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A different style


Abdullah Hussain

In 1963, an unknown writer wrote a novel and sprang it on an unsuspecting Urdu-speaking world. It made him immortal. The novel was Udaas Naslein, its writer Abdullah Hussein. Born in Rawalpindi, raised in Gujarat, a small town near Lahore, Hussein found a job in a cement factory and took to writing out of sheer boredom. What emerged from his pen was a chronicle of modern India, one that reflected the angst of an entire generation and came to be regarded as the foremost Urdu novel of its time.

Beginning in 1857, Udaas Naslein moves at a leisurely pace taking in the events of the First World War, the Jalianwala Bagh incident and the gathering storm over India, the gory events of Partition, culminating with the migration of Indian Muslims to Pakistan. Its protagonist Naim is a peasant's son who is initially smitten by the sophistication of the West and later increasingly drawn towards the "cause" that is Pakistan. Ironically, Independence and the creation of a new country, fail to bring freedom from old ties of caste and loyalty to an old order. It is this that causes the weariness of spirit, the sheer hopelessness of a battle fought, then lost to the enemy within. In the years that followed Udaas Naslein, Hussein acquired a devoted fan following with Nasheb, Baagh, Naader Log. His oeuvre, though slim, is a connoisseur's delight. His style, his choice of subject, his language is remarkably different from any that has been written before by any other Urdu novelist.

Udaas Naslein was chosen for translation under the UNESCO's collection of Representative Works in World Languages. For selection, a book must be at least 25 years old and in continuous print. Translated into English by Hussein himself under the title The Weary Generations, it was published in India by HarperCollins.

Immaculately dressed, and very tall, Hussein is quite the pucca Englishman! He is also famously reclusive and chary of talking about his craft. Upon retiring as a chemical engineer in the United Kingdom, he ran a liquor off-licence in London and now lives in the Hertfordshire countryside. On a recent visit to Delhi, the chain-smoking, quietly bemused author opens up somewhat as he looks back at the storm generated by his debut novel.

Excerpts from an interview with RAKHSHANDA JALIL.

IF you were to write Udaas Naslein today, 50 years later, would you approach the subject differently or would you tell the story of The Weary Generations in exactly the same way?

When I was writing Udaas Naslein from 1957 right up till 1961, I thought I was writing a love story, but for some reason it has come to be perceived as this epic narration of an entire generation and a way of life. That surprises me. When I was translating it I got the chance to look at it afresh. I didn't like some passages, I made changes and tightened it. I found my style of writing, my way of looking at things had changed. Much of it is due to the reading I have been doing over the years and the influences I have imbibed.

It has been said about you that you possibly think in English and write in Urdu.

(Laughs) While I have read the great literatures of the West and have been influenced by Western liberal traditions, when I am writing in Urdu I am conscious that the Urdu language is a powerful presence in my writing. I so enjoyed doing the translation of The Weary Generations and it was so well received, especially in the West. People said that it didn't read like a translation, that it was, in fact, a "different" English in an altogether different writing tradition, but perfectly readable English. That emboldened me to write an original novel in English — Émigré Journeys (published by Serpent's Tail, London).

What compels you to write? Tell us a little about your writing process.

History and politics have played a great role in all of my writing. I take very long over my books — often four to five years over one novel. I write slowly. I read a lot. At my literary agent's request, I am writing a novel based on Afghanistan. I am reading extensively on the subject. I can't be hurried while I am writing.

And the future, what does it hold?

There are the outlines of many novels in my mental incubator. I am hoping to also translate my novel Baagh, actually re-write it in English. When I finished my novel Naader Log, I made the mistake of writing Jaari Hai (To be continued) at the end. So, I am working on its continuation. In a moment of weakness, I just might give in to my publisher's entreaties and write a memoir. Meanwhile, discretion is the better part of valour!

Rakhshanda Jalil is Visiting Fellow, Pakistan Studies Project, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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