Pakistan’s literary landscape is dotted with conformists and sycophants, who, even when they wrote shimmering prose, did not shy away from siding with conservatism, enjoying state patronage and pelf, stooping to collaborate with the elite and the dictator of the day. Yet Pakistan’s benighted land has also produced its fair share of literary rebels. It is now commonplace to talk about the contributions of stalwarts like Manto, Faiz, Jalib, Faraz and Iqbal at Pakistan’s literary festivals. Not surprisingly, broadly all of them belonged to the Progressive Writers Movement and were anti-capitalist, ant-imperialist and anti-fundamentalist in their orientation. However, one of Pakistan’s towering intellects maintained a steady distance from all power and authority and membership of any ideological camp. He is hardly celebrated at literary festivals anymore. He was born 86 years ago, today – his name was Abdullah Hussein.
Passing away on July 4 in 2015, Hussein was born on August 14, 1931, Pakistan’s independence day. Yet other than his remarkable sense of history, independence of mind and spirit also became a hallmark of Hussein’s later literary trajectory.
Born as the only son in the family of the last seven generations to his father’s fourth wife, young Hussein was raised in relative comfort in a crusty feudal family, which must have provided raw material for the searing depictions of a dying system in his masterpieces like Udas Naslein, Nadaar Log and Qaid. With a doting father, Hussein was a pampered child.
With a degree in engineering followed by long absences from Pakistan because of work or his wife, who was a doctor, writing finally came to Hussein. It was fueled partly by the nervous breakdown following his father’s passing away and partly by boredom while working in a cement factory in remote Daudkhel. What began as a straightforward love story became a sprawling saga of the partition of India across generations and classes, presciently titled Udas Naslein, which he later translated to The Weary Generations.
Usually bracketed among quintessential Partition novels, it is also a love letter to rural, rustic Punjab, with loving elaborate depictions of the region’s customs and traditions, both jovial – racing bullocks and the myriad ceremonies associated with harvesting, sowing and cutting of crops – and brutal, with boar-hunting and a ‘turban ceremony’.
The novel is also a reliable and unmatched catalogue of some Pakistan’s seminal national historical events which are taught as little more than footnotes in the Pakistani curriculum, like the first of the two great world wars and the effects it has had on men – the haunting six-page description of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre in 1930 and the near-universal protests against the arrival of the Simon Commission in India. The novel though holds its own not only as a chronicle of the ‘marginally happier days’ of independence, but also presciently of the predatory class which was to take over immediately afterwards. At various readings and talks on the book, I am often asked to summarise the main idea of the novel and I can do no better than cite Hussein:
This was a class that was rich, fairly rich and very rich, educated, calling itself liberal, indulging in anything between idle talk and lip-service, with the chief objective of having a good time together, which gave it a sense of solidarity, besides the satisfaction of taking an ‘active’ part in the historical development of their country. This was a class of people that was to remain, despite ‘reforms’, largely intact and in command for many years – until the day of judgement was to arrive… As their destination came nearer, hopes of survival grew, and acquiring money finally took priority over everything else.
It is to Hussein’s credit that unlike Quratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya and Intizar Hussain’s Basti – two novels with which The Weary Generations is often compared – the protagonist(s) deal with both the process of rebellion and its discontents, discipline and punishment, defiance and compromise, the eventual weariness of the euphoria of the struggle and an uneasy acceptance of the status quo. Not for nothing has the title of Hussein’s novel become an accurate aphorism depicting Pakistan’s national condition and contradiction.
If Hussein’s most well-known novel does not have a strong female character to partner the memorable protagonist Naim, one of his least well-known novels has given us perhaps his most powerful female heroine – or anti-heroine – or Rajjo Mir, in his 1989 novella Qaid. The novel, based on a true incident, was conceived at the fag end of Pakistan’s worst military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. This bears remembering this year as we mark the 40th anniversary of Zia’s military coup against a democratic and sovereign government.
In a 100-odd pages, Hussein summarises what Zia gifted to Pakistan’s women during and after his regime – shame, humiliation, torture, punishment and a raft of laws against them, which even successive democratic governments have been loath to change or repeal. It is because of the persistence of these anti-women laws or their multiple loopholes in a patriarchal society that courageous women like the unfortunate Qandeel Baloch pay the price for so-called ‘honour-killings’.
I found Qaid to be a more powerful dissection of patriarchy and the toxic nexus between religion and politics than another novel, written in the same period of dictatorship, but in English, and much more publicised than Qaid – namely Salman Rushdie’s Shame (1983), shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize that year. For me, Rajjo Mir’s acts of vengeance in retaliation for her murdered newborn infant, for which she sacrificed her own life spoke and still continue to speak for a whole generation of Pakistani women battered by the system rather than the crude way Rushdie uses the crutches of magic realism to make his Sufiya Zinobia Hyder the aggressor in Shame.
In Qaid, Rajjo’s dirge below is not just a requiem for her own benighted fate:
Our lot is born with an inferiority complex. Someone touches us and we begin to look at others with embarrassment. Men declare the arrival of facial hair to the world with pride. The growth of even a single hair on our faces makes us bend our heads with shame. When our breasts grow, we bend our heads with shame. When menstrual blood issues, we bend with shame. When the wedding night passes, we never recover from its shame. What could be a greater poverty than that?
I unfortunately never met or interacted with Hussein. But my humble literary journey of knowing him began after his untimely demise when I picked up his final collection of short stories Faraib. Later I was immensely fortunate to be asked to write the introduction to the reissued edition of his The Weary Generations, and have recently translated Hussein’s short story Bahaar (Spring), which hopefully helped his work reach a wider audience. Bahaar was shortlisted for an inaugural translation prize instituted in India. I am also working on a translation of Qaid into English. For me the immense raw feminine power of Rajjo Mir outweighs and redeems the disappointment one feels with Azra, the chief female protagonist of The Weary Generations, who eventually gives in to the interests of her class and chooses to play it safe in the new postcolonial Pakistan, rather than live dangerously like Rajjo Mir.
The 70th anniversary of the partition of colonial India has already given new life to Udaas Naslein and its recently-reissued English variant. Likewise it is hoped that the Pakistan Academy of Letters’ welcome decision to commission an English translation of Hussein’s favourite among his own novels Baagh (The Tiger) will rescue Hussein’s unrivalled corpus of work from the clutches of self-serving and pompous literary critics and their lobbies, and restore his status as an immortal benefactor and innovator of Urdu language and literature in the 20th century, Pakistan’s modern day Prometheus.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani writer and translator based in Lahore.