Celebrated novelist and short-story writer, accomplished intellectual and the man who ushered in the realist Urdu novel, Abdullah Hussain, died on 4 July 2015. He was 83. Born in 1931, he shot to fame for what became his magnum opus Udaas Naslain (“Melancholic Generations”). His debut novel touched on the universal themes of love, separation, Partition, migration and war. It won the prestigious Adamjee Award in 1963 – then Pakistan’s highest literary award. Hussain was only 32 at the time.
Starting out as an obscure chemist in rural Punjab, Hussain had to write a few short stories to break into the ranks of the Urdu literati before the publication of his debut novel. Those stories ultimately became modern classics and were later published in his collection Nashaib. The author’s propensity for vivid detail, a strong plot, true-to-life characters, simple language and universal themes remained hallmarks of his writing. Subsequently, he moved to the UK – not to return for almost 40 years. But his love for literature bloomed: he read incessantly and wrote two very fine novels, Baagh and Nadaar Log; two novellas, Qaid and Raat; and two collections of short stories, Nashaib and Fraib. I had the rare privilege of knowing him during the tail end of his brilliant literary innings. A few days before his death, he shared a dream he had had. In sombre tones, he related to me:
“Last night, I saw a dream. I saw three brilliant white seagulls. They were perched on a cliff by the sea. One of them pointed to the seagull in the middle and said to me, ‘She is your mother.’ I looked at her and she took me affectionately under her wings… in her fold.”
Hussain was only six months old when his mother died. His longing for her remained a perpetual companion till the very end. He found a friend in his father, but when the lanky, handsome Abdullah was only 19, his father, too, died – a loss that consigned him to isolation and ultimately a nervous breakdown. Possessed as he was by a passion for literature, he became something of a recluse. This continued almost till the end: in the last couple of years, he had begun appearing in public, but having lived so many years away from home, he was not familiar public figure in Pakistan.
There were two exceptions to his introversion. The first was his forty-year-long friendship with Mustansar Hussain Tarar, the eminent writer; the second exception was women. He treasured Tarar’s friendship, at times even casually admonishing and advising him like an elder. Their friendship became a well-known facet of Pakistan’s literary landscape. Hussain may have come across as a distant man, but occasionally he would come out of his shell to expose a soft, genteel person.
One sultry afternoon in June 2015, I received a call from a perturbed Hussain. He asked after Tarar, who had not been well. I told him that there was a cyst in Tarar sahib’s liver, which had to be surgically removed. Hussain had already been diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer, but he ignored his own failing health after a string of chemotherapy sessions and persistently inquired after his friend. On 6 June, he posted this message on Facebook: “My one great friend, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, has fallen ill and is hospitalized. Please pray for his health.” Earlier, Hussain had undergone intermittent bouts of depression for some time. He wrote in an email, “I have been continuously ill for three weeks, depressed, irritable and thinking of old age and death. You will probably know when you will get to that age how difficult it is to look ahead to the darkness of the future and see nothing.”
Still, there were bright moments in his life – most often in the company of women. His typically British mannerisms and wry sense of humour made him the darling of the ladies. He would narrate anecdotes and concoct stories that invariably charmed his audience. Hussain also had a penchant for sports. Be it kabaddi, cricket, football or tennis, he would while away hours glued to the television. “If you want to live a healthy, full and longer life,” he would say, “you must cultivate a hobby and follow a passion”. Of course, he also had his own failings and regrets. At times, he regretted not having given enough attention to family life in pursuit of literary excellence. Charming and graceful, Hussain had also discovered a newfound love for Chekhov. When we spoke in June, he was reading the Russian writer’s “The lady with the dog”. “I can relate to and identify with the melancholic undercurrent in the story,” he told me.
The news of his terminal illness, he had taken in his stride. Initially, he did not break the news to his small coterie of close friends, but disclosed it subsequently with a smirk – as if nothing had happened. But suddenly, he realized he had only limited time in hand. He began writing incessantly and was easily irritated by telephone calls and unscheduled visitors. “I have less time on hand. I want to complete as much work as I can. I understand that people come to me with concern and love. Still, the logical part of my brain does not understand the reason for such attendance, which will not improve my health,” he said.
Hussain would become visibly disturbed by references to his novel Udaas Naslain. “I am afraid that those people who continuously refer to Udaas Naslain have definitely not read my later works,” he would complain. Had he seen the regular and prominent references to the novel in the national news and his obituaries, he would have been an unhappy man.
On his death, the electronic and print media were inundated with condolence messages. News of his passing went viral. The President and Prime Minister offered heartfelt condolences. Ironically, few people attended his funeral; even fewer, his burial.