Interview: Aamer Hussein

‘I don’t long for roots’

Print edition : February 15, 2019

Aamer Hussein Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Interview with the Pakistani short story writer Aamer Hussein.

He defies definition. Born in Karachi, educated partly in Ooty (Udhagamandalam), he spent his summers in Indore, yet stayed with his mother in Karachi before going to London for further studies. He opted to settle in London, but calls Karachi his home. Never mind that the last time he went to Pakistan he could only get a visa for a nine-day visit. He is the noted short story writer Aamer Hussein. In the world of hyphenated writers—Indo-American, Pak-British, and so on—he makes the dichotomy seem interesting. His work draws inspiration from the places he has lived in and from Persian fables, Quranic stories and Buddhist sources besides French, Japanese and African literature.

Amidst such a motley mix to be inspired by, all that remains consistent is his language. He writes in English, and denies the rumour that he has an Urdu novel up his sleeve. Indeed, he calls English his memory language. He was in India recently for The Hindu Lit Fest in Chennai and spoke to Frontline. Excerpts from the interview:

You have spent a good part of your early years in India. How has it impacted your writing?

India influenced me greatly—the languages, the music and the landscapes. In fact, some of my earliest stories were set in Indore, Elephanta Caves/Bombay, Jaisalmer, Gwalior and Rewa. I will not claim to have been influenced by Indian or Greek mythology or epics as a writer. I’m much more involved with Quranic, Sufi, Biblical, and now Buddhist, texts.

But the poetry of Meerabai, Kabir, Roopmati and Khusrau echoes through those early stories, inflecting my English prose.

I believe you were quite fond of Indore at one time. Was it the sedate pace of life?

Being with my grandparents and exulting in an atmosphere that was very different from Karachi. I loved the rains, the green surroundings, the fruit trees. And yes, my grandparents’ serene lifestyle and the joy of an extended family. I loved travelling in Malwa and Madhya Pradesh by train. I also learnt to speak Urdu properly there, and to read and write Hindi at the age of 11.

You were not particularly enamoured of Karachi at the beginning. Can you explain why? And what eventually led you to like the city?

I have always liked Karachi, but isn’t it in our nature to take the places we grow up in for granted? It just grew monotonous for an adolescent and, at nearly 13, I decided that a spell in India would be an adventure. After all, you couldn’t get further away than Ooty, where I went to study before moving on to London 18 months later.

As far as the present is concerned, Karachi is a dynamic city with a vibrant multilingual arts scene and a stunning sealine. I have readers there, and my present publisher; I’m also involved in various projects in the city. It’s also manic in a very Western European way, which tires me as my life in London has certain safeguards of privacy.

I also travel frequently to Islamabad, Faisalabad and Lahore to lecture, meet audiences or, particularly in the case of Islamabad, to spend time with friends.

As a widely travelled writer who has lived in places as different as Karachi and London, not to forget Indore and Gwalior, what is your concept of a home? And when exactly do notions of an exile or a mere traveller kick in?

That’s a hard question. Home is where my books and my bed are, in Little Venice, London. Karachi remains my native city, and Sindh is my father’s province. I also have a deep sense of homecoming when I set foot in India. Multiple homes? As far as writing is concerned, aren’t many of us estranged in some way, uprooted, knocked about, nomadic? I envy roots but certainly don’t long for them. And I do like the idea of being a mere traveller. I’ve often written about that as an experience of temporary, hallucinatory displacement.

You have always said English is your memory language, while Urdu is one for nostalgic retreat. Can you elaborate?

Nothing complicated. Most of my memories are in English because that’s the language I’ve been trained to structure my thoughts and sentences in since the age of five. You might call it a postcolonial imposition. Urdu is like my grandparents’ home, luxurious and loving. But did I say nostalgia or merely retreat, as it is within such easy reach? Practically speaking, I read a lot in Urdu and write and speak about its literary culture, but it isn’t more than a second working language for me. I always feel a slight awkwardness when I have to speak it in public, and a regret that I’m not genuinely bilingual either as a speaker or as a reader though the effort continues.

In your work, one sees a clear impact of Western literature. Some of the fables, the narration, are unusual for a subcontinent writer. How did you get this affinity for non-subcontinental literature?

I’ve always read a lot of international literature. It was what I was exposed to early: European and Russian in childhood, to some extent Persian; African and Japanese in my teens, and so on. I’m as much influenced by French writers as by Japanese. But isn’t some of that fairly typical for a subcontinental writer—to be influenced both by the West and by traditional stories which, in their essence, are quite similar wherever the storyteller may come from?

Though one cannot quite call you an Urdu writer, some of your inspiration and much of your sources tell us Urdu is never too far from your mind. How does one explain this irony?

Is it an irony? From my second book onwards, I started setting my stories in an Urdu-speaking milieu and followed a double path—engaging with what I read in the language in my writing, and then reading even more to reflect upon and deepen this engagement. My closeness to some Urdu writers, particularly Qurratulain Hyder, influenced me intellectually and emotionally rather than stylistically.

Well-respected writers like the late Fahmida Riaz have reacted favourably to your writing in Urdu. Can we see an Urdu novel from you any time soon?

No! A novel in any language is unlikely. Been there, done that in English. But perhaps a memoir or a novella?

Speaking of Fahmida Riaz, she admired what she called my resistance to the hegemony of the West and the marketplaces of literature. She thought my move to Urdu, however nomadic and transient, was inevitable, and I think she was right. But the real tribute came from Intizar Husain, who said that while others were dashing headlong into Urdu, one mad man (me) was turning to his mother tongue in a reverse movement and that the simplicity of my style showed a native ease with the language (If only).

You claim that as a short story writer, you can afford to work at your own pace. How then do you keep the context flowing for a collection of short stories?

The context, or more accurately the unifying strand, only emerges after a few stories. Even though one can identify, in retrospect, certain themes in some of my short story collections, for example, music in Love and its Seasons, or a backdrop of unending war, from the Second World War to the so-called War on Terror in Insomnia, or disenchanted Muslim expats in Europe in 37 Bridges, I feel my collections are diverse and eclectic, which some may see as a fault or a marketing drawback. But it’s what I do, and it is up to publishers to present my books in certain ways as long as they add meaning to, or at least don’t go against, what I feel I’m writing about.

Can you please throw some light on your latest work “Hermitage”? The book has not been released in India yet and many of your readers would like to know what to expect.

Hermitage differs from my other books in that I’ve taken some stories from life—a page from the autobiography of the poet Ada Jafri; pages from my mother’s notebook about her training in Indian classical singing; the life of the poet Shefta retold as fiction; one about my family’s friendship with Qurratulain Hyder; and another about my maternal great-uncle, Rafi Ajmeri, who died two decades before my birth—which can be read as “pure” memoir. But is memoir ever pure? And doesn’t truth become a story in the retelling?

Speaking of retelling, I’ve also directly retold some Persian stories from Rumi and Attar with minimal changes; just translated poetry into prose with minuscule edits or additions. An early version was dumped by an Indian publisher and it’s going to be hard to export the Pakistani edition.