‘Urdu has melodic qualities that add something new to my fiction’

May 10, 2020

In this exclusive interview, Aamer discusses his new book Zindagi se Pehle, the impetus to write in Urdu and translations of his work.

Aamer Hussein is known as the Pakistani pioneer of the English-language short story. He has published several short story collections and two novels – Another Gulmohar Tree (which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize), and The Cloud Messenger. Hussein is a senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, University of London, and became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004. In this exclusive interview, Aamer discusses his new book Zindagi se Pehle, the impetus to write in Urdu and translations of his work.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Zindagi se Pehle is your first collection of Urdu stories. How did this book come about?

Aamer Hussein (AH): I began to write the stories in this book nearly eight years ago as an experiment. I wrote two very short interconnected pieces, Doe kahaniyan. My friend, the writer Asif Farrukhi, told me to carry on and write a few more, linked by their narrator. I wrote another four but they were all very different, ranging from farce to myth-tinged romance and memoir. Apart from one more story and a few abandoned pieces, I went silent until last spring when Shahbano Alvi, the Karachi-based publisher of my most recent collection, Hermitage, asked me to write some Urdu stories for children to keep myself amused while I lay on my back with a bandaged leg. “But I’ve never written for children!” I said, to which she said I should write about young people. So I began to write in Urdu again. And this collection, which I’d long wanted to complete, was done in the early days of autumn when I wrote the story that gives the book its title.

TNS: What drew you towards writing in Urdu?

AH:My introduction to Urdu at school in Karachi was haphazard. I read like a child and nearly forgot what I did know when I went to school in India for two years in my teens. Then in London I found a bilingual anthology – VG Kiernan’s trnslations of Faiz’s poems and improved my reading skills. I must have been 16. At about 19 or 20, I took private lessons with a brilliant tutor and then joined SOAS to read Urdu along with Persian, but we mostly studied classical poetry and 19th-century fiction. My discovery of 20th-century fiction happened in my 30s, largely through my encounter with Ismat Chughtai’s fiction in a public library. It just went on.

TNS: In one of your columns you wrote that: “writing in Italian meant I could escape from the tyrannies of [English] in which I had been forced to express myself all my life, and from the guilt of not writing in a mother tongue [Urdu] in which I lacked fluency”. Now that Zindagi se Pehle has been published, has the guilt of not writing in your mother tongue subsided?

AH: I can now remember a longing to write in Urdu which possessed me when I first read Ismat Chughtai and later Intezar Hussain, Khalida Hussain, and even later certain fiction by Qurratulain Hyder. So the guilt has been replaced on the one hand by the sense that I have fulfilled a pledge, and on the other, by the freedom of writing enclosed in the almost enchanted space of a language in which my vocabulary is limited; this places greater demands on my visual and technical resources.

TNS: A few years ago, you wrote that while writing in English you only “translate” from Urdu when you “want to convey a nuanced reality that English doesn’t contain”. Is this still the case?

AH: This would still be true if I set a story among Urdu speakers in Pakistan or India. You might be amused to know that some of the foreign characters in my Urdu stories speak like natives, as I don’t translate their speech patterns from English: I want them to sound at home in the language they speak…that just comes to me naturally. In fact, I translate almost nothing from English, hoping that the context will convey the worlds I create.

“Some of the foreign characters in my Urdu stories speak like natives, as I don’t translate their speech patterns from English: I want them to sound at home in the language they speak…”

TNS: Do the translations of your stories capture the lyricism of one language in the other?

AH: That depends on which language you are talking about! In Chandol and Naam, Shahbano Alvi captures the tone of The Lark and The Name uncannily well. I wonder whether lyrical is a word I’d actually use for my English stories, apart from the ones influenced by fables and myths. I aim for clarity above all. However, semantics apart, Urdu has melodic qualities that inevitably add something to my fiction. And my mother’s English version of Hauslamand was hilarious: she brought something of her own to it.

TNS: Is there a difference between your own translations of your work and those done by other translators?

AH: I have never worked from English to Urdu: that would defeat the purpose of writing in Urdu; it would be a mere exercise. In English, which is my work-a-day language, I tried with Maya years ago and ended up with a story that ends differently. It’s probably more mythopoeic in the English version and is really original work. Otherwise, I haven’t translated my Urdu fiction myself, except very recently when I did an English version of Zindagi se pehle, which is almost a carbon copy of the original. Let me tell you: that was hard! Shahbano’s Urdu versions of stories, I mentioned above, and others, are mirror images of the originals. When I read other translators I have the sense of reading entirely new stories.

TNS: Zindagi se Pehle contains Fahmida Riaz’s translation of your story, Little Tales. You once wrote: “I prefer her translation [of the story] to my original. I’d found a home in my own tongue, to which Fahmida’s words had brought me back”. Does her translation still symbolise a homecoming?

AH: I ‘gave’ that story to Fahmida when I read her translation. But no, that story, written nearly 31 years ago, no longer feels familiar to me. I inhabit another Karachi today, a city in which I feel a certain degree of belonging. I think this new book symbolises the homecoming you invoke: Asif’s rephrasing of Meeraji’s ghar ka rasta bhul gaya when he calls me, in the preface, a musafir who did not forget his way home, is an apt reflection of my homeward journey which is circular and has no beginning or end.

TNS: Though the title story of Zindagi Se Pehle is set against the backdrop of Brexit and the recent tensions in Indian Occupied Kashmir, it never dwells on your own political preoccupations. Is it difficult to separate politics from fiction?

AH: Not sure exactly what you mean. But I do feel that South Asian readers, when they speak of ‘politics’ in fiction, mean current affairs – that isn’t always useful. Speaking of my story, though: the protagonist, Murad, broods about Brexit, Kashmir etc, so he’s obviously preoccupied with the state of both Britain and South Asia. A Scottish friend commented that Murad seems to be inhabiting two places at once: London and the cities in Pakistan, India and Cyprus from which his friends phone him and write to him. Later, when he visits an exhibition of the works of a dead painter, LM, with his painter friend Sara, she dwells on the historical contexts of the production of the artworks on display – Vietnam, Palestine, Iraq – while he sees in them a reflection of the world today, notably Kashmir, even a visionary quality. LM’s later, reflective works, painted when she’s nearly blind, are minimalist in their use of form and colour and represent the resistance of any craftsperson to the banality and evil of prevalent political discourse. Do I make sense?

TNS: Your story, Neela Moti, is open to both realist and supernatural interpretations. Was that deliberate?

AH: Definitely deliberate in retrospect, if unconsciously so. The child-protagonist of the story has a fever dream, in which he is transported to a Northern mountain village, or so I think. Or is it a village of djinns that is right within our world but hidden away from our eyes? You can choose to interpret it as you wish.

The interviewer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

‘Urdu has melodic qualities that add something new to my fiction’