COLUMN: … Because I love it: on writing in Urdu by Aamer Hussein
A. writes about how, though his fiction is in French, he thinks in Moroccan Arabic. V. says she prefers French because Arabic verse is too flowery for her. L. tells me how she rewrote, in Indonesian, the epic novel that she’d spent four years writing in English, in four months. “So easy! The voices of my characters! Their social contexts! Not having to explain!”
What, I wonder aloud, links me to my mother tongue? Neither necessity nor contingency. I’ve spoken English to my family since infancy. I left Pakistan aged 12. I’ve lived in England all my adult life but have never been part of a migrant community. Taught Urdu badly at school, I acquired it as a second language in my teens because I wanted to be bilingual. In my 30s, I became an inveterate reader of Urdu literature.
One July morning a few days after my conversation with L., I sat down to write a story on commission. But the words that came to me weren’t in English, and the story wasn’t the one I’d planned. I found myself in 2007, on a train trip in the rain to York. The lifelong friend I’d travelled with was diagnosed with cancer a few months later. I left my laptop, picked up my notebook, and began to write. In Urdu. A page or two; it seemed complete. Another story took over, another lost friend returned. My fingers wrote, of their own accord, in the script I rarely write in. (I’m also unused to writing fiction by hand.) My only thought: keep it short; easier for you.
Two stories, linked by images of water and earth, fire and music. Though both pieces were set in England, I hadn’t specified places or locations; names like York and Kensington seem insufferably alien to the Urdu script. I realised I couldn’t work without chronologies. Temporal phrases surfaced: “panch saal hue”, “ikisvin sadi ke pehle dinon men”, “das saal baad”… I don’t remember how urgent my impulse was, but I wanted to escape from the tyrannies of precision, from which Urdu often floats free.
Revising the stories, I heard strange echoes. Not grammatical or syntactical imperfections: I’d written a long essay about modern Urdu fiction just a month or two before, and was immersed in its language and script, which was one explanation for my present ease. Days before, the poet Fatima Hassan had remarked: “You speak Urdu so well, why not write prose in it, just the way you speak?” I tried to use the vocabulary of a simple conversation. It wouldn’t suffice. I reached for the images I’d absorbed all my life from songs and poems, in Urdu, but also in Persian. I wasn’t, however, conscious of any influences from what I’d been reading, just of one word, “afsancha”, that I’d recently found in an essay. The stories both took place in a world in turmoil, but weren’t linked in any overt way to Pakistan; the central character of one was Iranian, though I never named her country; the heroine of the second piece was, as the context made clear, a Pakistani poet.
Loss of language was also my theme, and language gave me the key to the strangeness of my prose. There were no celebratory cadences of homecoming here; the strange echoes were of distance, alienation, firaq — separation. Some might call it the language of exiles.
I wasn’t yet writing for an audience, just to see whether I could do it. And now I wanted to try my hand at literary Urdu, which gives me such pleasure with its wordplay, witticisms and ironies. I drafted an essay about how people often ask me why I don’t write in ‘my’ language. I found I could write an essay like an Urduwala, in the way I couldn’t write stories. I had more fun than with anything I’d written in a very long time. (Since, in 2010, I was asked, in quick succession, to write stories set in Pakistan, or to write as a Pakistani writer, I’d been questioning the label of Pakistani writer in English. In the past two decades, I’d written stories set in Ayub’s time and Zia’s, during Partition, the ’65 war and the war for Bangladesh, but events are not at the core of my writing. I’ve barely written about 9/11 or terrorists, and never about eunuchs, dancers or wrestlers. That puts me out of step with a new generation. For at least a year, I’d found that when I wrote fiction in English I’d been making a series of formal experiments. I felt tired: of my subject matter, of the limitations of genre. The idiom I was writing in no longer contained me.)
I needed to know whether this experiment had worked. I have no writer friends here who read Urdu. Why not Fatima? I don’t have an Urdu programme on my computer; I had to transcribe my afsanche in Romanised letters. Fatima answered immediately, enthusiastically. Asif Farrukhi asked to see them. His response was characteristically pragmatic: the essay should be longer; could he have more stories, linked perhaps by the same narrator — about five? He’d publish them in Dunyazad. I was delighted. I had thought I’d circulate them among a handful of friends, but every writer, once s/he shares work, is visualising the printed page.
I asked Asif if the vagueness of setting mattered. He personally preferred those specifics of time and place I designated tyrannical. In that sense Urdu was going to impose the familiar constraints of English, but in Urdu my English settings would be, perhaps, if not entirely original, certainly fresh. I sat down to write my third story, improvising on the theme of my unwritten English story about a man who once knew a woman who loved a swan. When the doorbell rang — my sister, come to take me out to lunch in the sunshine — I’d been writing two or three hours and had three times more pages than I’d expected.
I finished the first draft of the long story, “Maya aur Hans”, in two sittings. It’s set in the London of the late ’70s, a time I’d visited in my novel The Cloud Messenger. Exile, in this story, takes second place to friendship and unexpressed love. (But once again its theme is firaq.) Though the narrator is of Pakistani birth, the story rarely refers to Pakistan. Two of its main characters are Slav and Irani, their past and present histories referred to obliquely. Had I needed to translate from the English I usually think in? No. The words flowed. I visualised every scene I wrote, conscious only of the images of frozen water, trees and swans that came to me, and of how exciting it was to capture both image and emotion in the vocabulary of a language I’d heard all my life, read for more than half of it, but never created in since I sat my exams decades ago. A soundtrack seemed to follow. (How rich Urdu is, in sound and music, how flexible in describing every nuance of emotion.) I’d pursue a narrative line which dissolved only when a word or a phrase didn’t come to me immediately: then I’d stop, reaching out into the air for it. (“Department of Architecture”, for example.) I’d handle it as best I could, but kept an Urdu dictionary by my side, to check for terms I was unsure of. I didn’t need it. The first draft of the story reminded Asif of the best of my English fiction. But was I doing anything so very different from my English writing? I had interpellated a Jataka tale as some Urdu writers have done, but hadn’t drawn on other Urdu influences. Unlike my Indonesian friend, I didn’t need linguistic contexts for a society I was portraying. I was writing from the place I lived in, close to my own experience, from the moments I inhabited. I’ve lived away from Pakistan for 40 years, and feel no more at home in its society than in any other. (“Ham na ghar ke rahe na ghaat ke,” says an expat artist friend.)
What, then, had I missed about Urdu when I wrote in English? What phrases had I ever needed to translate? Speech, above all else. Colloquialisms, witticisms, quick turns of phrase I’ve heard all my life in daily conversations, on radio and television, absorbing them even when Urdu didn’t come easily to me. I added a passage to my tale: the narrator and his sister, talking about the marriage market for suitable young men. This conversation would be obscure — or awfully exotic — for an English readership, but in Urdu it evokes, with irony, the world of rich professional expats in the Bhutto era. It also echoes and parodies the sort of dialogues Pakistani tele-playwrights and popular novelists do with panache.
A particular phrase I’d heard came to me as the basis for the last of the stories I wrote: “Main koi khudai faujdar to nahin”. Could that ever be translated? “God’s little soldier”? “Moral custodian”? The story is called “Hauslamand”. It follows, with a cold if compassionate eye, the doings of two enterprising new migrants who cook, clean and decorate the homes of rich expats in today’s London. In the telling — often in their own words — it explores why so many people still dream of migrating to a cold, hard place, what dark circumstances drive them to it, and what they gain to make up for the loss of home and family. It could only have been written in Urdu.
A British journalist asked Asif what I’d gained by changing languages. He said immediately: “Oh, sarcasm!” But the story my Urdu writer friends liked best, when my stories came out this winter, wasn’t my satirical account of migrant courage (and mischief), but the romantic “Maya aur Hans”. They say I never write as if Urdu were in any way my second language. Only Kishwar Naheed detected in that tale a faint and possible English influence. I wasn’t aware of that, I said. I saw what I wrote and searched for words to express the images. Perhaps I’d written the language of firaq.
What have I gained from my experience? New audiences? Identity as a bilingual writer? An abiding sense of distance? Or a key to the hidden metaphors of my emotions? I’ll give the last line to an artist friend: “You wrote in Urdu,” she says, “because you love it.”