Aamer Hussein’s new book marries the poignancy of his fiction with the fluidity of his non-fiction
Autobiographies are often steeped in self-indulgence. Unwilling to exercise restraint, authors stand the danger of producing dull, vainglorious accounts of their lives. A strong autobiographical text strikes a healthy balance between revealing intimate details and preserving the mystique of a public persona. If the text disproportionately upholds a public image or legacy, it becomes tedious and unoriginal. If it solely operates as an exposé, it caters to the voracious appetite of prurient busybodies and gossip-mongers.
Aamer Hussein’s Restless: Instead of An Autobiography is spared the ignominy of either fate through its distinct structural choices. The book’s subtitle releases it from the rigid expectations that readers have of a conventional autobiography. Liberated from the shackles of an all-embracing linear account, Restless courageously exposes different aspects of the author’s public and private life. Hussein uses his assorted memoirs, stories and essays as doorways into the critical moments of his past and present. Each of these creative forms represents a different avatar of the author’s life. This is a compelling technique that serves to enrich the scope of life-writing from Pakistan.
While Restless defies the predictable structure of an autobiography, it observes a chronological sequence as the pieces appear in the order that they were written. Readers are advised against veering away from the book’s existing structure as it will allow them to develop a more holistic and nuanced portrait of the author’s life.
The first section of the book predominantly comprises short memoirs. These pieces are devoid of long biographical details and mercifully an endless list of the author’s achievements. A memoir is sacred territory for Hussein and he doesn’t use it as a self-congratulatory tool. In his sixties, the author began writing memoirs as a way of remembering friends and mentors. In these pieces, Hussein appears as an onlooker who reveals traces of himself through the people, places and eras he evokes.
Restless, the eponymously titled memoir that was featured in Granta’s Pakistan issue, kicks off this section by introducing us to a younger Hussein who finds himself adrift during his early years in London. Assailed by the monotony of youth, he makes new friends, experiences heartbreak and acquaints himself with his “native script” through Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems.
Sticklers for clean timelines may find it bizarre that Hussein’s arrival in London has been selected as the starting point of the book. Karachi, Bombay, Indore and Ooty are part of the patchwork of his early years, but only emerge in Restless as shadows of a bygone life. Even so, the opening piece shouldn’t be viewed as an attempt to erase crucial facets of the author’s life. Instead, Restless is an ode to Hussein’s peculiar relationship with London, the “open city” that welcomed and alienated him in equal measure, and has been his home for over five decades.
In Teacher, Hussein appears as a disciple to tall, purple-robed Shah Sahab who serves as a possible antidote for his youthful disillusionment. The memoir, which was originally written in Urdu, reveals how Shah Sahab taught the author to appreciate the splendour of Urdu at a time when he encountered ostensibly dry prose in English. Using the ‘I-eye’ that freely inhabits his non-fiction pieces, Hussein juxtaposes the blurring of Shah Sahab in his memory with the loss of a student to Covid-19. What emerges is a poignant meditation on the role of known and unknown teachers.
Liberated from the shackles of an all-embracing linear account, Restless courageously exposes different aspects of the author’s public and private life. Hussein uses his assorted memoirs, stories and essays as doorways into the critical moments of his past and present.
At first glance, As We Came From The Holy Land may seem to be an unusual follow-up to Teacher as it is a travelogue that depicts a much-older Hussein during his life-altering visit to Palestine. From the relative comfort of London, readers are hurtled into a troubled terrain where words bear the power to “encapsulate and diffuse the present”. The decision to include a travelogue amid memoirs proves to be rewarding as it reveals that Hussein’s affinity with places moves beyond the blinkers of personal history. The trip also serves as yet another “unrevealed teacher” for the author.
Suyin: A Friendship is an ode to Hussein’s literary association with Chinese-born Eurasian author Han Suyin. The friendship lit the darkened pathways in the initial years of Hussein’s literary career and gave him the impetus to settle crucial creative dilemmas. It was Han Suyin who urged Hussein not to choose between the languages he spoke and instead draw upon the inner music of his mother tongue when he put pen to paper. This short memoir is steered by the same spiritual concerns that fuel the previous pieces in the section and arguably stitches them together into a cohesive whole.
In the second section of Restless, Hussein ventures into the familiar terrain of short fiction. Even so, the narrators of these stories act as stealthy shape-shifters who transform into versions of Hussein at various junctures of his life. This isn’t a new trend in the author’s oeuvre. For years, Hussein’s stories have explored the porous boundaries between fiction and memoir - a motif that has allowed him to write about the people he has known, loved or lost through thin fictional disguises. The author has a deep fascination with the ways in which memory morphs into a raconteur who deviates from, and even invents, facts. As standalone pieces, they serve as an ever-present reminder of Hussein’s sizzling prowess as a short story writer.
February deftly uses the second-person narrative perspective to portray the flavours of friendship. Surrounded by near-perfect companionships that are peppered with betrayal, long silences and emotional burdens, the narrator ponders over the shade and comfort provided by trees.
Hussein uses his characteristically digressive mode to great effect in A Convalescence. The narrator uses his friend’s unique equation with a pigeon as a springboard for contemplation. The story segues into the narrator reflecting on his leg injury and seeking to understand the body’s connection with physical space and time. With its distinctly folkloric quality, A Convalescence raises pertinent points about the nature of birds in the realm of fables and reality, and points towards the symbiotic link between animals and humans. The “zigzag shifts” in the story lend a realistic touch to the narrative and make it all the more memorable.
The Blue Bead is a translation of Hussein’s Urdu story Neela Moti and carries the cadence of the author’s style in his mother tongue. The story, which is susceptible to both realistic and paranormal interpretations, stands out in this section as it focuses on children. Hussein has self-translated his story Zindagi say Pehlay into What Is Saved - a herculean effort as his Urdu has both a colloquial and literary quality and bears traces of Hindi. The story, which explores how art is created within the public and private spaces of the mind, is an iridescent reminder of Hussein’s abilities as a storyteller. Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, The Garden Spy introduces readers to a narrator who must reckon with the uneasy solitude of lockdown while grappling with personal loss and a cancer diagnosis.
Mirror-Pond can very well be viewed as a poem or a narrative with a fairly postmodern touch. Woven together with images of swans and ponds, the piece bears echoes of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s Sur Karyal – which is referred to in a later piece – and benefits from a striking musicality.
The third part of the book presents a rich array of Hussein’s essays. In this section, the author uses the ‘I’ less sparingly and with greater conviction than he does in his fiction. This can be attributed to the fact that a vast majority of the essays in Restless represent Hussein’s public image as they were penned for his weekly columns for a newspaper (DAWN). Words and music use the death of yesteryear actor Shamim Ara to explore the author’s childhood fascination with Pakistani film music. Of Poets and Dreamers channels Hussein’s grief over the death of two friends – poets Fahmida Riaz and Judith Kazantzis – into a moving essay about friendships sustained by the power of the written word. The interior moment expounds upon the elements that separate fact from fiction. Each essay opens a vista onto the influence of art, literature and memory on Hussein’s oeuvre.
The ‘I-eye’ of the pieces in the fourth section of the book appears to be far more personal. The Waterline: Lockdown Reflections is fuelled by a quest for release from isolation that keeps the author away from friends. The Yellow Notebook is a breathtaking missive that examines the significance of one such bond.
A rich and subtle collection, Restless marries the poignancy of Hussein’s fiction with the fluidity of his non-fiction to create a portrait of a many-splendoured life. In his new book, Hussein breaks away from the oft-repeated technique of memoir-writing and follows an unconventional path to remembering his life.
Instead of An
Author: Aamer Hussein
Price: Rs 800
The reviewer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya