Remembering Abdullah Hussain – The Renowned Fiction Writer
I stopped reading Urdu fiction long time ago but there were exceptions when novels by Bano Qudsia, Qurratulain Hyder, and Abdullah Hussain appeared. Whenever I finished reading one of their books, there was an innocent wish that the author who wrote the masterpiece was a friend of mine and I could call him or her on the phone whenever I felt like it. The intention was to really appreciate how they thought, hoped, felt, and dreamt as great novelists.
I missed a chance to know Abdullah Hussain in the early 1980s when he spent time in Lyallpur (Faisalabad). He was famous in the neighbourhood for more than one reason. We may have come across each other while strolling in the D-Ground but overlooked because we sought different things in life at that point. Having common acquaintances, the idea of meeting him crossed my mind on more than one occasion but nothing transpired unfortunately. It was certainly my great loss.
I visited Pakistan from London in 1996 and read “Nadaar Loag” during my stay. It was a formidable story of my namesake, Sarfraz, who became a prisoner following the 1971 War between Pakistan and Hindustan. The narrative teased out uncomfortable motives behind the fall of Dhaka via the protagonist. Hussain had requested critics not to review his novel for at least six months after its publication so that an ordinary reader could enjoy it. I decided to call him following my return to London.
I remember that my phone call nearly ended after the exchange of pleasantries. He had accepted my compliments about his work wryly before asking me what I wanted. When I requested to see him, he asked the candid question as to why should he be bothered at all? I could not come up with anything except stating the fact that I was a consultant psychiatrist with special interest in personality disorders. This got him interested for some reason, and prolonged our interaction, which was followed by an invitation to visit his place on the weekend.
I arrived at his residence armed with his favourite drink and a copy of “Nadaar Loag” for his autograph. He appeared as a very tall, slightly hunched, lanky man of Asian origin, who supported a trendy beard. He was dressed in casual shirt and Jeans, and wore what looked like oversize sneakers. He lived on his own, and told me why he was living in a dull place like Stevenage. He made me a mug of tea before we sat down to talk.
We must have nattered for over three hours before I left. I was doing most of the talking in response to his incessant questions. I did manage to find out why he chose to be a recluse though. It was due to his family dynamics, not knowing many interesting Pakistanis and spending most of his life abroad, writing habit, and his anxiety about “not coming across as an interesting person” to those he met.
This was the start of a curious friendship until I moved to Australia in the summer of 2001. During this period, we talked at least once a week on the phone. This was on top of my visits, sometimes with friends, to his “God-forsaken” dwelling in Stevenage. He rarely travelled but whenever he did, he made sure it was on my admin-day at work, and visited my office, situated near London Victoria station. He usually sat on the sofa going through the latest draft of “Weary Generations” or “Emigre Journeys” and made notes of various kinds. He insisted on observing when I taught medical students or supervised my psychiatry trainees. He also gave me “feedback” later on, which mostly consisted of his pertinent questions about psychiatric disorders, their aetiology and treatments.
He was very fond of my South African personal assistant and admired her work ethic and outlook on life. She brought us lunch and cups of coffee if he did not feel like going out. She would also print drafts of his work and checked for typos, which were neither paid for nor a part of her job description. He often called her directly to check my whereabouts before making his travel plans. Once or twice, he forgot his papers in my office, which she posted back to him promptly. He was naively secretive about his writing at first, but became comfortable later on, and I often commented on his drafts. This may have coincided with the time when he saw my article about Lyallpur published in the Friday Times. He had insisted me to write more often, and I promised that I would once I finished my PhD.
Doing research based on human beings is very interesting but writing about it is more of a chore. I would often battle with it until I saw him at work. He would write for hours at a time, sitting in one place, and only got up for comfort breaks or to “throw something in my mouth”. He often said that writing was a lonely job – a profession for introverts. He typed very slowly and I grumbled about it. I offered him a dictaphone to try but writing and dictating are two very different skills. I nearly had a heart attack when he accidently deleted and lost sixty pages of what he had written. But he appeared in my office a week later to announce that he had re-written those and they looked better than before. I got perturbed whenever his literary agent asked him to re-do a chapter he had written. He somehow thrived on it, and did not mind the extra effort at all, “Being busy keeps me away from mischief”.
Abdullah Hussain was a simple man “in body and mind”. He rarely discussed his work as he did not believe in writing to taste the excitement twice, in the moment and in retrospect. Once he wrote and published, it belonged to the readers to enjoy, interpret and evaluate. Like most writers, he was not a fan of critics who he considered as “failed writers”. He was deeply political, and hoped that people did not miss the partisan themes running in the background of most of his work. He did not care if it annoyed anyone because if it did not, there was no point in writing. He did not care what people thought of him either. He believed that writers were immodest people who lived their lives misleadingly while saving the best part for their pen to produce literature. He was happy to leave the job of saving the world (and lives) to good human beings like myself.
His real name was Mohammed Khan. He chose Abdullah Hussain as his pen-name because “I wanted to avoid being identified as Col. Mohammad Khan (writer) or Mohammad Khan, the infamous dacoit”, he would say. He had a few friends. He always mentioned the writer, Mustunsar Hussain Tarar, very fondly. I knew that a few other persons visited him in Stevenage and helped him with chores. For some reason, he was not keen that I got together with them. I did meet a couple of them at his book launch in London. He was never keen that I got to know his family in Pakistan either. I only met his children once to carry out an assignment on his behalf. He often said that I knew more about him as a person and a writer than anyone else in this world. I joked in return that it qualified me for inclusion in his will; otherwise, his vast inheritance would go to waste. He laughed like a child on those occasions, “You are a substitute, doctor saheb…you are a substitute”. The psychodynamic chronicle of why he called me a “substitute” may be revealed on another day.
Contrary to some reports, Abdullah Hussain abhorred publishers as well as the awards. He believed that the writer who published his book appeared before the readers to be judged with his pants down. Before this exercise, the editor had expressed all the enthusiasm of an undertaker and the publisher had packaged his book in a cover that would embarrass anyone. If he was still good enough, he could become recipient of an award, usually a statue, given by a meaningless celebrity. This was like a humble pie; you ate it, and forgot about it soon afterwards. He believed that if you had talent when you wrote, you needed to receive a healthy cheque, which should be sufficient for your needs until you wrote your next book. When you received that Champagne, named Cash, its influence travelled much further. But the government and the publishers would only start realising this once they cut back on their drinking and karahi gosht.
As a writer, he has been criticised for his language including the use of Punjabi slang and swear words. The way he used words, “unparh” (illiterate) and “marzi poochna” (asking for consent), in real life, was really amazing. Hussain was unapologetic about his language, not only because he thought that his critics’ morbid perfectionism was the voice of the oppressor, and the enemy of the true characters he had created. His greatest pleasure were the numerous testimonies of the people who stayed up until the unholy hours of the morning reading his books. Beyond factual details, he did not research hard for writing his novels and short stories. It was all about the expanding universe of his imagination; the more he used it, bigger it became. He wrote effortlessly, and it feels delicious because we do not know where this will take us. He wrote about things that seem limitless in our heads, but are hard to say because words could diminish them. If his anecdotes are cultural lies, they are true lies because they let us live and pay others’ rent.
Other than a phone call in 2005, we met for the last time at Avari Hotel around 2012. He was pleased with the car that had fetched him but worried how would I organise his drink for not being at The Camel in Victoria. He had lost weight in the last 10 years and watched his step while walking. I offered health advice but he did not want to talk about it. He joked that I had come to check whether he was dead or how far he was from it. He talked about his struggle with the novella he was trying to write in English. He had maintained his earlier position that it was not worth writing in Urdu. He was not sure when he would be able to visit London again. We parted when he left with my driver as he did not, as always, want me to visit his family home. “See you at my grave!” were his last ominous words.
Abdullah Hussain passed away on 4th July 2015. He must be grinning for departing on the American Independence Day. He will always be remembered as the foremast Urdu Fiction writer. Beyond a few obituaries written immediately after his death, I have not seen much in the media about him. As far as I am aware, Mustansar Hussain Tarar has not offered anything in print about him either. This is sad because Abdullah Hussain always lamented that neither critics nor the public has really appreciated his remarkable work in Urdu. I am sorry but I cannot write more about him due to ethical reasons. However, I will be very happy to discuss the information I have about him if someone writes a book about his life or pursues a PhD about the incredible work he has left behind.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.