Remembering Abdullah Hussain

Abdullah’s story cascades through the events of that era and culminates in the biggest transmigration in history

Tariq Mahmud July 13, 2015
The writer is an author, a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary. He teaches at Lahore University of Management Sciences

Some days ago, on a sultry afternoon as I returned from Abdullah Hussain's funeral, I spent some time recalling the various interactions I’ve had with him over the years. There were not as many of these as I would’ve liked, but whenever we did meet, we used to strike an instant chord, resulting in some interesting discussions interspersed with Abdullah's distinct laughter for which he was so well-known. I had been an avid reader of his works for a long time, but I met him for the first time in 1992 through the late Niaz Ahmed, the owner of Sang-e-Meel publications. A self-made man, Niaz Ahmed, through hard labour and perseverance had raised one of the leading publishing houses in the country with outlets all over the world. He was more than just a publisher; he had a bonding influence over his writers, who were of different hues and temperaments. His publishing house had the elements of a social club where writers would gather at lunch and enjoy his genteel hospitality, which would not go beyond tandoori roti, daal maash and achaar.

So it came about that at the launch of my book in 1992, Niaz Ahmed arranged a select gathering of writers at his place, and amongst the many leading luminaries present was Abdullah. Renowned novelist and travelogue writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar read a paper on the book, which was followed by a lively discussion, throughout which Abdullah remained puzzlingly silent. The event concluded with a note by playwright Asghar Nadeem Syed. A few days later, I got a letter from Abdullah, written from Faisalabad, which was a pleasant surprise for me as it carried a detailed critique of my work. This was both encouraging and instructive and I valued greatly the insights of one of the leading writers of the subcontinent.

I always found Abdullah to be a well-meaning and self-effacing person. We were once invited to an event in Gujranwala along with renowned poet Amjad Islam Amjad. It was on this trip that I got to know how Abdullah became a writer. He was quite unequivocal about the fact that he turned writer by accident. The barrenness of Daud Khel, where he started off as a chemist in a cement factory, fertilised his creative instinct. The final push came from a First World War veteran hailing from the Salt Range whom he met in a hospital while he was admitted there. The veteran’s war-time stories interested Abdullah and he started taking lengthy notes on these in longhand. His conversations with the veteran were spread over many sessions. Abdullah picked up the thread of the story narrated by him and pitched it at a locale at the confluence of Punjab and Delhi. Roshanpur, Roshan Mahal and Roshan Agha, the products of the new landed elite spawned by British largesse, helped the story unfold. Naim emerges as the protagonist of the weary generations, udaas naslain — an educated person, who starts life as a hardy farmer, turns into a soldier fighting in Europe without knowing why he was fighting and for whom, loses his limb and as he returns to India, is fired by the passions fostered by the ideals of ‘Swaraj’, which lands him in jail. The passion for azaadi and the resistance that this passion fostered has been the favourite ploy of writers depicting that era. One can see this streak in Aakhri Shab Kay Hamsafar by Qurratulain Hyder and in London Ki Ek Raat by Sajjad Zaheer. Abdullah’s story cascades through the events of that era and culminates in the biggest transmigration in history, whose traumatic impact is summed up in the weariness of the generations that lived through those times.
As a student of literature, I feel that Abdullah's maiden work, as well as his subsequent ones, stood the test of time for many reasons, foremost being the fact that he was a great storyteller who excelled in expressing himself in simple, non-verbose prose. Even when talking to him, I used to feel a distinct story line in his conversations. As a writer, he was able to expand the spatio-temporal confines of his canvass, allowing for natural flow of historical and social currents in his stories, enriching them in the process. Here parallels can be drawn with the novels of the Russian grandmasters. His portrayal of rural landscapes at times reminded me of the ambience painted in Rajinder Singh Bedi's masterpiece, Ek Chadar Meli Si.

A couple of years ago, I was staying at the Punjab House in Murree when the housekeeper informed me that a tall gentleman had been looking for me. This turned out to be Abdullah, who coming to know of my presence, had walked down the road to meet me. I visited him at his small apartment where he had been living for many months alone, cooking, cleaning and doing other household chores all by himself. We had a good session over a cup of tea and he shared that he was working on an English novel set in the backdrop of Afghanistan and had lined up a publisher in England.
During my posting in Bahawalpur many years ago, Abdullah once expressed the desire to visit the former princely state known for its sedate and expansive environs. I readily extended him an invitation. He visited accompanied by Mustansar Husain Tarar and Niaz Ahmed, his most intimate and trusted friends. Our night out in the desert, camping close to the Derawar Fort, was quite an experience. We spent the evening trekking up and down shifting sand dunes while I shared anecdotes of the local folk with my guests. I told them that Cholistani pedestrians often preferred walking mile after mile rather than seeking a lift on a passerby's vehicle. On one occasion, a Cholistani declined the offer of a lift questioning what would he do if he reached his destination before time! Abdullah saw logic in the reasoning. According to him, the dwellers of deserts and mountains never got tired of their fixed routines and preferred marching to their own rhythm. They would not like anyone interfering with their routine. We stayed in the desert past midnight before packing up. It was an eventful night, which found its vivid images in Tarar's novel Raakh.

With Abdullah’s death, an era has come to an end. The momentous events of 1947 and those of 1971 left a deep imprint on literature and creative expressions in Pakistan. The question is, why are we not producing great works anymore. And why are we not acknowledging the great works already present in our midst? Creativity, like many other things, has fallen victim to commodification. It is being weighed on the touchstone of glitz. Temporality has taken over permanence. Pakistan is a fertile ground for ideas and rich thematic content. We are passing through an interminable war that poses an existential threat. It will be interesting to see how Pakistani fiction writers and poets grapple with the new reality and raise the discourse from mere reporting to an internalised creative experience.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2015.

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TQ | 8 years ago | Reply Abdullah Hussain will always be remembered.
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