• “We shared a past in three countries and two languages”

    An excerpt from Hermitage

    Aamer Hussein

    February 8, 2019

    Written by short story writer and critic Aamer Hussein, Hermitage is a collection of thirteen short stories interspersed with family memories, retelling of parables, and photographs. The following is an excerpt from the story "Annie" of the book in which Hussein narrates a story of his relationship with Urdu fiction writer Qurratulain Hyder or Annie khala as he called her.

    Image Courtesy: Paramount Books

    ‘I want you to meet Annie’, my mother said that afternoon.

    May, 1968. I hadn’t seen Mother since I left Karachi in December, to attend a family wedding. My father and I had taken a two-day trip from Gwalior, via Bhopal, to receive her in Bombay.  She whisked me off to Breach Candy, where Annie lived, with one woman who cooked and kept house, in an economically furnished ground floor flat.

    Annie was small and spare in her smart sari, with a shock of cropped curls. She was 41 and single; she’d lived for a decade or so after partition in Karachi, and then in London. In the early 60s, she decided to return to India when an enormous novel she’d written was controversially received by Ayub Khan’s military government and she no longer felt happy in Pakistan. In Bombay she’d worked for a journal called Imprint, and had just moved to the Illustrated Weekly of India. Her conversation with Mother was probably about their mutual friends: it wasn’t easy in those days to travel between India and Pakistan unless, like us, you had a British passport. She took an immediate interest in my precocious reading habits. I’d grown up with women journalists – mother was still managing a women’s magazine in Karachi, which was owned by my father’s sister, an MNA who was usually busy with politics. I was used to chatting to adults with literary inclinations; I’d met many artists and writers as a child and I didn’t consider them much larger than life

    A few days later, I set off on a three-day journey with my father by air and train to Ootacamund in the Blue Mountains, unprepared for the bleakest, rainiest and longest months I’d ever known in my 13 years. I walked or rode three miles to school. On holidays I watched Hollywood and British films in the local cinema, or spent hours in the dusty old library.  The main reading room had newer books that were specially transported from Madras every few weeks, novels by Kingsley Amis and his generation – I referred historical fiction, and memoirs, and since I couldn’t get enough of those I read my way around histories of the British theatre and biographies of Mme de Stael and Chopin I retrieved from rickety shelves upstairs, full of books that some colonial librarian had chosen for the English readers ‘domiciled’ in the Blue Mountains.    

    Every month, parcels arrived from Annie: back issues of Imprint, and current issues of the Illustrated Weekly.  Imprint carried excerpts of foreign fiction. I sweated and shivered my way through Rosemary’s Baby in Ooty’s rainy cool climate. (I couldn’t recall whether I had fever when I starting reading it or it come upon me as I read.) I also read Conspiracy of Women, by Aubrey Menen, a half-Indian writer who lived in England, about the women who surrounded Alexander of Macedon.

    In the eclectic The Illustrated Weekly, I read about the life and times of Mirza Ghalib, whose poems I’d heard recited and sung all my life in a centenary issue, with translations by Annie  (I now knew from her byline that she was a public figure called Qurratulain Hyder whose writings straddled two languages and several cultures). There was also a special number dedicated to a pioneering singer-actor called Balgandharva, who’d played women’s roles in the Marathi theatre, and an article about the Southern dancer Balasaraswati. I began to stock a mental library that  included the entire subcontinent in addition to the exclusively western catalogue of my early years.

    Bad times come to end: after eighteen months, so did my Ooty days. I decided to study in London. After our long farewells to Mother’s family in Indore and Gwalior we came to Bombay to catch our flight. A few days before we left, Annie took us all to tea: a grand send-off at a café on the seafront. Deftly switching languages in a voice that was gruff for someone so slight, she peppered sentences with quirky English acronyms – MCPs (male chauvinist pigs) and LMC (lower middle class was an aesthetic, rather than class-bound, judgement). She delivered a few blistering comments about Nirad C Chaudhuri’s Continent of Circe, who may have been the MCP she referred to.


    ‘Come along to hear Annie read at Soas’, Mother said. 

    October, 1986. The audience at SOAS  was enormous.  Qurratulain Hyder was flanked by  Urdu poet Iftikhar Arif,  Pakistani critic Fateh Malek, BBC broadcaster Raza Ali Abidi, and the grey eminence of Indo-Anglian letters, Mulk Raj Anand. She looked somewhat disdainful throughout the long speeches, which were all in Urdu and acknowledged as the greatest living novelist in the language.The critic analysed a long prose poem she’d published recently, in which she berated the Iranians and the Arabs for the murders and wars that were taking place in Iraq and lamented the decline and fall of the Muslim civilisation. When it was her turn to speak, she mentioned that one of the characters in her new, unpublished novel went around India delivering lectures on ‘Me and My Art’: that wasn’t her style at all. And no, she wasn’t berating only the Muslim world: she’d switched on the television the night before and the fighting in Ireland had shocked her: violence was endemic everywhere. Wasn’t there such a thing as humanism any more? And why couldn’t people, and nations, live and let others live?

    ‘Do you write too?’ Annie asked me when she visited my mother three days later. (Since my unaccustomed exposure to the public face of literary Urdu, I’d been filling up my diary with despairing pages about history, exile and the loss of language. Perhaps her words – ‘write as if rain was falling on the page’ – had affected me.) Though I hadn’t published anything yet, I mumbled, truthfully, that I did write.

    ‘Do you write in Urdu?’ she asked.

    ‘No’, I said.

    I glimpsed a flicker of regret in her eyes. (And, perhaps, an unspoken question: Why not?)

    Annie was researching a book at The India Office. She looked the same as she had sixteen years ago, though her short hair was henna-red now, and she wore western clothes for her research stints. But there was an ease about her that I didn’t remember from earlier days, when she’d acted like a busy jobbing journalist and seemed somewhat distracted. 

    In Delhi, where she’d settled, she’d finally seemed to have found a place that suited her. There had been a revival of her creative energies in the shadow of those monuments and relics of the city’s past.  Delhi wasn’t her birthplace: she was born in Aligarh, where her father had a post at the University, and she’d studied in Lucknow, so UP was her homeland. And Delhi, until ’47, the epicentre of Indo-Muslim history, was now the capital of an independent nation.

    The following October, back in London, she stayed with my parents. She was in the third and grandest stage of her career. She’d published another masterwork, Gardish e rang e chaman, which covered some of the same ground as Umrao Jan, bringing the story of India’s courtesans right up to the present day. She’d also translated one of her novels into English: Fireflies in the Mist. An eminent London publisher was considering it for publication.  

    I’d given up my postgraduate studies to write and teach, and had a couple of stories accepted for publication. I’d also begun to review fiction. Though it was my sister who interviewed her that year, it was to me that Annie handed a manuscript she was working on, of her own short stories, freely translated into English. I found it absorbing but patchy, and wondered whether something was lost in translation.  But I wasn’t ready to read her in Urdu, not yet.

    On a Roman holiday the following April, waiting on a rainy morning for friends to take me out to lunch, I began to write a story. I had just turned 33 and had avoided memories of my thirteen years in Karachi. But that day in that dark hotel room with the sound of falling rain as accompaniment I completed ‘Little Tales’, which, though it wasn’t autobiographical, was set in the neighbourhood I’d lived in as a child, during the ’65 war between Pakistan and India that had worsened relationships between our countries.

    My mother gave my story to Annie, who folded the typescript and put it away in her handbag. ‘I’m going to translate this’, she said, her eyes twinkling. It was about a city we’d both known well and left behind, and I thought she recognised in my writing an affinity to her ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’.

    ‘Your hand was on mine when I wrote it’, I told her later.

     She smiled and nodded.


    I published my first collection of fiction in winter 1993. The next spring, a copy of Fireflies in the Mist arrived, that magisterial version of Aakhir-e-shab she’d rewritten in English some years before, a novel about East Bengal and the war for Bangladesh.  Formally daring and hugely inventive, it was Annie at her mature best.  Because I’d been in Dhaka the winter before, the scenes and sounds of the book came vividly to life in my mental theatre. Her quote from the poet Lalon Shah –  There is a house of glass in which my neighbour lives. I have never seen him. A deep river separates us. How can I cross it? – made me wonder if I’d ever cross the deep river to meet my unseen neighbours in Bangladesh.

    Annie read my book on her flight back and wrote: You write very well. Hope to hear one day that you’ve won the Booker. By then, we had another common bond – I was writing about her parents’ generation, those forgotten pioneers of Urdu fiction, many of whom appeared in her two-volume family chronicle. She regaled me with anecdotes that reached beneath the mazes of her own recollections into the memories of her parents and their friends. ‘We Urdu writers wallow in emotion’, she’d told me, ‘while you have an English restraint’. ‘But Annie Khala, you’re subtle too’, I said. ‘Oh, no’, she responded. ‘There’s a lot of taam jhaam in my writing.’


    We were in Delhi that winter, 2005-6. I’d worked all year in a new academic post at the University of London, was struggling to complete my fourth book of stories, and had decided to spend December with my sister who lived there. We all wanted to visit Ajmer, where Mother’s mother was born. That summer, there’d been a series of explosions in London that had killed many and turned ‘Muslim’ into a bad word, making even those of us who prized ourselves on pluralist ideals, secular politics and composite identities, defensive when we were asked to ‘explain’ the causes of our fellow-Muslims’ disaffection. I’d been commissioned to write about that for a Delhi local weekly and had started work on it almost as soon as I arrived. When they saw it in print my friends there protested: ‘Why did they label you a Muslim writer? Didn’t you object?’

    I visited monuments I’d seen on my last trip – Humayun’s tomb, Lodhi Gardens, Juma  Masjid – with my brother-in-law, who also took me places I hadn’t seen. The Old Fort.  Jamia Millia, the pioneering educational establishment where novelist Saliha Abid Husain and her husband had lived for many years, among many other young and progressive intellectuals. Annie had taught there when she moved to Delhi from Bombay. I came back with an armload of Urdu books that, in the winter afternoons, brought back a Delhi that was almost invisible now.

    Annie had heard from her publisher Ritu Menon that we were in town and hadn’t been able to reach her on the number she’d given us. She’d rung at once. The trip from South Delhi to Noida was at least an hour long. On the way, as we drove along the banks of the Jamuna,  Annie’s loyal driver remarked: ‘ The river has become a drain. Dhobis wash their laundry in its trickle and people grow watermelons and cucumbers on its bare bed.’

    Annie was waiting in the veranda of her house, basking in the glow of the mild winter sun.  Her welcome was loving, even expansive. A feast was laid out on her table. As we ate, I saw two generations of household retainers who had looked after her for years. In contrast to the Bombay flat I’d seen her in nearly 40 years before, here she was surrounded by her drawings, her books and papers. A close relative lived nearby; the literary world that had given her increasing acclaim was a brief phone call away.  I wondered whether, in her years in Bombay – hardly the heartland of the rich syncretic culture she celebrated – she’d missed Karachi’s artistic circles.  She spoke about her friends there indulgently now.

    We shared a past in three countries and two languages. I’d read her obituary of Saliha Abida Husain, and reminded her she’d written that Saliha and her husband had now become an object of research for social historians, perhaps because the ideals and dreams of the early years of Jamia Millia had been forgotten. Animated, Annie told me how, in her early years there, she’d often visited Saliha Abid Husain, and spent long evenings listening to her  discussing literature, politics and religion with her neighbour, Anis Kidwai. In spite of their formidable erudition, Saliha and Anis had both been schooled at home and didn’t have a university degree between them.

    ‘Have you read Anis Kidwai’s diary, Azadi ki chhaon men?’ she asked. ‘A penetrating account of the effects of partition in Delhi, when hundreds of Muslims were refugees in their own country. They were herded into the Old Fort awaiting resettlement, or transportation to Pakistan, where many of them didn’t want to go. Anis Kidwai’s husband was murdered during the riots, but she went on and worked with refugees….’

    On the long drive away from that home she’d finally created for herself, I thought of Annie’s words about that lost period of broken ideals. Last year, she’d published her  translation of her first novel, My Temples Too, originally published just after partition, when her  memories of the events in Delhi, from where she’d left for Pakistan,  were raw. :

    There were young Muslim volunteers of Jamiat ul Ulema in the camp, attending to casualties and carrying corpses. It was like living through a blood-curdling nightmare. Syed Iftikhar and his colleagues were either busy demoralising the Muslims or taking the first opportunity to run away to the new dominion. Most of them had already gone, leaving their followers to face death. Corpses lay about in the streets or rotted in the sun or became decomposed and swollen in the rain…the blood of  the Muslim citizens ofDelhi flowed in the streets,  dripped into gutters and mixed with muddy rain-water

    What had made her rewrite this book after nearly three decades? Had she witnessed those scenes at the age of twenty? Did she leave for Pakistan in fear, or in desperation, or in hope of the promised new dawn? Had she spent much of her life answering those questions in the voices of her characters and remained silent about her own feelings?


    About eighteen months after that meeting, I came back from Andalusia to hear that Annie was dead. She was buried in the graveyard of Jamia Millia. I hadn’t know as we drove away that day before the early winter sunset that that was the last time I’d see  her; that with her gone, I’d said goodbye to my India, the country I’d escaped from in my teens but continued to yearn for, return to and miss; that the  next piece I wrote about her would be an obituary; that when Fireflies and her short stories were reprinted she’d have been dead a year and would never know how her reputation would keep on growing, that she’d never read or comment on my lengthy introductions to those books in the way she’d relished commenting on my reviews. I didn’t foresee that, when I went back to Karachi after a gap of sixteen years, I’d be launching my novella set there that had been nominated for a prize, and my  story about the city by the sea that she’d liked so much all those years ago would be reprinted in an anthology about Karachi; that in a symposium about her, on a platform with the grey eminences of Urdu literature who would be damn her with faint praise I, who was there to talk about her short stories and her English writings, would say I thought QH was the best of us in everything she ever wrote. I didn’t know, when I was asked to write a fiction about Pakistan to an issue of the New Statesman about Pakistan when I came back, that my story would be, in structure and technique, a tribute to the story Annie had asked me translate all those years before, transposing her vision to the present, or that it would be published later that year in an Urdu translation. I didn’t even begin to guess that after that trip to Karachi I’d be back in Pakistan ten or eleven times over the next five years, that people there would begin to ask me to stay on, and London friends wonder if I intended to move back to Karachi for good. Above all, I wouldn’t have predicted that five years after her death I’d be writing and publishing stories in Urdu, along with an afterword I’d entitle with her words to me: Do you write in Urdu?  I’d like her to know, I did keep the promise that I made to our shared mother tongue and, tacitly, to her, and tell her as I had at that last meeting: Annie Khala, your hand was always on mine.

    Read More:
    Aamer Hussein: Weaving Stories from Memories, Myths and Fables
    A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold
    Malathi Maithri: “To control my language would be the equivalent of killing myself”​

    This is an excerpt from Hermitage, written by Aamer Hussein and published by Ooshba Publications. Republished here with permission from the author.

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