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Aamer Hussein is a fiction writer, critic and professor of literature.


Sometimes I’m struck by the number of books I have loved and left behind. There is a shelf in the corridor of my flat, just to the left of the entrance, full of glossy hardbacks that look unread. They aren’t; I read all these books by Nadine Gordimer and Mario Vargas Llosa, John Berger, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Handke and John Banville, Margaret Atwood and Tahar Ben Jelloun, a quarter of a century ago. Some of them are signed by their authors. But the sight of this shelf, just above eye-level as I pass, makes me feel mildly guilty; I ranged books there to be read again and again, but haven’t taken them down in at least 20 years, except to dust their covers.

But many of the books that have most inspired me are from the same period, 1986, the year before I abandoned a postgraduate dissertation in psychology and philosophy to concentrate on writing fiction and essays. I was 31; I’d lived in London half my life. I had started reading my way around the world’s fictions in search of an orientation and decided that the dusty, fusty public Westminster libraries and the leftwing bookshops I frequented on Charing Cross Road, with their ‘third world’ and foreign languages sections, were my real alma mater; Colette and Junichiro Tanizaki were more challenging than Freud and Jung and Klein.

My ’86 books are shelved in my bedroom, which doubled as my study then. There are the collected works of Lu Xun, the early 20th century Chinese genius who taught me what a short story could do with the simplest, finest strokes. There are Egyptian editions of Naguib Mahfouz, including Wedding Song, possibly the first of his books I read and at that time his most recent work available in translation, a couple of years before the Nobel Prize catapulted him to international fame. I took it down from its shelf when I was correcting the proofs of my novel The Cloud Messenger, and detected echoes in my penultimate chapter of the finely-crafted conclusion of Mahfouz’s novel, which ends with the last of its four narrators, Abbas, setting out for the station “with new vigour ... as full of promise as great clouds laden with rain,” though he’s actually “penniless, pursued, and carrie[s] sadness” within him.

How subtle and pervasive influences can be, I thought as I corrected my manuscript: that passage from Wedding Song had remained in my mind more vividly than any part of Miramar, which at the time I’d designated my favourite of all Mahfouz translations. (I wasn’t entirely surprised to find in my notebooks of that year an eight-page synopsis of a novel that seems like the template for The Cloud Messenger; I was too immature to write it then. I hadn’t lived enough; instead, I turned to short fiction.)

Alongside Mahfouz, I was also reading, in French, the Algerian Assia Djebar, whose work I’d discovered by chance in a bookshop. Her L’amour, La Fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), quite new when I read it, remains for me her seminal achievement. It interweaves historical narratives with memoir and meditations on language, belonging and loss. These meditations — on the author’s bilingualism, and her choice, during colonial times, to write in her ‘stepmother tongue’, the language of the coloniser — are at the core of the novel. Djebar’s choice of French as her language of self-expression still seemed to fill her with agony decades later. Why, I was to ask myself, had she never bothered to perfect her Arabic, a living, thriving language, instead of lamenting the loss of it? But Djebar’s dilemma remains a burning issue today, when we look at the international hegemony of English and two or three other ‘global’ languages.

At that time, before the era of the writer who, by courtesy of virtual technology, inhabits two simultaneous spaces, there was a split in my mind between two kinds of writers: those who were rooted, like Mahfouz, living in his birthplace and writing in his own language, critical of social norms but also contained within his society and addressing a ‘natural’ readership; and the exiles, often driven away from homelands by ethnicity, gender, or politics; they often (Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Said) but not always (Nina Berberova, Milan Kundera) wrote in a borrowed language. Djebar, transnational though not in exile, seemed to commute between two countries and cultures, at home in neither.

Where, then, did an uprooted writer like Qurratulain Hyder, who had left India for Pakistan, then Pakistan for England and India, fit in? I heard her read that autumn of ’86, at two venues: The now-defunct Commonwealth Institute, the last outpost of empire, and SOAS, that bastion of oriental studies: two exquisite stories, the whimsical pseudo-memoir “Memories of an Indian Childhood” and the picaresque “Catherine Bolton,” one in English, one in Urdu. I’d always taken for granted her way of flitting, with seeming nonchalance, between literature and journalism, languages and cultures, an attitude that made the writers who moaned about lost languages seem quite suspect to me. (Take language lessons, I can hear Annie say.) I could read her in either language, but there wasn’t much fiction she’d published in English; though I took pleasure in listening to her read in her mother tongue, I was still too lazy to read her longer works in Urdu.

Hyder also wanted to be recognised as an anglophone writer; within 10 years her wish would begin to come true. Her books in English have a shelf of their own in my library, but my favourite among her works — Patjhar ki Awaaz, a volume of her stories, which I didn’t read from cover to cover until ’91 — is on my bedside table. It contains three or four of my favourite stories in any language, including the title piece and “Jilawatan,” that bleakly beautiful evocation of post-Partition exiles in London. The book is tangible proof that in the end the Hyder who inhabited Urdu still means more to me than her anglophone twin.

My Urdu shelf, also in the corridor, began filling up in 1988, with the classics of prose and poetry I’d acquired in my university years, editions of the stories of Manto, volumes by Abdullah Hussain and Ghulam Abbas given to me by my friend, the artist Jamal Shah, who thought I ought to learn to appreciate fiction in my own language; and my own new favourite of that year, Ismat Chughtai. (I’d read her story “Nanhi ki Nani” in university days, but like most of the other fictions, by Premchand and other ‘progressives’, that I’d had to read in haste for a second year exam, I’d found it earnest and dull.) Her autobiographical piece, “Meri Aapbeeti,” in a book I picked up by chance in my local library’s sale of discarded books, led me back to her work. Reading Terhi Lakir from beginning to end was a revelation; this dense and incandescent feminist bildungsroman from the 40s had been a trailblazer in its day; later, it was held to have achieved in fictional form what De Beavoir did a little later in The Second Sex, but had a power that transcended its period to speak to mine. However, the Chughtai I return to most often is her novella Dil ki Duniya: an intimate, subversive depiction of domestic life, its portrayal of the destruction of one free (female) soul, and its conclusion, in which an abandoned wife escapes from the dull life mapped out for her into an ‘immoral’ freedom, are superbly handled. On a visit to Bombay, in 1990, I wanted to meet her, but my aunt, who knew her well, said she didn’t talk much any more and was fading away at the age of 75. The next year The Quilt, a collection of her stories, came out in London, but I think she died before it was published.

Today the Urdu shelf, that has had to be rebuilt, is packed, along with volumes of poetry and classical prose, with books of fiction I acquired in the following decades: by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Sajjad Hyder Yildirim, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Intizar Husain, Khalida Husain, Enver Sajjad, Jamila Hashmi, Asif Farrukhi and many others. But the book I go back to most often is Ghulam Abbas’s Zindagi, Naqab, Chehre. His “Ek Dardmand Dil,” about an east-west love affair and marriage, was the starting point for my long story Another Gulmohar Tree (and another inspiration was his British wife C.Z. Abbas’s sketches in a book of poems he wrote for children). More than his undoubted gift for storytelling, I admire his meticulous attention to language and to craft, the still surfaces and seething depths of his prose. Like Tennessee Williams, whose Collected Stories I once turned to when I reached a block in one of mine, Abbas is a short story writer I read and reread. I could also praise Shafiqur Rahman’s Himaqatein and Kahaniyan, A.R. Khatun’s collection of fairytales, which I discovered in the 90s and sometimes return to for sheer entertainment, and to complain about the loss of my favourite Intizar Husain collection, Kachhue, which some visitor seems to have removed from my bookshelf.)

But I haven’t yet finished with ‘86. My copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights is a recent reprint and a sixth replacement of a book my notebook tells me I had bought secondhand and was blissfully reading for a second time that year. If, before, I’d had any residual doubts about my lack of interest in conventional tools of fiction such as plot and chronology, this book — a mosaic of short stories, memories, quotations and reflections on writing and grief, that somehow miraculously coalesces as a novel — blew away those doubts. The rapture of the narrating voice holds the book together. It’s also, like my favourite works by Mahfouz, a short novel. I was a confirmed lover of short forms and in my notebook dismissed many ‘big’ books as hollow and inconsequential.

“I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life,” the narrator promises on the first page, and, thinking “of the people I’ve buried, north and south,” she remarks towards the end of the book that the “sentences in which I tried for a light tone — many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.”

Sometimes I’m struck by the number of books I’ve loved and remained loyal to. Through an interview with that other favourite, Djebar, I rediscovered Cesare Pavese, whom I’d come across when I was teaching myself Italian in the 70s; influenced then by Natalia Ginzburg’s bleak novellas, I had been too callow to appreciate her older contemporary. The Moon and the Bonfire was still available in a fine translation. This poet’s novel sees a migrant return to his home in the countryside in the years following World War II, to face painful memories of poverty and civil war. At its core is a tragic love story that reaches, in a stunning finale, the level of myth. But the work by Pavese that influenced me the most was I Dialoghi con Leuco (The Dialogues with Leuco), his book of conversations between Greek gods and heroes, poets, muses and heroines, in which subtly altered themes of childhood and maternal love, sex and death are coaxed out from between the lines of the original myths that I’d known since I was nine. For example, in “Il Fiore” (“The Flower”), Love and Death discuss the changing of the boy Iacinto into the hyacinth flower by the sun who saw him crying but didn’t understand what tears meant. Metamorphosis, though, is not the point of the fable. When Love tells Death that the boy lived for six days in the full light of joy and came to a rapid end, what more did Death want for him? Death replies: That the Radiant One should weep like us. And Love retaliates: Death, you ask too much.