write faster than Urdu. Hussein expands on issues of language in the chapter ‘Teacher’, which tells of Syed Moinuddin Shah, a family friend and scholar who furthered Hussein’s preoccupation with Pakistan by providing access to translations, or songs, in Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi. He offered to teach Hussein Urdu and encouraged him to apply to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where Hussein went on to read Persian and Urdu.

Today, Hussein is the author of several English short story collections, a novel, a novella and, recently, a first collection of Urdu fiction. In Restless, he moves seamlessly between the past and present to give his work and its trajectory a further context. He writes of the early influence on him of the celebrated writer Han Suyin and brings her vividly to life in his memoir essay ‘Suyin: Friendship’.

Suyin understood his sense of dislocation. She was born in 1916, in Hunan, China, to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Raised in China, she lived in many lands since — including Belgium, Switzerland, Malaysia and Hong Kong — but kept returning to China and “carried China wherever she went.” In 1986, she wrote to him: “Why be so colonially infected that you must choose? … Why can’t you be a Pakistani, who happens to live in England? And go back to Pakistan for your roots?”

I had never yet had to invent anything in a memoir … When in doubt, I’ve written “I don’t remember” or have left the matter vague. But then, I’ve written very few pieces of life-writing. In the case of my travels. I recorded them when memories were fresh … Once, though, I read someone’s travel diary in which I played a significant part. Almost every appearance I made was different from the way I remembered it. — Excerpt from the book

Years later, recalling his sadness at Suyin’s death in 2012, he refers to her interest in Urdu, his mother tongue, to which she “reached out through translations of its poetry.” He adds: “The first time we met she asked me to listen to its music before I sat down to write.” He describes himself “trapped between tongues like her”, but eventually, he “did what she couldn’t”: he “reclaimed another self” in his “forgotten language”, Urdu. Shortly before Suyin died, he “wrote a handful of stories in Urdu” though he had not been able tell her of this.

The stories in Part Two, ‘Garden Spy’, can perhaps be best described as ‘auto-fiction’ and provide a remarkable portrait of courage and a celebration of life during times of difficulty and illness. This includes ‘A Convalescence’, in which the narrator, suffering from a fractured foot in London, reflects on memories of India, Pakistan and Britain, enriched with images of birds, flowers and friends.

The story provides interesting resonances and contrasts with ‘What is Saved’, written in the third-person, which Hussein has translated and adapted into English from his Urdu original Zindagi Sey Pehley [Before Life]. Here, Murad, a writer, and Sara, an artist, are recuperating from a broken foot and wrist respectively. Together, the two friends celebrate the beauty and wildlife of their local London park and enjoy an art exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and Murad hopes to visit Karachi again soon.

Similarly, in ‘The Garden Spy: A Diptych’, both London and Karachi are central to the consciousness of Mehran. In a surreal world overtaken by the corona pandemic, its restrictions and dangers, he is in London, diagnosed with cancer — the disease which has recently claimed his much-loved sister. In distant Karachi, his close friend, Rafey, age 60 has suddenly died. Here, life and death, ecology and nature, tragedy, memory and existence are developed into a two-part narrative, combining fragility, time and timelessness.

In the first part ‘Robin’ (a bird that symbolises hope), the restless Mehran photographs “flowers in other people’s gardens”, including that of the neighbourhood church with its brilliant red roses. Disturbing metaphorical dreams of dead robins, comforting telephone conversations during lockdown with a “self-isolating” friend and the philosophical words of Kalidasa, Jean Paul Sartre and Edwin Arnold capture the range of Mehran’s complex emotions.

The second part, ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’, portrays the importance of human contact. Mehran struggles to write about his friendship with the late author Elizabeth Chou, amid hospital appointments and the grief of losing his mother, sister and Rafey. Suddenly, Mehran’s narrative assumes a new life: he is no longer isolated. He and his novelist friend Sophia meet up by the lakeside in the park, sitting at “the required distance.” They chat and admire the scenery, the swans and the robins.

In a later memoir-essay, Hussein discusses the circumstances which determined his choice of genre, these three stories and the relationship between fiction and memoir. In Part Three, ‘The World of the Heart’, he writes of his literary bond with two expatriate friends: Iranian-born Mimi Khalvati and Algerian-born Assia Djebar — Anglophone and Francophone writers, respectively. He captures London’s vibrant literary life in the 1980s and his friendship with British poet Judith Kazantzis, who introduced him to Rukhsana Ahmad, through whom both Kazantzis and Hussein came to know Fahmida Riaz.

In between he writes of trips to Karachi, conferences at the Arts Council, conversations with Peerzada Salman, Asif Farrukhi and Fatema Hasan, among others. He refers to the fiction of Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chugtai and A.R. Khatun as well as childhood recollections of famous daastaans. He recalls his family home in PECHS, encounters with the film actress Shamim Ara, singer Iqbal Bano and Ustad Bundu Khan, the films he saw, the songs he heard.

Then there are memories of family friends ranging from Atiya Begum, Shaista Ikramullah and Maki Kureishi to Jamiluddin Aali, Z.A. Bokhari and Laila Shahzada. He describes, too, his gradual discovery of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s poetry, which is so much a part of his paternal Sindhi heritage.

Restless is a book of such great riches and, indeed, courage, that it is difficult to put it down. Hussein concludes with Part Four, which reflects on the pandemic and culminates with ‘The Yellow Notebook’, addressed in the second person to his publisher Shahbano Alvi, and with frequent mention of his friend Taha Kehar. It’s a celebration of friendship, communication and the written word.

The reviewer is the author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 2nd, 2022



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