December 01, 2020
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An Appraisal

Abdullah Hussain, Urdu Novelist

A torchbearer of the modern, nonconformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature.

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Abdullah Hussain, Urdu Novelist
Abdullah Hussain, Urdu Novelist

Inscrutable are the ways of destiny. Abdullah Hussain, the acclaimed Urdu novelist from Pakistan who passed into the ages on July 4, appeared to be quite content working as a chemical engineer in a cement factory. He never imagined that he would become a writer, let alone a famous one. But fate had other ideas. 

The nature of Hussain's job was a bit tedious. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He developed an interest in art and literature and started reading voraciously. Eventually he began writing Udaas Naslain — a novel that changed his life and turned him into a celebrity — to kill the monotonous routine. 

"I was working at a cement factory in a desolate place where I would spend eight hours at the office, another eight in bed, but had nothing to do with the remaining eight. It was out of sheer boredom that I picked up the pen one day and started scribbling, trying to see if I had a story to tell," he said at the Karachi Literature Festival in February 2013. 

It was then that the whole novel, Udaas Naslain, flashed through his mind and later the characters "ran away with the story" and he was left to do all the research and legwork to "satisfy" them. He kept writing for nearly five years without anyone's knowledge. He had no "conscious feeling" that he would get his stuff published and it would "amount to something". 

He adopted a co-worker's name, Abdullah Hussain, to avoid confusion with his namesake, the noted humour writer Colonel Muhammad Khan, and approached a publisher, who showed interest in his work. The only problem was Hussain was totally unknown. He told Hussain to write a few short stories, which he published in his magazine, Savera, and introduced him to the Urdu readers.

When finally published in 1963, Udaas Naslain created ripples in the literary world and made the virtually unknown Hussain famous in Pakistan and India. However, some found its language a little obscene, but before the moral police could strike, the state chose the book for the prestigious Adamjee Award. When Hussain returned after receiving the award at the hands of President Ayub Khan, he was given a hero's welcome at the railway station by family, friends and fans.

A gripping chronicle of modern India reflecting the angst of several generations, Udaas Naslain is second only in its expanse to Aag Ka Darya by another renowned Urdu novelist, Qurratulain Hyder. Written against a backdrop of the First World War and the events that occurred in the run-up to the Independence, the novel captures the essence of the social and political upheaval the subcontinent had been going through since the mutiny of 1857. The most moving part of the novel, which exposed the people from both sides of the border to a new and bitter reality, is the Partition.

Udaas Naslain was chosen for translation under the UNESCO's collection of Representative Works in World Languages. Hussain himself translated it into English and titled it The Weary Generations. The novel continues to be read, both in Urdu and its English translation, avidly even fifty years later.

A torchbearer of the modern, nonconformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature, Hussain's descriptive style was replete with vivid sensory details. He had a special gift for depicting the milieu minutely and creating scenes literally. He had almost a Tolstoyan mastery in linking an individual's fate with the larger causes.

Precise characterisation was one of his more endearing qualities. He was admired by many and criticised by some for his tendency to use swear words to enhance the effect. But Hussain, one of the few Urdu novelists undeterred in his realistic portrayal of modern and contemporary sensitivity, was least bothered about what the people said. "If you think too much about how people will react to what you write, you should stop writing and choose some other vocation," he once said.

Hussain preferred to call himself an "accidental writer" and strongly believed that "a novelist is as good as his second novel". His second novel, and his personal favourite, Baagh, in which he wrote about Operation Gibraltar and challenged the Pakistani government's position on Kashmir and the initiation of the 1965 war with India, did not appear until seven years later. It was courageous of Hussain to present an alternative version of events.

He claimed to be the first to get "proscribed information" through his sources and wrote about Hamoodur Rehman Commission — set up to investigate the debacle of 1971 war with India — report and put it in at the end of his another major novel, Naddar Loag, published in 1997. He had a strong distaste for Urdu critics and he requested them not to review Nadaar Loag for at least six months and let the ordinary readers judge the book themselves.

Hussain was born Mohammad Khan, on August 14, 1931, in Gujrat — a city in Punjab Province of Pakistan — into a conservative Muslim family. He had three elder sisters. He lost his mother, who was his father's fifth wife, when he was six months old. His father, a government excise inspector who was 52 at the time of his birth, never remarried. Though he took Hussain for long walks and hunting in the fields, he was overprotective of his only son and did not send him to a regular school until he was 8.

He had a private tutor at home till he started going to school from Class IV. A servant used to drop him at the school and bring him back home. Having lost his mother early, and deprived of socialising with other kids in school, Hussain admitted to growing into a "very shy", "rather introverted" and a bit schizoid person. He was not a bright student and there were no signs that one day he would become an eminent writer. He studied in Gujrat — at Sant Dharam High School and Islamia High School, respectively, and graduated from Zimindar College with a bachelor's degree in science.

High (6 ft 4 in), wide and handsome, Hussain was always immaculately dressed. He was 31 when he married a medical doctor, who was one of his relatives. They had a daughter and a son.

Hussain went to Canada on a Colombo Plan fellowship and earned a degree in chemical engineering, specialising in cement technology. He left Pakistan in the late 1960s and spent nearly four decades in England, where he worked in a cement factory and owned and ran an off-license.

Most of his later literary works were penned while living in England. They included novellas Qaid and Raat, as well as collection of short stories Nashaib and Faraib. Besides translating Udaas Naslain, he wrote his first novel in English, Émigré Journeys, which explores issues of identity, immigration and the inter-generational tensions within Pakistani migrants abroad. The BBC feature film Brothers in Trouble was based on Émigré Journeys.

In a way, Udaas Naslain became a bone in Hussain's throat. Though it was untrue, he often complained that his other novels were not given their due by the Urdu critics. "The popularity of Udaas Naslain is such it seems to make people believe as if I have written only one novel in my life," he would say.

A few years ago, Hussain moved back to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. He was a regular speaker at the assorted literary festivals on the subcontinent. Just before his death he had finished writing a long novel in English about Afghanistan and was keen to get it published.

His wife, daughter and son survive him.

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