Not many among the literary-minded in India are likely to have heard of Abdullah Hussein, one of Pakistan's greatest writers, or read his classic novel, Udas Naslein (1963), which he translated into English as The Weary Generations in 1999. Published in a new edition by HarperCollins India last month, Hussein's first novel, which won the prestigious Adamjee award in Pakistan, remains one of the most poignant testimonies of the Partition of the subcontinent.
Experienced through the eyes of those who were forced to cross the border to the other side, leaving behind the lives they had built over generations in the undivided Punjab, The Weary Generations is a long novel — close to 700 pages in the Urdu and 500 pages in English. The English version, which appeared more than thirty years after the original, was not so much of a translation as a rewriting by the author. "I don't think in Urdu and translate," Hussein said in an interview in 2000, "I think in whatever language I'm writing in."
In spite of its length and solemn subject, The Weary Generations is an absorbing read, written luminously and alternating between passages of shimmering lightness and sections that are painted over with the bleakest tragedies. And even though its plot revolves around events that had happened nearly seventy years ago, the novel succeeds in striking a shockingly contemporary note.
So much that was at the centre of the political universe of the subcontinent in those grim pre-Independence days — communal disharmony, caste discrimination, patriarchy, cow politics — has survived into our time, often in more menacing forms. If the modes of expression have evolved with technological progress, the spirit of hatred remains as pure as it was then, its potency to rouse people against one other undiminished.
Hussein's novel unfolds among a close-knit community of Muslims in the village of Roshan Pur in the Punjab. The protagonist, Naim, is the son of a peasant, but has been to school in Calcutta. His father, an eccentric, uncouth but oddly endearing man, is a blight on his family, having done time in prison for illegally manufacturing guns. With this stigma trailing him, Naim's chances of finding a white-collar government job are dim, as are the prospects of a romantic dalliance with the beautiful Azra, daughter of the influential landowner, Roshan Agha.
Smarting from the injustice of this epiphany, Naim decides to embrace his origins fervently. He spites his uncle's offer of help to build a career in Calcutta and returns home to till the ancestral land. The English-educated son of the soil learns to sow seeds and work the plough. He grows a taste for coarse bread and lassi. Most unexpectedly, he forges a friendship with a Sikh man, from a family that takes personal vendetta very seriously. In a chilling scene, written with macabre humour, the men of the family kill their enemies in their sleep, then proceed to dispose of the remains with the help of the womenfolk, who expertly chop up the bodies into smaller pieces.
Naim's journey into the world continues with him getting enlisted in World War I, during which he loses an arm in action. On his return to civilian life, he is decorated by the British government, briefly coopted by a group of revolutionaries keen to oust the bourgeoisie, before he gets married to Azra, in spite of the resistance of her aristocratic family.
After a tentative return to political life, as the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League step up their struggle for independence, Naim decides to retire in his village: broken, disillusioned, his property in a shambles and marriage almost over. When the much-awaited Independence comes through and the boundaries are redrawn, Naim joins millions on their exodus to Pakistan, on foot and at the risk of being butchered by Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims in their newly-adopted country.
Naim is the voice of the "weary" generation that the title refers to, though the original adjective, "udas", is more poetic, evoking a combination of melancholy, weariness and despondency that's hard to capture in English. Straddling disparate social classes, having been educated in Western philosophy as well as the ways of the world, Naim is a participant as well as an aloof observer in a range of rituals that inform rural and urban life. If he is horrified by the bloodthirsty Sikh marauders on their mission to avenge their honour, he is cynical about the chitter-chatter of his in-laws' drawing room.
While Hussein's eye for realism is sharp, ironic, witty and warm, he surpasses himself in the description of the posh parties at Azra's paternal home, where the guest list includes the Who's Who of the political and social upper crust among the British as well as Indians — Annie Besant and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, for instance, make cameo appearances.
So much that was at the centre of the political universe of the subcontinent in those grim pre-Independence days — communal disharmony, caste discrimination, patriarchy, cow politics — has survived into our time, often in more menacing forms.
"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," Hussein observes about one such party attended by Naim, "which gave it a sense of solidarity, besides the satisfaction of taking an 'active' part in the historical development in their country." In the 21st century, such gatherings have moved away from cocktails parties in posh parlours to the social media — and has also lost the vestiges of "polite speech" in the process.
Hussein's own life, nomadic and restlessly bohemian, straddled several countries and jobs. After Udas Naslein was published in the 1960s, he was disappointed by its critical reception, especially the latter's disapproval of its street idiom, in spite of the prize it won. He moved to the UK for some years and ran an off-licence store in the 1980s, graced by clients such as Vanessa Redgrave, Vivienne Westwood and John Pilger. "I'd spent 17 years drinking and enjoying myself, wasting my time," he told his interviewer in 2000. "Then suddenly I sat down and wrote three books in a row."
The short story collections and longer fiction he published since include Émigré Journeys (2000), which was written in English. Baagh, a novel, challenged the official view on the 1965 war, and Naadar Log (The Dispossessed) revisited the devastations in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971. One of his short stories, "The Return Journey", was made into a feature film called Brothers in Trouble by the BBC.
Hussein died in 2015, of cancer, in Lahore, where he had moved back in the last years of his life. As the Pakistani writer and journalist, Raza Rumi, wrote, "To say that he was a towering literary figure would be an understatement. Hussein was a trendsetter and a chronicler of our weary generations."
The Weary Generations (paperback, 448 pages, Rs 499) is published by HarperCollins India.
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