The voyage between two languages

March 22, 2020

Aamer Hussein’s first collection of chronologically arranged Urdu stories can be viewed as a diary of sorts of writing in his native language

In Another Gulmohar Tree, one of Aamer Hussein’s characters emphatically states over a cup of tea at Lyons that “you don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you”. The gravitational pull of English may have ‘chosen’ Hussein to write in the language that was imposed on him as a child, but he hasn’t been able to abandon his native tongue. Urdu remains “the point [he is always] flying to” – a homeland that is distant yet ubiquitous. The rich literary kaleidoscope of his mother tongue has informed his fiction, imbuing it with the power to turn words into bridges. In 2012, Hussein made the voyage between two languages by choosing to write stories in Urdu as well as English.

Zindagi se Pehle, Hussein’s first collection of Urdu stories, can be viewed as a diary of sorts of this nearly decade-long journey of writing in his native language. If we cast even a cursory glance at the contents page, we notice that the author’s Urdu stories have been chronologically arranged. This is possibly a way for readers to witness the diverse range of his writing in the language.

Hussein’s new book also includes translations of a few previously published English stories that have sailed along with him on his foray into a new language. Translated by Asif Farrukhi, Shahbano Alvi and the late Fahmida Riaz, these stories reflect the universality of the author’s work.

In the introductory piece titled Mian tum Urdu main kyun nahi likhte?, Hussein recalls an incident from 1986 when his beloved Annie Khala – the Urdu novelist Qurratulain Hyder – asked him why he didn’t write in Urdu. This question is perhaps what drove the author to break free from the shackles of an imposed language and embrace his mother tongue. Through this candid essay, the author traces his literary encounter with Urdu and vehemently criticises those who believe writing in the language is a regressive endeavor akin to taking a tonga ride in the age of motor vehicles.

Do Kahaniyan, the first two stories in Zindagi se Pehle, were originally published in the literary magazine Dunyazaad. Later, the author and his student Carole Smith translated these stories into English and they were published as Knotted Tongue 1 & 2 in one of Hussein’s earlier collection, The Swan’s Wife. These stories, titled Shams Khanum and Zohra, explore the friendship that an unnamed narrator has with two charismatic and intelligent women who are migrants in his country.

In a crisp and engaging manner, Hussein paints an intimate portrait of two women who meet a similar fate. Do Kahaniyan evokes the many moods and phases of a meaningful friendship – first encounters, remembered snippets of conversation and an eternal separation. At its core, these are stories of women who leave their turbulent homelands in the quest for a personal voice.

Saintis Pul, which has been translated into English by the author’s mother and published in an eponymously titled collection, builds on a similar motif. The London-based narrator of the story examines his friendship with Laila, a writer of Turkish-Cypriot origin. Against the backdrop of Paris, a city that has attracted many writers, Laila searches for a solution to the sense of dislocation she has felt all her life. With quiet restraint and sensitivity, Hussein skillfully captures the essence of Laila’s memories of political strife at home and the significance of her evening walks along the city’s 37 bridges.

In Another Gulmohar Tree, one of Aamer Hussein’s characters emphatically states over a cup of tea at Lyons that “you don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you”.

Hauslamand is a radical departure from the other stories in this collection as it is laced with a touch of humour. While the writer’s focus remains on economic migrants who come to London in search of a better life, his approach is fundamentally different. This story examines how a generous employer is repeatedly duped by unreliable migrants who promise to perform a few odd jobs for her. Despite false promises of cooking biryani and laying carpets around the house, the employer tolerates their shenanigans and doesn’t pass judgement.

Throughout this story, Hussein steers clear of mocking Safia and Beg Sahib’s conduct and depicts these characters with empathy. Those readers who have come across the English translation of this story – published as The Entrepreneurs in The Swan’s Wife – may find it fascinating to learn that the Urdu version isn’t told in the third-person narrative mode.

Karima, which has been translated by Asif Farrukhi, offers a more serious outlook regarding the struggles faced by outsiders who come to London in search for a better life. By adopting the dual narrative to vivid effect, Hussein explores the suffering of a Bihari woman who has been shortchanged by fate and is haunted by her gruesome past.

In Maya – the Urdu story that was freely adapted into the title story of The Swan’s Wife – Hussein once again employs friendship as a lens to understand the indeterminate state that migrants encounter. However, this story leaves readers with a haunting denouement stirred by betrayal.

The title story is a brilliant evocation of the ways in which art is created in the public and private spheres. Set against the backdrop of the Kashmir lockdown of August 2019 and the days when Boris Johnson came into power, Zindagi se Pehle offers an intimate meditation on the turmoil that surrounds us.

In addition to Zindagi se Pehle, Kaway aur Hans, Neela Moti and Kabootar are the other new stories that have been published in this collection. These stories evoke Hussein’s unrivalled ability to compose timeless fables. Neela Moti depicts the unsettling circumstances a boy encounters when he has a fever dream. With spooky restraint, the story makes readers wonder whether supernatural elements had something to do with the boy’s ordeal. Through his work, Hussein shows a long-standing fascination with birds. Much like his earlier stories, Kaway aur Hans and Kabootar, he uses the motif of birds to evoke love and loss.

The translations of Hussein’s English stories have been handled with care. Shahbano Alvi’s translations of The Name and Tales from Attar – which were published in Hermitage – ought to be commended for echoing the spirit and intensity of the original texts. Farrukhi’s Urdu translation of Hussein’s Two Old Friends on a Stormy Afternoon capably brings the rhythm of the exchange between Dr Kazi and Colonel Jami to life.

Zindagi se Pehle painstakingly compiles the author’s new, previously published and translated works, and serves as welcome proof that the art of storytelling is not constrained by language barriers. Hussein’s stories are as luminous in Urdu as they are in English.

Zindagi se Pehle

Author: Aamer Hussein

Publisher: Ushba


Pages: 142

Price: N/A

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

The voyage between two languages