A powerhouse of treasures

Aamer Hussein’s extensive work on Urdu is a memory of the landscapes he left behind, and the dreamscapes he did not

A powerhouse of treasures


amer Hussein is a polyglot – proficient in English, French, Hindi, Italian, Persian, Seraiki and Urdu – who can read multiple scripts, and has written in multiple languages. As a master storyteller, he has published several short-story collections and two novels: Another Gulmohar Tree (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize), and The Cloud Messenger. His first Urdu stories appeared in 2012 in Dunyazad. His first collection of Urdu fiction, Zindagi say Pehlay, was published in 2020.

But his romance with the language and its literature is much older than that. Hussein rightly asserts that Urdu is his mother tongue (he says English is his first language). He elaborates on that by stating, “English was a language that had been given to me by contingency, but Urdu was mine as both birthright and choice.” Urdu – if I may appropriate his words – is “the language of the colour of [his] heart”.

For over two and a half decades, he has used this colour to paint and illustrate Urdu for an international audience in magazines and journals such as Asymptote, Books and Authors, Critical Muslim, Times Literary Supplement, The Independent, Lit Hub, Kindle magazine, The Guardian, Sangam, Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, Annal of Urdu Studies, Granta, Indian Cultural Forum, The News on Sunday’s Literati, and the Journal of Contemporary Poetics.

As is revealed through these writings on Urdu literature and language, at the age of seven, he listened to a “tale of djinns and fairies” written by AR Khatoon; and at the age of eleven, he was listening to Abdul Halim Sharar’s stories and then reading Nasim Hijazi. His teenage readings also included Khushwant Singh’s translation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada, and Ralph Russell’s translation of Aziz Ahmed’s Aisi Bulandi, Aisi Pasti. At twenty, he found himself smiling at Razia Butt’s Saiqa which he had brought home for his mother. The reading of Umrao earned him the privileged A grade in his A-Level Urdu, and changed the course of his future journeys, as he began a “quest for the house of treasures that is Urdu” and “the world of Urdu and Pakistani fiction [he] was discovering like a child in the Sim-sim cave”.

Hussein’s response to this house of treasures came in multiple forms: teaching Urdu, engaging in conversations on Urdu literature and literati, researching and writing critical and historical commentaries, mirroring the semiotics of Urdu in his English fiction, and most importantly, writing fiction in Urdu, and that too, with Qurratulain Hyder’s “hand … guiding [his] pen.” This won him the title of a ‘madman’ from Intezar Hussain, since “[at] a time when everyone was turning to English, here was a madman returning to his lost mother tongue” (Aamer Hussein’s paraphrasing of Intezar Hussain’s words).

The world of Urdu literature is indebted to him for his work as a researcher. Muneeza Shamsie rightly states that “[h]is discovery and interpretation of Muhammadi Begum’s early novels broke new ground in Urdu scholarship.” Another example is Hussein’s convincing reading of a poet, Haya, of Sughra Humayun Mirza’s novel, Sarguzasht-i-Hajra, as Mirza herself for she “wrote her poems under the nom de plume of Haya”.

As a literary historian, Hussein connects missing links and prepares comprehensive accounts of books and their writers, for instance, by “[piecing] together [Muhammadi Begum’s] life from a variety of fragmented sources”, or by giving a panoramic view of a literary landscape across time and space with such comments as: “the stern, though covertly humorous, moralism of Nazir Ahmad (1830–1912), the quixotic creations of Pundit Ratan Nath Sarshar (1846-1902), the liberal Islamism of Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1926), the picaresque of Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa (1857–1931).” He even encourages others, sometimes through his parenthetical comments, to realise the significance of the completeness of the information: “But may we request the publishers to include full biographical details [of Fatima Mobeen] as well as the original dates of publication [of Irani] in future reprints?”

A powerhouse of treasures

As a critic, Hussein not only builds his arguments on the basis of evidence and examples but also offers his straightforward opinions on various issues. For instance, as a believer in the originality and self-sufficiency of the Urdu world, he rejects “the pretentiousness of imported theoretical terminology” that some Urdu critics use. At times, his criticism becomes a lament, for instance, over “how good we are at forgetting our literary past”. Similarly, as a trained linguist with a taste for the music of the words, he often criticises the mindless replacement of better-sounding Urdu words (e.g. kitaab) with borrowings from English (e.g. book). He sees the speedy Anglicisation of Urdu leading to a linguistic hybridisation and wonders, mournfully, “Will a hybrid dialect, one day, become the language of fiction…?”

Hussein is a man of great reach. From Faiz to Hyder to Hussain, he has not only enjoyed direct access to the greats of Urdu literature but also drawn inspiration and won praise from them. He is seen in direct contact and conversation with most of those he writes about. His critical essays have a unique kind of authenticity as in some cases, he even knows, directly or indirectly, the real characters that are fictionalised by the writers: “… I was entertained by the anecdotes of a visiting cousin who still lived there. She knew most of the characters [Aziz] Ahmad had lightly categorised (including one married to an Englishman, who was a leading socialite in London’s Indo-Pak elite)”.

Aamer Hussein’s work on Urdu is a memory of the landscapes he left behind, and the dreamscapes he did not. It is a reportage of his research findings regarding poets, writers, editors, critics and publishers of the Urdu world. It is about Faiz who, for Hussein, is “an invisible mentor, a giant” who brought him back his “lost alphabet…” and this “turned what was becoming aural into visual images, sounds into signs” and whose “verses lent themselves to classical and conventional interpretations and to post-modern compositions alike”. It is about Qurratulain Hyder – “Eclectic, iconoclastic, and versatile… like Beckett and Nabokov” – on whose works it offers formal as well as thematic analyses: “Hyder’s prose is lyrical and witty; occasionally, it is also alluring and allusive” and “Hyder argues for a culture that she sees as syncretic and inclusive. She presents a cyclical view of history, a recurring pattern of rising, decline, and fall.” It is about Intezar Hussain who “shifted at his peak from a quiet realism that some termed Chekhovian to a post-modern use of myth and fable”.

He also offers informed, and in most cases favourable, commentary on the works of Ismat Chughtai whose prose was “lucid, direct, unadorned” and whose “voice was intimate, confidential, irreverent” and agenda visible in “the eruption of a volcano, the damming of a river” and “the constant struggle between freedom and the cages and chains that society and the superego create to hold back the heart in the same place”; Abdullah Hussein, who reminds Aamer Hussein that “history and story are in many languages the same word”; Khalida Husain, “a writer who had actually done something entirely original”; Nisar Aziz Butt, “a genius” who is “difficult and challenging, but not excessively so” and who never “courted publicity”; Aziz Ahmad, who is “known as a pioneering writer of Urdu fiction in the years before Partition…”; Hijab Imtiaz Ali who “broke new ground in setting her tragic and sometimes Gothic love stories in imaginary landscapes at times reminiscent of the Eastern Mediterranean and at others of South India”; Rashid Jahan who “freed the tongues and the pens of several generations that followed”; Shafiqur Rahman, who “has been categorised as a ‘light’ writer, and his prose is often absolutely weightless”, a “versatile genius” and “one of the best short story writers of his or any other time”; Nazir Ahmad and his literary ‘daughters’ and many other writers and commentators.

There is still a scarcity of work on Urdu literature in the English language. While the few already available book-length critical and historical works – Ram Babu Saksena’s A History of Urdu Literature (1927), Thomas Grahame Bailey’s A History of Urdu Literature (1932), Shaista Ikramullah’s A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story (1945), Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (2001), and Nasir Abbas Nayyar’s Coloniality, Modernity and Urdu Literature (2020) – continue to serve as useful resources, they are far from being sufficient for the expansive literary tradition. It was, therefore, important that Aamer Hussein’s writings were collected in a book. Keeping this in view, his forthcoming Linguistic Migrations: Perspectives of Urdu Literature is going to be a valuable addition to the works mentioned above. Its uniqueness lies in the authenticity of the commentary it offers and the triangulation of perspectives – of a fiction writer, critic, historian, researcher, linguist – it carries.

The writer is the head of the Center for   Language Teaching at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. His most recent   publication is   Lisaniyat:   Aik Jame’ Ta’aruf

A powerhouse of treasures