Restless by Aamer Hussein starts with the arrival at a new place, and this seems a fitting way to embark on the journey of reading this book which has been written and compiled “instead of an autobiography.” We begin by his recollection and are transported into the world of a 15-year-old boy who has reached London full of a sense of discovery. Particulars details help the reader experience a sense of actuality – whether it is how he is unaccustomed to late sunsets or how he would now opt for the cheap front seats at the cinema. Looking back to an old, lost time, Hussein manages nothing less than a feat of memory in being able to bring to life with many such vivid details.
He reminisces how he “depended on books for company” when he felt a lack of friends around. This is an early telling sign of his scholarly disposition, for is it not the things we turn to when we feel the pangs of loneliness that somehow define us? As a young boy in the first chapter of the book, he could no longer “say where home was.” Both these quotes evoke themes that are running through the veins of Hussein’s writing.
Much later in the book (and I read Restless chapters in the selected order by the writer), there is talk in “the interior moment” of how the forms of fiction and reality are linked. It is rather masterful, because by that time, I had all but immersed myself in that very same reflection. This was due to the nature of the writings in the book. Starting off, with the section ‘Restless,’ we are in the domain of real life, or so it seems. However, when Hussein mentions some real-life lines like, “Through the autumn, I wrote poems about Naoko, because I needed someone to write poems for,” I was taken to the world of the short story The Crane Girl (From Hussein’s collection, Insomnia). When he recounts in the chapter ‘Restless’ how Yunie retorted to his love confession with the biting words: “I don’t love you. O, not in that way, you’re like a brother,” I hear the echo of another short story The Girl from Seoul (From the Cactus Town collection).
What is interesting is, I do not seem to be sure whether the stories have turned to ‘fact’ now that I know the references. In fact, the narrative has ended up becoming an even larger canvas of stories within stories within stories. And this is the way Hussein writes in Restless, this is his feat. As if he knows that I am thinking along these lines, as I approach the last pages of his work, he puts my thoughts into written reflection of his own: “What was the alchemy that transformed life into fiction?”
He explains away the confusion between fact and fiction himself by referring to a Sufi scholar, Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch, who coins the term ‘zaman-i-baatin’ (interior time) to refer to the dreamy landscape of fiction where all boundaries of time and space are blurred and a new world emerges. This is starkly different from facts!
In ‘Teacher’ Hussein mentions a saying he has heard of a sage which states that in our lives we run into 9 or 12 teachers, amongst whom one remains elusive. Hussein feels perhaps it is the teacher who initiated his undying love for the subtleties of the Urdu language who is the ‘hidden’ teacher in his life, as he lost touch with him. This disappearance from his life, could really not have been put in a more compelling manner. As the writings are interlinked at many places, I wonder whether Han Suyin and Maria Chaudhari were one of the other 9 or 12 teachers in his life, but who knows?
Even though he defines his relationship to his homeland as ‘eternally present,’ it was Suyin who told him: ““YOU LOVE YOUR MOTHER, EVEN IF SHE IS UGLY. Pakistan may be ugly in English ways, but she is your MOTHER.” It is a remark he remembers perhaps because it is intrinsically linked to his restlessness as far as ‘home’ is concerned. It was the Bangladeshi writer, Maria Chaudhari, who said to him: “Writing in two languages is like having two loves in conflict.” These are teachings of their own sort I feel, that the reader can learn from as well – and in this way, Hussein has extended the words that left an impact on him to us, making us richer in the process.
There are so many other important reflections in Restless. For instance, in Words And Music, there is a beautiful passage in which Hussein wonders why a certain song or poem speaks to children: “I often wonder what impact lyrics and poems have on our unformed minds, why those words we don’t completely understand can wound or awaken us, in intangible ways.” This line of thought invariably takes one down memory lane and collect the literature, film and art that left an indelible impression on us. For me, it would have to be that scene from the telefilm Anarkali, when the heroine (played by Zeba Bakhtiar) stands in front of a mirror with a lipstick in her hand. She proceeds to paint her entire face with it, making swirls, and all the time repeating the words “Mei buhut khoobsurat hun!” (I am very beautiful!). In the story, she was a closet poetess whose husband revered her only for her external beauty. I stray away from Restless, but I wanted to relate through this memory the kind of impact Hussein’s thoughts had on me as a reader. Restless is introspective in a way that reaches into the life-mind of the reader also, provoking her to get to know herself better.
Hussein writes: “They say that migration is like a death, and arrival otherwhere a second birth.” I’d like to extend this notion to the reading of Restless which is divided into four sections, and as you move from one to the other, there is a ‘migration’ that is taking place. As one is restless in section one, in the memoir fashion, there is an arrival in Garden Spy to a world of stories, keen observations in section three, ending with lockdown musings and a letter in section four. The book starts with Hussein as 15 years and six weeks old, and ends with a letter dated January 2021, when he is almost 66 years old as he revealed in his LLF online talk with Sabyn Javeri, where they enigmatically discussed a lifetime of memories, Restless and other things.
Hussein is a masterful storyteller and has a way with words. He talks of ‘unsent letters’ to Suyin in autobiographical detail, and at the same time I am taken to the short story Sound of Absence, in which there is also mention of letters composed and then discarded. This dual reality, this constant subtext in Restless is a unique and thrilling experience. I recommend reading his short stories, along with Restless, in order to fully relish with context, the world of his writing.