Book Review: The Weary Generations
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 Udas Naslein, published in 1959 and 1963 respectively. Both novels, perhaps to enhance the international reputation of their authors, were self-translated into English, in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
The latter work concerns us here, on the occasion of Pakistan’s 69th independence anniversary and Hussein’s 85th birthday, incidentally both falling on August 14. The original novel in Urdu, Udas Naslein, was recognised as a path-breaking intervention both on account of its scope, as well as the innovation in language. The English version, translated by the writer himself, 36 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 post-Partition period since the publication of Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan in 1967. The title of the novel (Udas Naslein), 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 the one to focus merely on individual issues like caste, biradari, etc but was divorced from his immediate surroundings; the big picture in this case being the division of Pakistan in terms of generations.
The research for this monumental novel had been years in the making in that Hussein was very aware about politics from an early age. His father was a government officer who would pass on all kinds of information to young Abdullah. The latter was also allowed to sit in at his grandfather’s discussions with his father, from which he absorbed a lot. His own curiosity and wide reading did the rest. More directly, 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 and, after getting better, followed the veteran via train and tonga to the latter’s 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 fails, along with British colonialism in India.
Hussein has divided the novel into three 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 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. These families provide the two major protagonists of the novel, namely Azra and Naim.
In the opening scene of the novel, we are witness to a dastar-bandi (transferring of title) ceremony of the Khan clan in Delhi, and are introduced to the main characters Naim and Azra, as well as cameos of some important personalities of the Indian independence movement, like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Annie Besant. Young Naim comes off as politically precocious, 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 sets the scene for both Hussein’s depiction of the rigidly class-conscious milieu of the Muslim 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 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 occasions witnessed by Naim which would forge his activism against British imperialism and feudalism.
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 successfully lifted a rival’s animal; bullock-racing competitions; boar-hunting; and ceremonies associated with the 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 his masterpiece Aik Chader Maili Si.
Hussein’s Punjab is also the land where there is a jealous guarding of privileges by the peasant and landlord alike, and for those who cross the line, retribution is swift, as in the scene where Mahinder and his brothers hack a rival clansman to death for murdering the former’s relative over the use of water.
World War II is raging in the background and Naim enthusiastically recruits in the British army, seeing action in Europe and later Africa. This part of the novel has some of the most affecting scenes from the war, and Hussein stands out among his novelist contemporaries for his moving depiction. Snubbed by Naim’s superior for being too inquisitive about the still-distant war, there is a memorable passage among these scenes, a dialogue between Naim and his childhood friend and fellow recruit, Mahinder:
“‘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 master.’
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.’”
Naim loses his left arm while fighting for the British in Africa and is rewarded with land, pension, a title, a distinguished service medal for his services – and additionally, the hand of Azra in marriage, despite stiff opposition from her crusty feudal family. Returning to Roshan Pur, he becomes more determined to challenge the depredations of the landlords after witnessing the humiliation of Ahmed Din, the oldest resident of the village who, having lost his son in the Great War, refuses to pay the exorbitant motorana (motor tax) levied by the Khans. One such attempt to organise the peasants of Jat Nagar ends in Naim being jailed. Later, when sent on training to organise oppressed peasants and workers, Naim disagrees with violence for the sake of violence that is employed by the group he is asked to join, and eventually ends up leaving the group.
Two final historical events signify Naim’s hatred of 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. One is the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919, in which thousands of unarmed protesters and spring revellers were gunned down by the British. The description of the massacre and the violence that followed are among the best, and are comparable to depictions of the same event in short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (Tamasha), Krishan Chander (Amritsar: Azadi Sey Pehlay) and Ghulam Abbas (Reengnay walay).
The other event is the infamous April massacre in Peshawar’s 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 out against the 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 the internal divisions among the Muslim leadership – in the novel it is the Aga Khan versus 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 to Pakistan sets in, both for the privileged (via aircraft) and the underprivileged (on foot), the opportunism of the weary generations is on full display in the rush for evacuee property and plum bureaucratic jobs in the new country called Pakistan. Hussein describes it in the following manner:
“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 women protagonists in Hussein’s other novels like Qaid, Baagh and Naadar Log, this novel lacks strong female characters. Naim’s father had two wives, who could never 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 fall from family grace for having married lesser women. A minor character in the novel,who becomes intimate with our hero Naim observes pithily, ‘If you don’t grow up with women, you never grow up.’ Yet this reality is utterly lost on Naim, who, though he 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 sympathetic to her husband’s concerns and being politically motivated enough to accompany him on a fact-finding mission to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and being present at the protest against the arrival of the Simon Commission in Lucknow, she cannot bring herself to act decisively on other occasions such as at the scene of arrival in Calcutta of the Prince of Wales (“a beautiful man…and looks so nice in photographs,”) and at 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 Aik Chader Maili Si, who manages to successfully negotiate the thin line between an uneasy docility and outright rebellion in a Punjabi patriarchal milieu, 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 the city and the countryside.
The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.