Book review: Hermitage by Aamer Hussein
Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Author: Aamer Hussein
Publisher: Ushba Publishing International
Price: Pakistani Rs 800/-
In 1968, Aamer Hussein met Qurratulain Hyder, the literary stalwart from the subcontinent who was also his mother’s friend. He was 13 at the time. This meeting with Hyder – Annie Khala to him – and her presence in his life, despite the miles separating them, would become one of the defining influences on Aamer Hussein’s life as a writer. He wrote about her ‘intellectual influence’ on him in his introduction to Fireflies in the Mist, 2008 (translated by her from her Urdu Aakhir-i-Shab ke Humsafar). A decade later, he writes, once again, about the relationship and her continuing influence on his writing and reading sensibilities: ‘Annie would guide my reading, criticizing one writer and praising another in a dialogue that continued from trip to trip,’ he writes in “Annie” from Hermitage, his most recent collection of short fiction, published in 2018 by Ushba Publishing International, a small independent press in Pakistan.
‘We shared a past in three countries and two languages… 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.’
There are others who guide him, shared pasts and literary traditions – Attar, Rumi, Shefta, Ada Jafri, Hussein’s grand-uncle Rafi Ajmeri. Hermitage borrows from their writings and their lives, from stories heard and read. It spreads the oeuvre, drawing from the mystics, from traditional storytelling of the subcontinent and its tradition of storytelling through fable, myth, memoir and music. Persian and Urdu narratives and poetry inform its tonality; the structure of the stories is most often parabolic, the references inter-textual, the undertone one of deep, reflective conversations with the self woven through with a filigree of images and the restrained prose of folklore and metaphor.
Hermitage is a tribute to storytellers, to music and art from this shared past, layered with cultural memory and influenced by oral and written narratives. Love that is ephemeral is made eternal through the words on the page that not only reflect but speak of its melancholic beauty, its music clearer in the gaps and the unsaid than in what is crafted for the reader. ‘And it seemed to him that if one listened to the silence, everything sang to everything else: breeze to water and leaves, water to cloud and branch, birds to the sky…’ (“Lake”).
The larger theme of love and longing draws into itself the sub themes of exile and homelessness, migration, creativity and identity, themes that have occurred earlier in Aamer Hussein’s stories. In Hermitage, their iterations are more intense and subtle, requiring of the reader a greater engagement with the very act of storytelling. As meaning deepens, brevity becomes meditative.
Exile is not only a physical truth but also a state of mind. Aamer Hussein’s characters are exiles, belonging to yet torn apart from the very sense or place of belonging, often leading a sutured existence, giving rise to the solitude that layers many of the stories. Love and longing, unfulfilled and unrequited, whether for geographical spaces or for emotional geographies, meanders like a stream through these stories, both imprisoning the characters and releasing them.
While many of the stories hold out the promise of meaning in the process of excavation, exploration, the destination not yet reached but waiting to be found, the titular story, “Hermitage” arrives at this elusive-illusive destination. The longing, yearning, seeking culminates in realization, and thus to feeling liberated. Deliverance comes through acceptance, as Abbot Siddhant discovers in the monastery. The song of the soul is the one true guide, all else is mortification of the body and mind. This leads to a gradual change in the austere hermitage, as Siddhant’s acolyte, the young monk Mridul realises one day:
…One morning he became aware of a change that had been taking place in the air around him. Now there was a voice rising above the plain chant of the other singers, rising, soaring, dipping, improvising, a voice with hoarse low notes and clear, plaintive upper notes, and he wondered how to tell Siddhant that the voice he heard each morning, his master’s voice, made his heart lurch, his limbs tremble, his tongue seek out new words and sounds, and his voice break with a yearning that until now, in his young life, he had never known (“Hermitage”).
Love is the essence in “The Name” ( https://kitaab.org/2017/12/04/short-story-the-name-by-aamer-hussein/), improvised from the Laila Majnun tale. Nothing else matters, making it impossible to separate love from the loved one, art from the artist, creativity from identity, or for that matter, homecoming from the search for it.
Someone asked the madman: How do you love the night?
He replied: To tell the truth, I don’t love her.
Astonished, his friend said: You spend your days and nights weeping and lamenting, you write verses about her beauty in the sand, you paint her name on walls and neither eat nor sleep, you are lost in sorrow: isn’t that love?
The madman responded: All that is over now. Laila has become Majnun, and Majnun, Laila: the madman and the night are submerged in each other, they are one and no longer two, says the madman.
— (Translated from the Persian by Aamer Hussein)
Stories such as “The Name”, “Hermitage” and “Lake” are about culmination of a journey of exploration and search, about realization and discovery. “The Wounded Swan”, “Lady of the Lotus”, “Dove” and “Bridges” are narratives of this search – friendships, meetings and partings, creativity, fractured homelands, displacement. “Bridges”, a story exquisitely translated from the Urdu by Sabiha Ahmed Husain, the author’s mother, explores another manifestation of this search for belonging. ‘But then it occurs to me that we are all strangers in these cities of ours, and strangers we’ll remain,’ says the narrator as he walks in Paris with his friend Nermin, a writer who wanders through the cities that she calls home at various stages of her life. ‘This state of homelessness here – you could say that’s where I feel most at home,’ Nermin tells him.
“Lady of the Lotus” is a transcription of his mother’s diary in which she writes about her singing and classical music performances at various places across the city. Its tonal trajectory is of music as it seeks perfection, the destination always beyond reach, satisfaction held in abeyance. Combining the first and third person voices, including comments by her children, it creates a vivid picture of Karachi’s cultural life in the 1960s even as it documents the singer’s quest. Much like this artistic search for fulfilment, the reader too is left with an abrupt end, the antara and taan of Raag Des in a haunting spiral in the mind, waiting for the complete rendition.
“Dove”, a story in two brief paragraphs – the first paragraph is one long sentence while the second has two long sentences – could be likened to painting in swift, bold strokes, one that stops short at a point of realization, a state of mind that calls for the past to be lived again as an altered narrative. This is compressed storytelling at its best. It requires its readers to be fully immersed in the story, in its images and its silences. This is all the writer is willing to concede. No more.
Compression and subtlety are characteristic of Aamer Hussein’s writing, as is the engagement with structuring memory, revisiting the past. Hermitage ends with two life stories/ memoirs: “Uncle Rafi” and “Annie”. “Uncle Rafi” is a tightly written narrative about the author’s grand-uncle, a promising writer who died at a very young age. It brings together two traditions: oral narratives of family history and written storytelling. The story ends hauntingly; the author layers Rafi Uncle’s retelling of an old song about the ‘legend of Daya Gujar’ with his memory of his ‘grandmother’s singing voice’:
Amma ko mera Ram-ram kehna
Behna ko mera salaam
Gujri ko bas itna kehna
Reh jaye joban ko re tham
Daya ab aana nahin
Daya julmi ke phande
Daya phaansi ke phande
(Give my greetings to my mother and sister, but to the Gujri just say to make good use of her youth: Daya isn’t coming back, he’s in the clutches of the oppressor, the noose is around his neck.)
As I read it I could hear my grandmother’s singing voice. My hair stood on end as it did when I first heard the story sung.
“Annie” engages with the past at a slant, locating the gaze in Qurratulain Hyder (Annie Khala), revisiting recent sub-continental history, especially the Partition and its effect on her writing. It explores her shift from India to Pakistan and then back to India, their shared sense of dislocation and search for “home”. ‘Annie had chosen to return to a country and a city where no one was waiting. In the millennium, River of Fire, which had started its life in Urdu as a Pakistani book, was acclaimed in its English version as one of the twentieth century’s greatest works of Indian fiction.’ Juxtaposed with this journey of one writer is the narrative of Hussein’s own growth as a writer, holding interpretation and understanding in a liminal phase that slowly unfolds but not completely.
At around 3,700 words, “The Man Who Stood Still” is longer than most of the other stories, barring “The Wounded Swan”. It meanders like memory, draws upon exile, turmoil and violence as also upon the gap between what is remembered and what real, their contours merging and parting, creating a haze. In bringing together many of the universal themes of Aamer Hussein’s works, “The Man Who Stood Still” seems to be crowded. Or perhaps meaning lies in wait, at the end of multiple readings, a challenge at a time of shrinking attention spans.
By combining fresh stories with inter-textual renderings from Attar and Rumi, diary jottings, translation from across languages – Urdu, French, Persian – memoir, and life stories, Hermitage traces a wide trajectory of writing traditions, providing historical continuum. This positioning of the new with the old is enhanced by the placement of black and white photographs and images, a first for English literature from Pakistan. Text and image complement each other, evoking cultural memory of people, places and spaces, filling gaps that the other leaves behind.
Describing Nermin’s prose in “Bridges”, the narrator writes: ‘Brief, slight images, like the breath of a bird dying on the sleeve of the wind, like the castanets of a dancing gypsy, like a drop of blood from the paw of a wounded rabbit in the grass, like the last smouldering embers of the evening’ (“Bridges”, from Hermitage).
The writer was perhaps describing his own writing. Lyrical intensity combined with brevity and his knowledge of languages and cultures layers Aamer Hussein’s storytelling. In weaving these characteristics with other tales, lives and their literary influences, Hermitage provides a microcosm of how reading shapes a writer’s life. It is also, what the writer calls, a collaborative effort – fresh imagination coming together with older stories, borrowed tales, translations, photographs by the writer as well as others who shared them for this book. Hermitage compels the reader to engage with the stories on multiple levels and deserves to be read slowly, letting each word and nuance of storytelling reveal itself. To enjoy the stories in this collection, the reader must pick up these hints between the words on the page and listen carefully to the breeze pause before it ruffles the grass again.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is the author of Cast Out and Other Stories, published by Dhauli Books, 2018. She is an independent editor from Pune.