August Issue 2015

By | Books | People | Published 8 years ago

“Sometimes people think I have been dead for a while and I encourage that impression because then I don’t have to take their phone calls or make excuses for not accepting their invitations to preside over literary events,” Abdullah Hussain told me a few years ago.

Hussain, who passed away at the age of 84 last month, was a self-declared recluse who liked talking about what it takes to be a recluse. “Sometimes when they find out that I am alive and they invite me, I pretend I am very, very sick. I say to them ‘I am bed-ridden, I can’t even get up. In fact, I was just about to die when you called.’” He laughed out loud like a schoolboy who had found an original excuse for not doing his homework. He said this while asking for more ice and pulling on his cigarette. It was way past midnight. He was 81.

As in his writing, Hussain didn’t care much for convention or polite conversation. If he liked you, he would talk to you all night, otherwise he’d just tell you that he wasn’t feeling well and shuffle off. He hated small talk. He hated lazy critics even more. He loved talking about good books, and how the lazy critics never read them.

Like many people of my generation, I picked up his first novel Udaas Naslain only to impress friends, but then became a life-long fan, waiting years for his next short story or novel to appear. And I was one of the few lucky ones to make his acquaintance. Sometimes, when surrounded by a coterie of admirers, he would say he wasn’t very well, then laugh a booming laugh and put his impossibly long arm around your shoulder if you were one of the favoured few, and say in Punjabi: “Let’s get rid of these people and sit somewhere.” When he came to literary festivals, he managed to escape the dreary sessions and adoring fans to hang out with a close group of friends.

I remember shaking his hand for the first time in London in the late ’90s; my hand disappeared into his large paw. I also had to stretch my neck to look into his eyes. He was six feet five inches tall. Understandably, my first impression of him was that he was the tallest Pakistani — -and definitely the tallest writer —  I had ever shook hands with. After we sat down I noticed his large, large feet and couldn’t resist asking him his shoe size. He laughed and said he always felt discriminated against because there was only one shop in London that sold clothes and shoes his size. “People are always asking me about my height and I tell them I chose my parents well. They were both quite tall.” As we talked I couldn’t stop looking at his hands, his feet; I had a distinct feeling that I was meeting a real-life giant for the first time.

Because of his height and striking good looks, Abdullah Hussain stood out in any gathering, but he didn’t care much about appearance. He would often turn up at literary gatherings in a tracksuit pant and a shirt stained by drippings from breakfast. His close friend, Mustansir Hussain Tarar, once joked, “You can look at Hussain’s shirt and tell what he had for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” His hands were clumsy but his words precise, his prose melancholic, and his laughter spontaneous and infectious.

While in school his father once warned him that if he didn’t work hard he’d become that boy on the train station who served tea and wore shorts. “I didn’t have a problem becoming a tea boy, but I didn’t like the idea of my long, lanky legs poking out of those shorts, so I took my studies seriously.” He became a chemical engineer and found himself at a cement factory in Daudkhel. It was here that he found his calling and started writing what he thought was a short love story. He worked for eight hours, slept for eight hours and wrote for eight hours. “There really wasn’t anything else to do.” Like all great love stories, his love story started to get out of control. It was set in the backdrop of the First World War. What did he know about the First World War? He started researching and travelled for days to meet the first Indian soldier to be awarded a Victoria Cross. He read books. The result was Udaas Naslain, a story so sprawling, so layered and so rooted in its Punjabi culture that it became an instant classic. It won awards, and, 50 years later, it is still considered the greatest Urdu novel.  “A fourth generation is reading it,” he told me a few months before his death, “And getting udaas se udaas tar (getting sadder and sadder).”

At the height of his fame, Hussain disappeared. He left for the UK, where he lived off and on for 40 years. He waited for more than a decade-and-a half before publishing his second novel. Bagh, an eerie love story – again a love story – set on the Kashmir border, captured the time just before the modern jihad erupted in Kashmir. It also showed his continuous engagement with the country that he had left behind, and revealed that, unlike other Urdu novelists, Abdullah Hussain researched his subject at length before sitting down to write fiction. What was visible too was that, despite his elusive persona, Hussain was a deeply political writer. No slogans in Bagh, no political rhetoric; just a deeply sensitive story, with echoes of a mountain lion roaring in the background.

While in England, for about a decade-and-a half he ran an off-license, i.e. liquor shop, which he later turned into a pub. He was happy running it. “It’s good business,” he told me once. “If a customer walks in, you make a bit of money. If they don’t come, it’s even better. You can sit and read and write all day. And at the end of the day you own all this booze.”

It was here, in the liquor shop, that film director, Udayan Parsad walked in to buy some wine and saw a tall man hunched behind the counter scribbling. “And what do you write?” Udayan asked.  Hussain showed him some of his stories. It was this encounter that led to the BBC-produced feature film Brothers in Trouble, a disturbing retelling of his story Wapsi Ka Safar.


Abdullah Hussain’s contemporaries called him a bit of an angraiz because he didn’t hanker after the sadarat at literary events where people usually turn up to hear the sound of their own voice.  He was an open-hearted snob, practicing a kind of literary elitism, and, at the same time shunning the trappings the other writers of his generation fell for.

In his last years he had become less of an angraiz. He was almost bemused by the fact that people still read him. He found it quite sad that the horrors he had written about as a young man were not only still relevant, but had become even more horrifying. His soldiers from Udaas Naslain were still stuck in muddy trenches, not knowing who they were fighting for. It made him angry that there were still mobs out there baying for blood because they didn’t like the name of your god. He was pleasantly surprised when young people mobbed him and wanted to take selfies with him. “My daughter says that they don’t want their pictures taken because I am a writer. It’s because I am more like a national monument. And since we only have the Minar-e-Pakistan, they get their pictures taken with me.”

From being a recluse for most of his life, he went on to attend many literary festivals and conferences in his last years, but even then he would spend more time in smoke-filled rooms talking to his friends or younger writers, than he did sitting on the stage listening to people telling him that he was a living legend. Even in the last couple of years of his life when he became increasingly frail, he continued his partying. “Nothing wrong with me,” he told me at one festival. But when I get up to go to the loo, hold my hand and take me to the loo door. But don’t come in. I can manage the rest.”

He took good writing very seriously, but never writers. And he was always telling younger writers that his worst readers were literary critics. I thought, like all great writers, he was moaning about the quality of appreciation he received. But after his death I read his obituaries, where 60 years of his magnificent writing career was reduced to Urdu critics’ favourite pastime: Asking was Udaas Naslain a bigger or better novel than Qurat ul Ain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya?

This is a pointless argument but critics make it sound like Aag Ka Darya and Udaas Naslain are not two great novels, but two WWF wrestlers slugging it out in the literary arena. We must choose one. The language is of competition, the language is of dominance, as if two great Urdu novels can’t exist together. Two novels can sit side by side on the bookshelf without harming each other. Two readers can read both novels and love them at different stages of their lives. But the critics want a knock-out match, they want a clear winner.

In what passes as literary criticism, you can’t love Hussain without calling Hyder out as a posh lady who wrote about posh people. Or you can’t love Hyder without saying that Hussain was an uncouth Punjabi who owned a pub and used swear words in his stories.  Theirs is a forced literary feud brokered by critics. What the critics often ignore is that both were solitary figures. What they never mention is that both had a very troubled relationship with the state of Pakistan.

Hussain’s abiding passion was Punjab, and he mourned and celebrated it in his writings. In Nadaar Log, a handicapped man is smuggled across the Punjab border to eat jalebis with old friends. In a village wedding party a drunk boy, trying to win over a girl, screams, “I’ll drink your piss.” And the girl obliges him from a rooftop, with a coterie of giggling friends alongside, as the boy slurps from his shoe.

Maybe he picked up the anecdotes from real life, maybe he had a hyper romantic imagination, maybe he heard some stories from his father or childhood friends. Then again, maybe he made it all up. Maybe the critics will consider the possibility that a fiction writer makes things up; they can try and look up the word fiction in the dictionary. Now perhaps they should also consider whether Qurat ul Ain Hyder would  make up stories.

Abdullah Hussain’s short story, Wapsi Ka Safar, was later turned into a feature film. The story line: A dozen Asian men live in a house in an English suburb. They work long hours, six days a week. On Sundays they do their laundry and are visited by a white prostitute. Over time, one of the older men falls in love with her, marries her and brings her home as his wife. Most fall in line with the new reality. But Hussain’s critics find the premise vulgar. Never mind that it’s probably the most poignant evocation of working-class immigrant life.

Let’s try and imagine a scene in Abdullah Hussain’s last novel, Nadaar Log. It’s a dark night in the village. The wheat is about to be harvested. Critics probably don’t realise that when wheat is about to be harvested, it is brittle and highly combustible. It is also a family’s yearly earning. When this wheat is harvested,  marriages take place, old court cases are revived, an enemy or two are taken down, because even if you end up in jail, you have wheat stored in your house which will ensure your family can eat for the rest of the year. Hussain doesn’t tell us all of this. He just tells us that there were two lovers in the village who went into a wheat field at night for a rendezvous. In the middle of the night, the wheat field suddenly went up in flames and the lovers were caught.

While admonishing and beating him, the boy’s uncle asked why he had lit a match, why couldn’t they just have kept their rendezvous in the dark. The boy responded, “I wanted to see her face. I wanted to see her face.”

This incident in the field sums up Abdullah Hussain’s literary career. He didn’t care if he was setting a ready and very profitable harvest on fire. He wanted to light a match and see what he was in love with. To him, it didn’t matter if an entire field of golden wheat, a whole year’s worth of food and blood feuds, had to be burnt down, just so long as one could catch a glimmer of his beloved’s face.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.

Muhammad Ziauddin is one of the senior most journalists in Pakistan. His career in journalism spans over 50 years. He has been associated to Dawn, The News and Express Tribune. He regularly contributes to Newsline.