Politics, Poetics and Partition: Revisiting Abdullah Hussein’s 'The Weary Generations'

The 72nd anniversary of Pakistan’s Independence and Hussein’s 88th birth anniversary both fall on August 14.

‘Those, however, were the marginally happier days…’

It is rare for a translated work to survive the legacy and celebration of the original work. Yet in the case of the 20th century Indian subcontinent, such is the case with two celebrated novels, namely Quratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya and Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslein, published in 1959 and 1963 respectively. Both novels, perhaps for reasons of enhancing the international reputation of their authors, were self-translated into English, in 1998 and 1999 respectively. 

It is the latter work which concerns us here, on the twin occasions of Pakistan’s 72nd Independence anniversary and Hussein’s 88th birthday, both of which incidentally fall on August 14. The original novel in Urdu, Udas Naslein, was recognised as a pathbreaking, albeit ‘Pakistani’ intervention both on account of its scope, as well as the innovation in language.

The English version, translated by the writer himself, 33 years later, can and should be treated as an independent work of fiction in English; and if indeed this treatment is successful then The Weary Generations arguably becomes the most significant Pakistani work in English in the immediate post-Partition period since the publication of Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan in 1967.

The Weary Generations, HarperCollins India, 2016

The title of the novel, which has now attained the status of an aphorism in 21st-century Pakistan can be traced to the fact that Hussein never looked at life in a small way. Rather, he viewed the big picture, putting everything in context. This meant that he was not one to focus merely on individual issues like caste, background, and so on, but was divorced from his immediate surroundings; the big picture in this case being the division of Pakistan in terms of generations.

Viewed in this way, the word ‘udaas’ is very romantic. Hussein tried for two years to find a replacement for ‘udaas’, but could not find a better word to describe the tiredness of the generations that had stopped struggling, following the ‘easy’ achievement of an independent Pakistan.

The ‘research’ for this monumental novel spanned years as Hussein was very aware of politics from an early age. His father was a government officer who would pass on all kinds of information to the young child. Hussein was also allowed to sit in at his grandfather’s discussions with his father, from where he absorbed a lot. His own curiosity and expansive reading did the rest.

While convalescing from an illness while working in the dreary confines of a cement factory at Daudkhel, Hussein became interested in the story of a war veteran who lay next to him in hospital. Even after getting better, Hussein retraced the veteran, travelling by train and then tonga to his village, to get the rest of his story.   

The novel may be read on three levels: as an account of events revolving around the partition of India in 1947; as a description of the politics and sociology of undivided Punjab, with its attendant system of feudalism and patriarchy; and a love story which begins, thrives and eventually falls with the fate of British colonialism in India itself.

Hussein has divided the novel into three major parts, locating one in colonial India and two in ‘Hindustan’. The novel begins with a rather striking event: 

‘A man on horseback, holding aloft a leaking jar of honey in his hand, had staked out a large tract of land and laid claim to it.’

That man later on not only helps to found a village after his own name, Roshan Pur, but also one of the two dynasties we will encounter in the novel itself, the Khans. Closely related to the Khans are the Beg family, descendants of the Mughals, India’s erstwhile rulers. The two families provide the two major protagonists of the novel, namely Azra and Naim.

A train arrives from Pakistan with refugees. Photo: Shaktishree DM/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

In the opening scene of the novel, we are witness to a dastar-bandi (transferring of a title) ceremony of the Khan clan in Delhi, and are introduced to the main characters, Naim and Azra. There are cameos from some important personalities of the Indian Independence movement, like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Annie Besant.

Young Naim makes an impression at the party as a politically precocious youth, introducing in the following words, his admiration for the jailed leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, “Is that why less educated people are put in gaols? What about Tilak? He is in confinement.” This admiration sets the scene both for Hussein’s depiction of the rigidly class-conscious milieu of the Muslim ashraf upper-class in colonial India and Naim’s own solidarity with the oppressed and underprivileged much later.

While returning to his ancestral village, Naim gets a first taste of colonial India’s class hierarchy when he witnesses a white passenger murdering a hapless peasant who merely wanted to join his wife on a train to see her off. This was one of a number of incidents witnessed by Naim which would forge his hatred and fuel his activism against British imperialism and feudalism throughout the novel. 

Though often accused by myopic and self-serving critics of ignoring Punjab and the Punjabi language in his work, The Weary Generations could be called Hussein’s Great Punjabi novel. It is peppered with minute details of the customs and traditions of undivided Punjab like the ‘turban-mounting’ ceremony organised in honour of the brother of Naim’s childhood friend, Mahinder, who had successfully lifted the animal of a rival; bullock-racing competitions; boar-hunting; and ceremonies associated with sowing, harvesting and cutting of wheat.

As I read these copious details, I remembered similar descriptions of the Punjabi milieu in the work of great masters of the Urdu short story, like Munshi Premchand, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Rajinder Singh Bedi, especially the latter’s masterpiece Aik Chader Maili Si

Hussein’s Punjab is also the land where there is a jealous guarding of privileges by peasants and landlords alike. For those who cross the line, retribution is swift, as portrayed in the scene where Mahinder and his brothers hack a rival clan to death for murdering the former’s relative over the use of water. 

Also read: It’s Time to Set Iqbal Free

World War II was raging in the background and Naim enthusiastically joins the British army, going into the thick of action in Europe and later Africa. This part of the novel has some of the most affecting war scenes, and Hussein in unique among his novelist contemporaries for this depiction. Snubbed by a superior for his curiosity about the still-distant war, Naim speaks to his fellow recruit and childhood friend Mahinder.  

Photo: Saktishree DM/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

‘That was different,’ he said after a few long minutes. ‘To avenge the blood of one of your own, even a rat can kill. Here we don’t even know the people. It is like killing a pig, or a jackal in the jungle.’
‘Well,’ Naim said, ‘that is what war is.’
Although supporting his weight on hands placed on either side of him on the stone, Mahinder Singh looked slumped, his back in the shape of a bow, his shoulders fallen, as if his body had taken on a different form.
‘Tell me,’ Mahinder Singh asked suddenly, ‘why are we here?’
‘Because of the war,’ Naim said. ‘The enemy has attacked.’
‘What, attacked our village?’
‘Attacked the British sarkar and their friends.’
‘What is it to us?’
‘They are our masters.’
‘Our master is Roshan Agha,’ Mahinder Singh said simply.
‘Yes, and the English sarkar is Roshan Agha’s masters.’
A brief hollow sound emerged from Mahinder Singh’s mouth. ‘How many masters do we have?’
Naim laughed. ‘Well, it’s just the way it is.’
Mahinder Singh got up ponderously, as if making an effort to carry the weight of his clothes.
‘I like this place,’ he said, gesturing towards the graves. ‘Here good people are buried. With names.’

Naim loses his left arm while fighting for the British in Africa and is awarded with land, pension, title, a distinguished service medal for his services and also the hand of Azra in marriage, despite the stiff opposition of her crusty feudal family. Returning to Roshan Pur, he becomes more determined to challenge the depredations of the Khan landlords after witnessing the humiliation of Ahmed Din, the oldest resident of the village, who having lost his son in the Great War, refused to pay the exorbitant motorana (motor tax) levied by the Khans. One such attempt to organise the peasants of Jat Nagar ended in Naim being jailed.

Also read: Revisiting Partition’s Little Red Book

Later, when sent on ‘training’ to organise oppressed peasants and workers, Naim also disagrees with violence for the sake of violence employed by the group he is asked to join and eventually leaves that group. 

Two final historical events signify Naim’s revulsion with the British colonial system and its local appendages, leading to another stint in jail and a swift weariness with all forms of struggle, an informal break with Azra and a gradual acceptance of the prevailing situation.

Bullet holes in the wall at Jallianwala Bagh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One was the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919 where thousands of unarmed protesters and spring revellers were gunned down by the British. The brief six-page description of the massacre and the violence which followed it are among the best, to be compared with depictions of the same event in short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Ghulam Abbas.

The other was another infamous April massacre in Peshawar’s famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar in 1930 where dozens (by some accounts thousands) of unarmed protesters were killed by the armed might of the British colonial state.

Hussein pithily sums up Naim’s dilemma at this juncture: ‘Until now, Naim’s life seemed to have led him by its circumstances not from the front but from behind, like a man being pushed along in a storm by gusts of strong wind, limiting his own movements to the resistance of his limbs. Now, in a life circumscribed by necessity, he had entered a different world – the unfamiliar territory of the mind. He could do no more than read and think.’

The dissolution of Naim’s internal dynamic of resistance is played against national opposition to British attempts to pacify local Muslim and Hindu leaders with reforms such as the dispatch of the Simon Commission to India, as well as internal divisions among the Muslim leadership (in the novel it is Aga Khan versus Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar) over the issue of joint electorates and the increasingly inevitable push towards the division of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan.

As the mad rush towards Pakistan begins, both for the privileged (via aircraft) and the underprivileged (on foot), notwithstanding the ‘fatal threat on the other side from (their) names and genitals’, a view of the opportunism of the weary generations is presented poignantly. This opportunism would then prove inherent in their self-preservation and in the rush for evacuee property and plum bureaucratic jobs in the new country called Pakistan.

‘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.’

A word must also be said about the women in The Weary Generations. Unlike the strong, memorable and likeable female protagonists in Hussein’s other novels like Qaid, Baagh and Naadar Log, the novel under review lacks strong women characters.

Also read: Homage to Punjab’s Grand Old Man of Letters, Rajinder Singh Bedi

Naim’s father had two wives, who never could break out of the vicious circle of patriarchy and jealousy for each other, and patriarchs from earlier generations of the Khans and the Mughals have been shown in the novel to have fallen from family grace due to having married lesser women either the first or the second time. A minor character in the novel, who becomes intimate with Naim observes, “If you don’t grow up with women, you never grow up.”

Yet this reality is utterly lost on Naim, who though loves and eventually marries Azra, can never really deepen his relationship with her owing to their different class solidarities. Azra for her part, rebels against her own kind by falling in love with, and eventually marrying Naim, but despite being politically motivated enough to accompany Naim on a fact-finding mission to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and going protest against the arrival of the Simon Commission, cannot bring herself to act decisively on other occasions such as the arrival in Calcutta of the Prince of Wales, who for her is a ‘beautiful man…and looks so nice in photographs’, and the All-India Muslim Conference, presided over by the Aga Khan, who speaks ‘beautiful English, with a slight accent.’

Eventually she fails to gain her husband’s respect through her ambivalent stand on his politics, politics in general, and in this respect can be unfavourably compared to Rano, the heroine of Bedi’s aforementioned novel, who making do with a Punjabi patriarchal milieu, manages to successfully negotiate the thin line between an uneasy docility and outright rebellion with finesse. So we are left to mourn the lack of a memorable female character in The Weary Generations; the women try to break out of the feudal-patriarchal cycle but are eventually brought back to the familiar routines of city and country(side). 

The article first appeared as an introduction to The Weary Generations, HarperCollins Publishers India, 2016.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He has written the introduction to the reissued edition of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel, The Weary Generations (HarperCollins India, 2016). His translation of Hussein’s short-story ‘Bahaar’ (Spring) won the runner up prize for the inaugural 2017 Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation. He is also translating Hussein’s novel, Qaid, into English. He can be reached at: [email protected]