The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Syed Sarwar Hussain

By Aminah Sheikh

Syed Sarwar Hussain

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write to live, to convince myself that I am not mentally and intellectually dead. I love recounting stories, retelling them as I hear or read them, expressing them in my own language, working hard to re-write them as if they had never been written before. I have been writing since long, since my childhood, because I have always loved to articulate my thoughts, my feelings. I cannot leave them growing inside me. They have to come out anyhow. I remember once I wrote, or rather scribbled, some verses on my desk for the girl sitting next to me, in our 7th grade classroom. Fortunately, it escaped the notice of the teacher and the one who was the cause of its creation. I now vaguely remember, it was something like, “Two eyes, two gazelle eyes, were they / I caught them as they galloped away.” A year or two later, perhaps it was the year 1968, when in a boring social science classroom, I composed a complete poem. It was on a hapless child in a boring classroom. I later gave the poem the title, “A lost child in a dull classroom”. The poem starts with “The tedious humdrum of the teacher’s voice, / Is no classroom victim’s personal choice.” What was interesting was that my teacher caught me not listening to him and writing something on my class notebook. What happened later is anybody’s guess, but the poem anyhow survived. The act of writing, simply, gives me the pleasure, the independence, the queer sense of fulfilment, and the confidence, that I regard as fundamental to my existence, a sort of a personal mission that I feel I must carry out to the edge of my being.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

It had been a journey of almost six years and five books that I had undertaken in order to translate about one hundred Urdu short stories into English, collecting them in five anthologies. That was the act of articulating others’ voices, recounting their tales, drawing on the thoughts and experiences of many of those, whom I had never met or known. The title of my recent short story anthology is Nameless Lanes (published by Kitaab). It is my English translation of about twenty Urdu short stories by some of the best writers of Urdu fiction. The idea of coming out with stories retold in a different language, began to evolve in my mind as a result of constant reading, and in response to my own personal experiences with meeting people and observing their life and mind. The real inspiration to translate and publish the stories in this anthology, were the stories themselves, as I read them in their original language. Their apocalyptic vision of the world, their seamless blend of tragedy, comedy and pathos, and their acute insight into the debilitating impact of external circumstances on the deepest levels of their characters’ psyche, pushed me to explore the tales and translate them for readers of English. Although I have couched these stories in my own language, I have tried to turn them into transcreations, trying to give the language a style and a cadence of my own. But now I have decided to concentrate on my own creative writing. I am currently working on my first poetry book. Through my poems, I am on a journey of self-discovery, reliving those profound moments, those intensely felt experiences, those feelings and sensations that are struggling inside my mind to come out. They matter to me because they reflect the beauty as well as the pathos that constitute our life.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I, for one, do not think you can honestly define adequately your own aesthetic as a writer, at least for as long as you are still writing, as long as you are evolving. You do not know when your writing takes a complete turn. You can, nevertheless, articulate your overriding concerns as a creative writer. I strongly believe that a creative writer must be bold and fearless, truthful and honest. He must have a distinct voice of his own which is laced with an astute, insightful observation of realities unfolding around him. In order to write one must have an original thought, a fascinatingly interesting story to tell, and a fertile imagination, and a powerful emotion to render them into the art of rhythmical composition. Creative writing captivates through the power of its words, its imaginativeness, and an exquisite use of language and creative expression.

Who are your favorite authors?

I may sound a bit aphoristic in admitting, like Auden in The Dyer’s Hand, that pleasure has once again, as it had been during my adolescence, become my personal guide to what I should read. I read to please myself, to fill the void, the boredom created by the cramped and trite everyday life where I sometimes feel quite unable to create meaningful existence. I don’t share the same taste in reading as many people of my age. I still love to read Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, among novelists, and William Blake, and English poets of the Romantic Age, and, of course, Robert Burns. Of those living, my favorite authors are Jhampa Lahiri, Anita Desai, the inimitable Arundhati Roy, and R. Parthasarthy and Keki Daruwala among poets. I frequent bookstores and choose authors of my own interests to stimulate my personal growth through reading.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

 Translation of literary works has always been a challenge for me. It requires forging a strong bond between two texts in two different languages. The building up of this relationship involves daunting challenges because it is not only the matter of two languages but, in fact, two different styles of writing, each intensely personal and unique. As a translator of short stories and poems, I have often felt overawed by the other text, its language unsettling, jostling mine. But its original tone and tenor, its character has to be preserved. And this has never been so easy to do. It takes its own toll on the translator because, on the one hand, he has to be faithful to the demands of the other language and, on the other, invent his own that accommodates those demands. To translate is to stretch the limits of your own language to display the voice of the other. The job has become much more challenging now when I have undertaken to translate Urdu poems into rhymed English verses. In addition to the uniqueness of the language of Urdu ghazals, their distinctive imagery, sometimes bordering on surrealism, and their rhythmic patterns, defy any translation. It is these moments of exasperation and capitulation that discourage any translation of poetry. But what has always rescued me from falling into that state has been my constant effort at trying to utilize the ultimate resourcefulness of the English language, my attempt at preserving the spirit that moves the original verses, that has made the act of translation so very exciting. These translations, by the way, still need to be approved by the readers they are meant for.

What’s your idea of bliss?

A never-finishing cup of coffee, books around me, and solitude.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Nothing, in general, makes me furiously angry. I don’t get mad at anyone. But I hate to be ignored, and I am angered by people’s insensitivities.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

None. The expanse of the place, its thick natural vegetation if it has any, its woods and marshes or its rough isolation, the entire spectacle unfolded before me, will be my book. I will read all with my eyes, smell all, and preserve them in my memory, to create my stories and poems when I return.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

Nothing. Things can be replaced. I will rush to take out beings, living beings, who are still there inside.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Live and let others live; give them the best you can, for in giving lies the ultimate joy of living.



Syed Sarwar Hussain (born Syed Shah Sarwar Hussain) teaches English at the College of Languages and Translation, King Saud University. Born on September 13, 1955, in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, in the eastern region of India, Syed Sarwar Hussain has been teaching English for the past thirty-five years, sixteen of them in India, and the rest in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He taught English in Magadh University, Bihar, between 1981 and 1987, was a faculty member in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, from 1988 to 1996, and joined the College of Languages and Translation at King Saud University, Riyadh the same year. He has been married over 30 years and has three grown children. An ardent writer and translator, Syed Sarwar has several research papers to his credit, in various on-line and international print journals. He has also published anthologies of his English translations of Urdu short stories and a critical study on the poetry of Stephen Spender, one of the prominent English poets of the ‘thirties generation. Another anthology, Scattered Leaves is slated for publication in mid-2017. Dr. Hussain’s anthology of his own short stories, The Blue-Bleak Embers, and a collection of his poems, The Meandering Muse are next in the pipeline.

His published books include;

(a) Ideology and the Poetry of Stephen Spender (Bahri Publications, New Delhi, India. 1988). This book probes into the essentials of Spender’s poetic art and breaks new grounds upon Spender criticism.  

(b) Despairing Voices, Selected Urdu Short Stories Translated into English (Satyam Publishing House, New Delhi, India; 2011). The stories express, in different ways, some of the common concerns of Urdu writers in India and Pakistan.

(c) Ashes in the Fire (Satyam Publishing House, New Delhi, India; 2012). This anthology carries English translation of stories by Abdus Samad, the Sahitya Akademi Award Winning novelist from Bihar, India.

(d) The Eastern Brew: An Assortment of Stories from East (Partridge India, New Delhi; 2013). It is a translation of some selected Urdu short stories written by prominent writers from India and Pakistan. These stories are as varied in their subject matters as they are in the assortment of writers presented in this anthology.

(e) Nameless Lanes: An English Anthology of Urdu Short Stories (Kitaab International, Singapore, 2016). The writers of these stories are some of the best writers of Urdu fiction. They are award winning writers, and their works are included in various Urdu courses in Indian Universities.


Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab