The first time I met the striking Abdullah Hussein at the Beach Luxury Hotel, cosily perched next to the Arabian Sea, its lights shimmering off his tall personage, I mistook him for a German Scholar. At six feet four (“I chose my parents well”, quips Hussein) he was the tallest writer, both literally and metaphorically, that I had ever come across. This first meeting came about at a dinner for delegates at the Fourth Karachi Literature Festival where I was to moderate a session with him the next day, an event that has led to a compelling acquaintance with the man behind the legendary writer.
At just 32 years of age Abdullah Hussein won the prestigious Adamjee Award for his debut novel ‘Udaas Naslain’, hailed as one of Urdu’s greatest novels alongside Quratulain Hyder’s ‘Aag ka Darya’. ‘Baaggh’, ‘Nadaar Log’, ‘Raat’, ‘Qaid’; collections of short stories, ‘Nashaib’ and the recently published ‘Faraib’, as well as his English novel ‘Emigre Journeys’ (which was turned into a feature film by BBC2 with the title ‘Brothers in Trouble’) have established his stature as a fiction writer of international recognition.
‘Udas Naslain’, he says, was written out of sheer boredom while working as a chemist in a cement factory in Daud Khel. “I am an accidental writer. Having nothing to do in my leisure hours I started reading and writing to break the monotony. Had I been based in Lahore or any other culturally vigorous urban centre I would have frequented cafés and gone to movie theatres, and the writer in me would probably have remained dormant. I did not have a comfortable command over the verbose language in vogue at the time so I invented my own simple language and style. Fortunately my novel has survived fifty years and three generations, whereas I am told that in India Quratulain Hyder‘s readership has dwindled among common readers owing to her style of language and also because Urdu is on the way to becoming extinct as a result of the Indian government’s pro-Hindi policies”. Despite this rather startling statement he goes on to tell me he considers Quratulain Hyder the greatest Urdu novelist ever.
In retrospect, the casual pyjamas and torn sneakers Hussein wore for his session at the Karachi Literature Festival were the perfect early indicators of the man’s simplicity. Having spent 40 out of his 82 years in England, there is an understated British mannerism (and sense of humour) about him. I recall an irate man grilling him during a session: “We have heard that you used to deliver booze to customers at their houses in London”. Pat came the reply, “You are mistaken. I ran a bar in London and the general custom in such a case is for customers to come to me for the booze instead of the other way round”.
Born as Mohammad Khan he adopted his present name to avoid confusion with his namesake Colonel Muhammad Khan, who was already a popular writer at the time Hussein started writing. Partially adopting the name of his co-worker at the cement factory, a ‘Tahir Abdullah Hussain’, that is the name that has stuck with him ever since.
[quote]”The institution of marriage will cease to exist in due course of time”[/quote]
I ask him how and why his later writings are primarily focused on local culture when he left Pakistan at such an early age. “Creativity is a very mysterious science. Leo Tolstoy was born nineteen years after the Napoleonic wars that he wrote about in War and Peace; and yet reading about his description of the battle of Austerlitz you can smell the gun smoke. These are miracles of imagination. Marcel Proust observed French society, abandoned the world and locked himself in a cork-lined room when he was 18. The brilliant depiction of French society in his monumental novel ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ is a marvel of observation and a feat of imagination. Just a few years are sufficient to observe and absorb the ethos of a society. I lived my childhood and youth in Pakistan. The socio-cultural colours of the society are so deeply imprinted on my subconscious that whenever I am compelled by my writing urge, I derive substantial material from it. A writer should have the ability to create a world beyond the boundaries of time and space.”
Despite all his literary renown, Abdullah Hussein is not a very familiar public figure. Having lived his life abroad, he is a bit of a recluse. Even the first time I saw him in Karachi he sat alone in a corner as people clamoured around media figures. A couple of months later while sitting in his artistically decorated house in a posh locality in Lahore, I ask him about the nature of fame. He laughs out loud, something that he does quite often “I am very popular among the servants of the neighborhood. They have seen my pictures in newspapers and television so they presume I must be a famous man”
He has strong opinions on matters of literature “A sharif admi cannot become a real writer. Philandering is one of the virtues of great minds, not because it is a virtue in itself but in the sense that it breaks taboos and to be a good writer you need to break social taboos. To create is to negate the existing order.”
What has his literary journey been like? “It took me twelve years to write my second novel. I once read somewhere, and I still believe in it, that ‘a novelist is as good as his second novel’. So I waited till an idea really touched me, and I like my novel ‘Baaggh’ more than any other book I have written. “Baaggh’ means ‘Tiger’. In the subcontinent where language, dialect and culture take on a different tint every few kilometers, this word is used in all languages from the Hindukush to the Arabian Sea”.
What about his favourite writers. “My favorite novel is ‘Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. You don’t need to read anything after it. Tolstoy, it is said, was reading this novel when he left his house and was found dead on a remote railway station a few days later. Chekhov is my favorite short story writer and playwright. There is a deep melancholy in his writings – a certain fatalism that appeals to me”
On Urdu literature, he surprisingly claims: “I must admit I am not good at writing Urdu. I consider Quratulan Hyder to be the most impressive novelist in Urdu, though she had her own failings – lack of linguistic sensuality, verbosity. Nonetheless, she holds the highest stature in the Urdu novel. Manto was a prolific writer but a drunkard and a poor man, which marred his creativity. Because he needed money he would sit down and scratch out a story, take his twenty rupees to go buy his drink without re-reading, revising or editing, which affected his prose. Yet he produced at least a dozen stories of everlasting quality, but his personality is also a contributor to his fame. However no one has come parallel to the maestro of Urdu short story, Ghulam Abbas.”
[quote]”Muhammad Hanif is the best of the present lot”[/quote]
Hussein has high expectations of Pakistanis writing in English “Muhammad Hanif is the best of the present lot. Even reading his journalism I am reminded of what George Steiner once said ‘What novel can match the best journalism?’ H M Naqvi is a very talented young writer who has all the potential to rise further”.
[quote]”I think 99.9% of married women are not very happy”[/quote]
By and by our conversation drifted towards more personal matters. “I think the greatest enemy of talent is a pram in the hall. I have seen marriage eating out the talent of many a promising young man. Oddly, women thrive on it, because I think 99.9% of married women are not very happy, although I may be completely wrong.”
“I am completely free of organized social and religious values. I consider monogamy a life sentence.”
I bring up Somerset Maugham who in “Of Human Bondage” wrote that love is a fleeting emotion and to base the institution of marriage on such an ephemeral emotion is beyond common sense, and Bertrand Russell who predicted the demolition of marriage.
“The institution of marriage will cease to exist in the advanced world in due course of time. Already in western countries 66 percent of marriages do not last for more than 7 years. Like the second novel, a second marriage is often more successful. But love is supreme, it will reign over the human heart and mind whether or not marriage remains. Love also transcends sexual boundaries.”
[quote]”The greatest enemy of talent is a pram in the hall”[/quote]
What about his own experiences with the emotion? “When I was young, I was quite good looking, and not only women but all the men in my native town Gujrat were after me” he laughs mischievously.
[quote]”Urdu is on the way to becoming extinct in India”[/quote]
Hussein is married and has two children; a son who lives in England and a daughter with whom he lives in Lahore. His wife is a doctor and works in the UK. “We have given each other quite a bit of space which has enabled us to live separate lives. Having a less demanding spouse gives a person enough luxury and time to pursue his or her passion. I must acknowledge and appreciate my wife for bearing with my excesses”.
Recently he sent a story to a magazine that the editor rejected. Coincidentally, there was a rendezvous between both a few days later. I had expected a furious Abdullah Hussein but contrary to my expectations he met the editor very warmly. “Aha! so you are the editor. I was curious to meet you. I really appreciate the quality of your magazine.” He said to me later, “It is very common with publishers and editors to return drafts of established writers for review. When William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and globally hailed as a literary icon, he confidently sent the draft of one of his stories to a publisher. To his surprise, the draft was returned with a request for review. He took the suggestions of his publisher in good spirit and made certain amendments”. He added “I think my editor was right. Certainly, some parts of my story required rewriting”.
However, he is very apprehensive of critics. “Critics in Pakistan are an illiterate lot. They live in the past and rarely ever read. “Udas Naslain” was published half a century ago but not a single thorough critical appraisal of my novel has been published ever since. But as far as I am concerned, once I have written something I throw it out of my system and forget about it. I have no concept of posterity. They can throw my writings on the trash heap for all I care after I’m gone.”
Before I left he shared with me the epitaph for his grave:
There came passionate lovers; and with future promise they turned away
Now go searching for them in the light of your radiant face
Irfan Javed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org