“How tall are you?” his hostess asked.
“Six feet and four and a half inches” Abdullah Hussain replied.
“How come you are so tall??’
“I chose my parents well. They were both quite tall,” he smiled.
was quite amused by his response. It was my first meeting with Abdullah Hussain,
the living legend of Urdu literature and the creator of masterpieces like “Udaas
Naslein” and “Nadar Loag”, the two popular and well-respected novels.
Since I had seen his picture only once a long time ago, I was expecting to meet
a stocky and serious man with thick glasses and beard, so I was surprised to
meet a tall and lanky man sitting awkwardly in a reclining chair wearing his
sneakers in the living room, while other guests had taken off their shoes near
the door, smoking a pipe while enjoying his drink. He got up to receive me and
when I hugged his tall lean body, I became aware that he even physically had a
towering personality. I had never shook such a long and awkward looking hand
before in my life. He welcomed me gracefully and asked the guests, “Do you know
what Khalid Sohail did?”
“No,” Professor Memon said.
“Munir Pervaiz told me that he was going to be interviewed on “The
Multicultural” television station this weekend but he asked the host to
interview me instead. I have never seen an Urdu writer offering such a sacrifice
for any other writer, not even his own father.”
“It is not a sacrifice,” I responded. “I live in this town, so I can be
interviewed anytime. After all you are our pride and joy. We feel honored to
welcome you in Toronto and proudly present you to the Canadian public.”
“It is very nice of you.” He was quite graceful.
After the brief introduction I invited Abdullah Hussain and Mohaninaci Umar
Memon for a dinner. We wandered around in downtown Toronto and landed in an
Italian restaurant. All three of us talked and ate and drank. It was quite an
enjoyable evening. Abdullah Hussain shared with us that he was a shy man and did
not enjoy attending sponsored seminars and conferences and workshops because he
felt forced to interact with people that he might not have liked otherwise. He
felt such arrangements restricted his freedom. He said, “Urdu writers go on
these trips because they want either fame and popularity or money. I don’t need
any of them. After forty editions of my novel being published, I think I am
reasonably well known and I have earned enough that I can travel with my own
money. I value my freedom and I don’t want to sacrifice it for anything.”
always believed that only a free man could create genuine literature.
We were surprised to find out that the man sitting at the next table who
volunteered to take our picture was a Native Indian writer. He was pleased to
know that I had read the writings of Black Elk and had translated the famous
speech of Chief Seattle into Urdu, the speech delivered in the 1850s when Native
Americans were asked to move to the reserves and the American government had
offered to buy their land.
At the end of the evening I dropped Abdullah Hussain and Umar Memon at the
Quality Inn in Missisauga where both of them were staying. Umar Memon gave me
the book Stories of Exile and Alienation which was the collection of
translations of Abdullah Hussein’s stories recently published by Oxford Press
Pakistan, the first of the series of Pakistani Urdu writers, and I offered
Abdullahllussain a collection of my stories called Dharti Ma’n Udaas Haiy
(Mother Earth Is Sad).
While I was driving back I remembered the evening Professor Umar Memon was
visiting Toronto to present his short story, and in Munir Pervaiz’s house, while
exchanging our views on Urdu Literature, we discussed our dream of having a
two-day conference on Urdu fiction and inviting Abdullah Hussain for a few days
to Toronto. Professor Memon shared that Abdullah Hussain was a hermit and rarely
accepted any invitation, but he was confident that because of his special
relationship with Abdullah Hussain h could convince him to come. He also agreed
to present a paper on Abdullah Hessian’s fiction and introduce him to the
writers and literary audience in Toronto.
In early June 1998 Munir Pervaiz, the general secretary of the Writers’ Forum,
sent dozens of e-mails to all parties interested, sharing the news that Abdullah
Hussain was attending the Urdu Fiction Conference in Toronto on the weekend of
1998. There was a wave of enthusiasm and euphoria in literary and intellectual
circles. It was the first time in Canada that rather than having a mushaira and
inviting a number of Urdu poets from all over the world, the focus was on
fiction. The wave of euphoria was replaced by sadness and disappointment when we
heard that Abdullah Hussain was too sick to travel and could not come to Canada.
We were quite thrilled to find out two days before the conference that he had
recovered enough to grace us with his presence for a few days.
The next day I picked Abdullah Hussain and Farooq Hassan, a professor of
literature, poet, and translator visiting from Montreal from the home of Zahoor
Ikhlaq, a famous artist of Pakistan, to take them to North York Library where
the conference was going to be held. Abdullah Hussain asked me about my clinic
and my practice and when I told him that I was a marital therapist, he laughed
and said jokingly to Farooq Hassan, “Farooql I think you and I should go to see
Sohail as his patients and discuss our marital problems.” Then he laughed aloud
once again and said, “No, I don’t think we should go.”
Why not?” I was enjoying the conversation by now.
“Because being a
therapist you would like to bring the spouses together and iron out our
differences but that will not be good for us as creative writers. When a writer
does not get along with his wife, it is good for his writings. They don’t spend
all the time together and then he has ample time to be involved in his creative
endeavors. Marriage and family life is not a good omen for any creative person.”
Then suddenly Abdullah Hussain became serious and said, “Sohail you should read
a book called Enemies of Promise. In that book the author discusses the life
stories of many artists and writes and musicians and other creative people who
had promise as young people but it never blossomed or flourished. The author
highlights the factors that killed that promise and one of them was “A pram in
“You are absolutely right,” Farooq Hassan said from the back seat of the car.
“Once you have a child, twenty years of your creative life are wasted.”
During the conference it was my responsibility to facilitate the discussion. On
the stage was a panel of writers including Abdullah Hussain, Mohaninad Umar
Memon, Farooq Hassan, Shan-ul-Haq Haqqi, Pervaiz Pervazy and Shakila Rafiq and
there was an audience of nearly fifty people. I requested the audience to let me
ask questions in the first half of the program and listen to the speakers
patiently and during the coffee break give me their questions in writing and
then I would ask those questions on their behalf. Abid Jafri, the president of
the Writer’s Forum, was there on the stage to help me coordinate the event. The
discussion was quite informative, fruitful and intellectually stimulating.
Abdullah Hussain shared his views about on story and novel writing. He thought
novel writing was far more demanding than short story writing. He said, “A
novelist has to live two lives. On one hand he creates dozens and dozens of
characters in his novels and lives with them day and night and on the other hand
he lives a life with his spouse and children and neighbors and colleagues
and friends. It is almost a schizophrenic existence.
He agreed with
me that one of the reasons we find far more novelists in the West than the East
is that in the West those writers who become popular and whose books become
bestsellers ca afford to be full-time writers and spend four to eight hours
every day to write, while in the East, even the popular writers have to earn a
living in some way other than writing. Because the literacy rate is so low, even
if the novel is popular, only a few thousand copies are published and the author
can not earn enough money to give up his other job and completely dedicate hi
life to writing. Most poets and writers in Pakistan and India publish only a few
hundred copies and most of them are given fre to friends and writers as gifts.
Most Urdu readers have never developed the tradition of buying books.
shared with the audience that it took him nearly six years to write one novel
and nearly five to complete another.
interesting to see how Abdullah Hussain avoided the philosophical questions.
Responding to the question of whether Pakistani writers living in the
pre-industrial environment are trying to create post-colonial literature he
said, “It is quite an academic question. Maybe Professor Memon should answer
that.” It was quite obvious that Abdullah Hussain did not pose as a critic or an
academician. He wanted to be a writer and just a writer. He resented
intellectualizing and philosophizing.
I think most of
the people that evening were surprised when they listened to Abdullah Hussain.
It was the same thing the next day. He was very straightforward and down to
earth. There was no air of arrogance about him. He read a couple of chapters
from his new novel and told the audience that in his sixty-seven years of life
it was the first time he had read something in public. He said he only knew how
to write. He did not know how to read. Abdullah Hussain won people’s hearts with
his simplicity and innocence. It was obvious that he was a genuine artist and an
honest man and had little tolerance for hypocrisy and playing games. He said he
wrote stories in the classic style focusing on the concrete details of
day-to-day life rather than using abstractions or philosophizing about life.
conference I took Abdullah Hussain and Umar Memon to the television station
where they were interviewed live by a young promising journalist, Arshad Khan,
who asked Abdullah Hussain to autograph his novel, While waiting for the
interview Arshad Khan told us about his meeting with Sartre in a cafe in Paris.
While I was
driving them back, Umar Memon asked me if I would interview Abdullah Hussain in
English. He wanted that interview to be published in his magazine. When I asked
Abdullah Hussain, he kindly agreed. So the next day I met Umar Memon and
Abdullah Hussain in a local park and recorded the interview.
After spending a
few days with Abdullah Hussain and inter viewing him for an hour, I had a lot to
The first thing
that surprised me about Abdullah Hussain was his shy and introverted
personality. Throughout the interview there was hardly any spontaneous
expression of emotions. I felt as if there were a glass wall around him. I could
see him but I could not touch him emotionally. Even when he was talking about
his wife and children, the loved ones in his life, it felt as if he were talking
about some strangers. After my repeated questions he became aware of his lack of
feelings and acknowledged that he had never felt normal in his life. He knew
that he did not experience the same range of emotions in his personal life and
relationships as other people did. He could let his characters express those
feelings but he could not experience them himself. I wondered whether, like many
other artists, his creative life was a compensation for his inability to have a
full life himself.
When I thought
about Abdullah Hussain’s introverted and schizoid personality, I wondered about
the effects of not having a mother in his childhood. It was a painful and
traumatic experience for him. He was deprived of that nurturing that most people
take for granted.
It is also
significant that Abdullah Hussain’s father was fifty-two years old when Abdullah
Hussain was born. He was more of a grandfather than a father to him. Although he
took him for long walks and hunting in the fields, he was still quite
overprotective of him. He did not send Abdullah Hussain to a regular school for
four years and arranged a special tutor to teach him at home. That tutor looked
after the academic needs but Abdullah Hussain was deprived of socializing with
other kids in school. Even when he started school in grade four his father sent
a special servant with him back and forth to school. His father wanted him to be
protected from the harsh realities of life without realizing that he would have
to pay a price in some other way later on.
never became part of the mainstream writers’ group of Pakistan. He never
attended literary meetings to read his stories and receive all the praise and
criticism. He always wrote in isolation. He shared that while working in some
far-off cement factory he felt so bored that he started reading and writing to
kill his boredom. Books and papers and pens became his friends. And he kept on
writing for years till he finished his first novel. It is interesting that
writers and critics and publishers had never heard of this novelist who was
going to be a living legend of Urdu literature in the next fifty years.
fascinating to listen to Abdullah Hussain relate how the publisher asked him to
write a few stories so that he could be introduced to Urdu readers before his
novel was published. The strategy worked and his stories became so popular that
people were anxiously waiting for the novel to be published. The popularity
started in the early sixties and kept on increasing over the decades. It is
interesting that the popularity did not affect Abdullah Hussain very much. He
never became a social butterfly and kept on working hard on his novels.
I was quite
impressed that even at the age of sixty-seven, rather than talking about his
past successes, he was discussing his future creative endeavors. He wanted to
write two more novels, one the extension of Naadar Loag and the other about
American CIA involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He wanted to go to
Washington to do research and read files on American support of Afghani
Mujahidin to fight coimiunism. Abdullah Hussain believed that American
involvement had done some irreversible damage to Afghani and Pakistani
societies. It was inspiring to see a genuine and dedicated writer talking about
his future creative dreams.
The only time
when I found him reluctant to talk about his true feelings was when he talked
about religion and faith. It seemed ironic that living in a strictly religious
and conservative society he had lost his faith in his young adulthood. He had
become an outsider in that society. He could not express his views openly
because he knew it was a dangerous proposition. He was not living in a secular
society like Canada where belief and faith were considered a private affair. He
lived in a country where state religion was enforced upon people’s lives and
anyone who declared himself a non-believer could be persecuted and loses his
I was also
impressed by his attitude towards the issue of the independence of Pakistan. He
was comfortable expressing his mixed emotions. On one hand he felt that the
separation of Hindus and Muslims seemed inevitable because he had experienced
segregation. He remembered those times of his childhood when he could not enter
the kitchens of his Hindu friends and there were heated debates about the
sacredness of the cow; but on the other hand he felt that members of both
communities could have been encouraged to embrace each other rather than
building walls of prejudice and resentment. He thought fifty years was too short
a time in the history of a nation to say with any surety and confidence whether
the birth of Pakistan was a better alternative for Muslims than living together
with Hindus, Christians and Sikhs in the same country.
The only subject
I found him angry and disappointed about was the topic of critics. He felt that
in spite of praising his novel for forty years, not a single critic had done it
justice and written a detailed critical appreciation of the novel. He complained
that Urdu critics did not read enough and did not support him when his novel was
ignored and suppressed because he had challenged the Pakistani government’s
position on Kashmir and the initiation of the 1965 war with India, in his novel
refreshing to have a rational discussion about religion and politics with
someone from Pakistan, a rare treat for me.
I was fortunate
that not only did I feel connected with him, he also felt connected with me. In
spite of our age difference he treated me with respect and affection. I felt
very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend some time with him. I am looking
forward to reading his stories once again. I am sure after meeting him, I will
enjoy them more.
Abdullah Hussain, I will read and write fiction with a new awareness.
Abdullah Hussain Sahib! I am curious about your background. What
kind of social and family environment did you grow up in?
Hussain: I grew up in a
middle class family. My father was a government servant. He was an excise
inspector. I was born when he was 52 years old. I was four when he retired and
died at the age of 72. I was the youngest of four siblings. I have three older
sisters. We had a house and some land in Gujrat. It was a comfortable living.
Our family was a professional family most of them were government servants.
There were no business people. Most of them had 25-50 acres of land on an
What kind of childhood memories do you have growing
Hussain: I don’t know. Normal, I suppose.
Tell me a little bit about your mom.
Hussain: I don’t remember her. She died when I was six months old. She
had a gall bladder operation, which became septic and then she died. My oldest
sister who was at that time 17 years old brought me up.
What kind of relationship did you have with your father?
Hussain: Good, a normal relationship. We used to go out together for long
walks. He used to take me for hunting trips. He was retired when I was growing
up. He spent his days looking after the land, which was tilled by two families
of muzaras (farmers). He used to take me to the village to visit our land.
What was it like for you to be the youngest in the family?
Hussain: I don’t know what you mean. The older siblings didn’t abuse me.
I wasn’t pushed around. If anything I was the favorite of the family because I
was the only son. My older three siblings were sisters.
Sometimes the youngest is the spoiled one. He is given far more attention and
affection than the older ones.
Hussain: Although I was given far more attention and affection, I wasn’t
spoiled. I didn’t throw any temper tantrums or make too many demands on other
people. I was quite a normal child, I suppose.
old were you when you started your formal school education?
Hussain: I was eight years old because
I had a private tutor who used to come and teach me at home from class one to
class four. His name was Maulvi Naseer-ud-din and he was a retired teacher. When
I was eight years old, he took me to the primary school. I appeared in the exam,
passed it and was accepted in fourth class.
Sohail: Do you remember the
first few days being with other students in a regular class?
Hussain: No, I don’t have any memory of those days. It was a Hindu
school, Santna Dharam Primary school. It was the nearest to our house, about ten
minutes walk and it was an English medium school. My father was very protective.
He had appointed a servant to take to school and bring me home.
Sohail: Did the Hindus and
Muslims and Sikhs study together in that school?
Hussain: Mostly Hindus and Sikhs. Not many Muslims. Muslims mostly went
to another school, which was called Islamia School.
Sohail: Did you enjoy school?
Hussain: I have no idea now. I have no memory of whether I enjoyed it or
Sohail: Was your father a
Hussain: Not overly religious. He did offer namaz (prayers) once or twice
or three times a day. He did not pray when he was in service. When he retired he
had little to do, so he read newspapers and offered prayers and did his tasbeeh
Sohail: But overall, was your
family traditional and conservative or liberal?
Hussain: My family was a typical conservative family of a small t own.
Sohail: How long did you stay
in that school?
Hussain: The primary school was till 5th class. I did class 6,7 and 8 in
Santna Dharam high school, which was some distance away, and then I moved to
Islamia high school where I studied class 9 and 10.
Sohail: Did you have any
Hussain Yes, Hindu, Muslims and Sikhs. I had a good Hindu friend called
Baldev Krishan who had a sister Pushpa. She had become my sister too because she
used to tie rakhi around my wrist. I used to spend long days in their house and
they used to spend long days in our house but I could never step into their
Sohail: Growing up were you a
shy or an outgoing boy?
Hussain: Shy, very shy. I suppose I did miss my mother. I did miss not
having my mother around; therefore I think I became rather introverted.
Sohail: Were you also very
tall from the very beginning?
Hussain: No, no, no. I was perfectly normal child until the age of 17 and
then from 17 to 19 I just shot up. People said they could see me grow and by 19
I attained my present height.
Sohail: When you were in
school did you have any special hobbies or interests or anything you felt
Sohail: How did you like the
Hussain: I was a bad pupil. I never did my homework. In school and four
years of college I just scraped through. I was just barely promoted.
Sohail: In your family were
there any writers or artists?
Hussain: On my mother’s side there was a
chap called Rafi Peerza da. He was a very well known playwright and filmmaker.
He wrote and produced and acted in an old film called “Neecha Nagar”. It is
still one of the classic films in India’s film archives. For many years he lived
in England and Germany and worked with a German director. He married a German
woman and had a daughter. Just before the war he went back to Bombay and after
partition he came to Pakistan and settled down in Lahore. He produced 30 to 40
Urdu and Punjabi plays for radio. His Punjabi play Akhian became very famous.
His daughter Samina Peerzada is quite well known in Pakistan now. Rafi Peerzada
was my first cousin. His mother and my mother were half sisters. They had the
same father but different mothers.
Sohail: What happened after
you finished high school?
Hussain: I joined the local Zimindar College Gujrat and did my F.Sc. and
then B.Sc. and then joined a cement factory as a chemist. I worked in one
factory for three years and then in another factory for nearly nine years. After
that I got a Columbo Plan fellowship which was given for commonwealth countries.
People who got that either went to England, Australia or Canada. So I came to
Canada. They used to give us enormous amounts of money. In 1959-1960 we got
$365.00 a month. It was so much we could not spend the whole bloody thing. So I
earned a diploma of chemical engineering specializing in cement technology. I
was in the department of chemical engineering for 11½ months and then the Canada
Cement Company sent me to four plants for one month each, to Belleville,
Montreal, and Woodstock and in New Brunswick. When I went back I told them that
I wanted to travel by ship. So they converted my air ticket to a ship ticket. So
I took the ship from Quebec to Liverpool. It was for ten days and then from
Liverpool to Karachi, which was twenty days. So I was in ships for the whole
Sohail: Obviously you did not
Hussain: The trip from Liverpool to Karachi was very calm but crossing
the Atlantic was very rough. There was a big storm. The ship I traveled in was
called Caledonia. It was 23000 tons with 500 passengers out of which 450 got
seasick. The huge ship felt like a paper boat in 30 feet waves. When I got to
England I called my friend in London. I hadn’t informed him before but I knew
where he was, so I rang him up. He asked me to stay where I was and he came to
pick me up. When I told him that I came from Canada by ship he asked me, “Were
you caught up in that storm?”
He said they had been hearing on
the radio the news of a huge storm for the whole week. One ship even sank. When
I said “Yes” he thanked God that I was alive.
Sohail: Were you in high
school when the independence movement started in India?
Hussain: I was in first year of college. Gujrat was a center of Muslim
League. Because of the opposition of Unionist party of Khizr Hayat even
Quaid-e-Azam came to Gujrat and I saw him from a close distance.
Sohail: What was your
impression of him?
Hussain: I don’t remember. I suppose like everybody else I was also
shouting “Pakistan Zindabad”.
Sohail: What happened to your
Hindu and Sikh friends and their families at the time of independence?
Hussain: They just fled. All my friends left. Some of them even wrote me
letters but then we lost touch. The houses that were left behind were taken care
of by council members. Some of them were elected while others were chosen. They
were called Sarkari (government) members. The Deputy commissioner chose my
father. My father was only matriculate but he spoke perfect English. He was a
close friend of Deputy commissioner. They used to go shooting ducks together.
The council members used to examine the evacuated houses and then report to the
Rehabili tation office.
Memon: Were there any killings in your city?
Hussain: Oh, yes. Not among the city population. There was a terrible
incident at our railway station. A train full of Hindu and Sikh refugees came
from Bannu to take them to Kashmir. Gujrat had a camp for refugees because it
was close to Kashmir. So when people got wind of this train that it was passing
through Gujrat, they stopped the train. They not only looted he train, they took
out the nice looking young women and killed everybody else. We were halfway to
college that day when people told us what was happening at the railway station,
so we went there and saw every thing that happened.
Sohail: What was your
reaction at that time?
Hussain: A normal young boy’s reaction. I can say I was disgusted and I
was outraged but at that age you are not aware of those things. Probably I was
shocked. At that age I could not sit down and say I am outraged, it is bad. One
can generalize about it afterwards
Sohail: You had mentioned
earlier that your dad passed away when you were nearly 20. How did that affect
Hussain: It did affect me quite a lot. My father had a stroke and he was
bedridden for the last few years of his life. I was away working in a cement
factory and my sisters took turns to come and look after him and there were
times when nobody was there and the servants looked after him. So when he died,
the house had to be closed up and shut down. And when I migrated to England,
even the land had to be sold because there was no one to look after it. So his
death resulted in big changes. My father never remarried after I was born. My
mother was his fifth wife. He married five times but never more than one wife at
any one time. He was very unfortunate in his marriages.
Sohail: How old were you when
you got married?
Hussain: I was 31.
Sohail: How did you decide to
Hussain: My oldest sister’s husband had a brother whose daughter became
my wife. So we knew the family already. We weren’t related in any way other than
my oldest sister. My oldest sister is nearly 17 years older than me. Her husband
had four or five children and this girl was the youngest. When my sister got
married I was nearly nine years old and she was three years younger. We more or
less grew up together. We knew each other from childhood.
Sohail: Was your wedding
formal and traditional?
Hussain: Yes, it was a formal wedding. We did not elope or anything like
Sohail: How many children did
Hussain: Two and they are girl and a boy.
Sohail: How old are they now?
Hussain: They are quite old. My daughter is 32 and my son is 30.
Sohail: How did you
experience family life?
Hussain: Normal, I suppose.
Sohail: Was becoming a father
something special for you or was it just a part of life?
Hussain: Just part of life. Nothing special. Even marriage was nothing
special. Something that one is supposed to do. I may be giving you a wrong
impression. There was nothing normal about me as I was growing up. There was
something wrong with me, which I can’t express properly. I wasn’t crazy but I
was far from normal. I can’t describe the way I was. So all these experiences of
getting married and becoming a father were not earth shaking experiences as they
are for other people. For me they were just regular experiences. I just did not
pay much attention to them I suppose.
Sohail: Did you have that
awareness of not being normal as a teenager?
Hussain: No, there was no such awareness. I can only say it now. Your
asking me questions about my getting married and becoming a father triggers it.
Everybody says the first time you become a father it is a great experience but I
never felt that way. So that is why I am saying that. I never felt the way other
people felt. It wasn’t normal but I don’t know why.
Sohail: How old were you when
you developed an interest in art and literature and started writing?
Hussain: I went to work in this cement factory in the middle of nowhere.
There was nobody there. There was no entertainment. There was nothing to do. So
I started reading books and after a few years started writing. It just came to
me and I started writing and kept on writing for five years. Nobody knew about
my writing. I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. Sometimes I thought I
would just put it away. I had no conscious feeling that I would publish it and
it would amount to something. Absolutely nothing. So when I finished it, I took
it to a publisher and he asked me to come back after a month. So after a month
when I went back he said it was good and he would publish it but the problem was
nobody knew me. So he asked me to write a few stories, which he published in his
magazine Savera in the next few months, and then he published my novel. And then
my novel Udaas Naslein got the Adamjee award, which had a lot of prestige those
days. When I came back after receiving the award given by the President Ayub
Khan himself, my family members were at the railway station with hars (garlands)
to receive me. I had pictures in the newspapers. Those days having a picture in
the newspaper were a big thing. It meant you were a very special person.
Sohail: Did you have a
regular contact with other writers?
Hussain: I kept working in the cement
factories one after the other. They were all out in the middle of nowhere.
Occasionally I used to go to Lahore or Karachi for a few days but I was never
part of the literary sect.
Sohail: Did getting all that
acknowledgement and award change you as a writer or affect your future writings?
Hussain: I don’t know. As a writer I decided to write more, so I wrote
more. If that didn’t happen I would have probably not written another word. But
I knew I had the talent. After I had written the first page of Udaas Naslein, I
knew I could write. That consciousness, that awareness I had.
Sohail: Has your writing
style changed over the years?
Hussain: My writing has become more realistic. There is less adornment
quality in it. I don’t know the clinches. I have repulsion for cloches and too
much adjectivization. I write simple and straightforward sentences. If anything
they have become simpler and more straightforward and realistic.
Sohail: Were you ever seduced
by the modernist writings of Camus and Sartre and their style?
Hussain: I was never a navel-gazer. I have to experience, go out and see
and describe things. That is the way I write, in very concrete terms. I am very
particular about details. I visualize the whole thing in my mind, I picture it,
and then I describe the picture and that is how small details come into it.
Sohail: You mentioned once
that the novelist has to live in two worlds, a real world of wife and children
and friends, and the other world of his characters, the creative and imaginary
world. As the novels grow and the characters increase, the whole Situation
becomes more and more complex.
Hussain: You are right. It took me seven
years to write Nadaar Loag. One character came on page 5 and when he reappears
on page 200, two years had passed. I was writing on an average 100 pages a
year. I had even forgotten the name of the character. So I used a dash. I was
too lazy to find out in old notebooks the name of the character. It was a
practical problem quite different than the one you are talking about.
Sohail: After writing
hundreds of pages, how do you decide to enc the novel?
Hussain: I thought the story could end there in Nadaar Loag. Later on, I
thought that all the characters were still alive and young. So I decided that
the story should go on. So I put “To Be Continued”.
Memon: I don’t think it is that simple. The way I interpreted it, which
of course is completely without any knowledge of how you conceived the whole
thing, was that the novel had ended when you wanted it to end, but you
deliberately wanted us to feel that yes the novel has ended, but what it is all
about continues. So there is a semantic extension. That is how I saw Stephen
Hussain: That quotation is an after-thought. Your interpretation could be
true, but at the same time it is also true that I would like to write another
volume of the same story. There will be more characters which are not in this
volume, they are already forming in my head. I also want to write a novel in
English about Afghanistan. I don’t know what I will do next.
Sohail: Are any of your
stories biographical, an example of bio fiction?
Hussain: I don’t know. I don’t dwell on my personal circum stances. I
have always invented stories, other people’s stories My way of creating fiction
is to invent a story about other people. Now if unconsciously some of the
stories of my own life come into it, that is something that happens to all
fiction writers, but that is totally unconscious and unintended. My idea of
writing fiction is to invent completely independent stories.
Sohail: Are your stories
based on real incidents?
Hussain: The is only one story, “Quaid” which was based on a real
incident. I read in a newspaper that there was a woman who deposited her newborn
baby on the steps of a mosque and the maulvi had the boy stoned and killed. That
incident happened in Karachi. It appeared in one of the local papers and then it
was completely supressed for fear of widespread riots and public disorder. The
incident disappeared as if it had never happened. I was shocked by that
incident. It took me five years to figure out how to approach the story. For
five years so many forms came to my mind but none was satisfactory and then one
day suddenly I knew how it ought to be done.
Sohail: On the first page of
your novel Nadaar Loag, you have asked the critics not to re your book for six
months. It seems you have strong feelings about critics.
Hussain: Yes, yes. I have a great grudge against critics. For forty years
they have been saying that Udaas Naslein is a good novel but nobody ever wrote a
detailed commentary on it. I don’t demand a detailed review. My point is that
either they stop saying it is a good novel and completely dismiss it, or discuss
it thoroughly and in depth. I call them illiterate critics.
My other novel Bagh was
suppressed because it expressed certain opinions, which went against the
government’s version of the 1965 war. I highlighted that the Pakistani
government had sent military people to Kashmir to instigate a war. They did not
ban the book but when the Academy of Letters was giving awards for the best
poetry and fiction that year, my book was not considered for the award. It was
suppressed. I found that out later on but no writer or critic had the courage to
protest in favor of my book. I said in one of my interviews that our critics
should read more.
Sohail: Recently you have
been writing in English and also translating your own novel. Why are you
translating your own novel?
Hussain: Because I think I can do it better. I can take the liberty of
changing the phraseology. While translating Udaas Naslein, I have thrown out a
couple of characters that I thought were not important. Transla fiction is a
difficult job, You need a lot of skill to do it, But I can take liberties with
my own novel.
Sohail: Is the experience of
writing in English more fulfilling or less fulfilling than writing in Urdu?
Hussain: More or less the same. You see, neither Urdu nor English is my
mother tongue. My mother tongue is Punjabi. So I have equal difficulty or call
it equal facility in writing in either language. Actually I think it is easier,
not easier but more satisfying to write in English because our whole
intellectual education has occurred in English.
Sohail: In your novels you
showed great courage to challenge social and sexual taboos.
Hussain: I know I can get away with it. When you create natural,
straightforward and appropriate settings, you can get away with.
Memon: I want to ask you about your views on the partition of India. For
the last year or so after the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of Pakistan
and the independence of India, there is so much talk about it and you are a
major writer and people say that Udaas Naslein in some way is about partition.
Hussain: People are double-minded about partition, and so am I.
There was so much difference
between Muslims and Hindus. If we touched their utensils they had to wash them.
We ate cows and they worshipped them. It seemed natural, actually it seemed
inevitable at that time that once the foreign Raj was over thrown, then we would
live in separate countries. But that partition also created problems. All I can
say now is that I am very hopeless about Pakistan. Pakistan will survive but
like many African countries, in bad shape. I have little hope for Pakistan but
equally I can’t speculate whether Akhand Bharat (united India) was a better
option for Muslims. We are seeing today that Indian policies are phasing out the
Urdu language completely and Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims are studying Hindi as a
language. Urdu will be phased out within the next generation. Now you can’t say
that it is happening only in reaction to Pakistan’s existence. It could have
very well happened in Akhand Bharat. So it is too early to say whether it was a
good thing or a bad thing.
Sohail: You grew up in the
Muslim culture. How do you see the institution of religion playing a role in
Hussain: I mentioned earlier that I was not a regular normal person in my
thinking and reactions. When I was 17 or 18 or maybe 20, I completely lost my
faith. I could see as clearly as the day that the concept of God sitting on a
throne in heaven, angels, and prophets were all stories. Anyway, I won’t say any
more on record. It is too dangerous. I can write about it sometime. Since then I
have lived completely without any religion at all.
Sohail: I was not asking you
from a personal point of view. I wanted to know your views about the role that
the institution of religion plays in the community and in society from the
social control aspect.
Hussain: It is very harmful. It is a myth that religion unites. In the
beginning, it was a civilizing force, but in its essence, religion is a divisive
force. Religion divides and sub-divides and sub-divides because religion has the
phenomenon of righteous ness and righteousness turns into self-righteousness and
gradually it becomes a divisive force. If you analyze the situation
philosophically, that is the logical conclusion you come to.
Sohail: Is there anything
else you want to share with us?
Hussain: No, and thank-you.
Sohail: Thank-you very much.