Review: What is Saved by Aamer Hussein - Hindustan Times
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Review: What is Saved by Aamer Hussein

ByAreeb Ahmad
May 30, 2024 06:37 PM IST

Fiction, memoir and biography sit side-by-side in this book that includes autofiction and pieces born of esoteric inspirations and historical sources that reveal the breadth of the author’s reading

“What does it matter? Invention or truth, these are all stories.” So says author Aamer Hussein’s friend and editor in The Yellow Notebook. Written as a letter to Shahbano Alvi, the friend in question, though she is only addressed in the second person and never by name, it traces their relationship over the years. Alvi, founder of the independent press, Ushba, has published many of Hussein’s books in Pakistan. Later in the piece, the author is forced to wonder: “Was I writing fiction or an account of my life?”

A view of Karachi at night. (Ibrar Kunri/Shutterstock)
A view of Karachi at night. (Ibrar Kunri/Shutterstock)

Curated for Red River’s fiction imprint by Sucharita Dutta-Asane, What is Saved generously embodies this ambiguity. Fiction, biography and memoir sit side by side without demarcations of genre or category, following Hussein’s journey as a writer.

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180pp, ₹299; Red River
180pp, ₹299; Red River

Born and brought up in Karachi, Aamer Hussein was 13 when he went to India on what he presumed was a regular summer trip to visit his mother’s family, unaware that he would not set foot in Pakistan again for decades. He studied in Ooty for two years before moving to England at 15. Cosmopolitan in the fullest sense of the word, he told a Pakistani journalist: “I’m comfortably homeless in six languages and at least as many countries.” Dutta-Asane draws attention to this aspect of Hussein’s oeuvre in a brief editor’s note: “This fractured, liminal space… shapes the telling of these stories, bringing western and eastern traditions of the written word and of orality, an eclectic mix of genres that provides vibrancy of variety and pace.” From long narratives to short vignettes, these “stories” naturally straddle the boundary of history and memory, dream and reality.

Roughly arranged in chronological order, the collection starts with pieces reminiscing about his childhood and youth and moves towards the present. Hussein might have stopped living in Karachi but Karachi did not stop living in him. His love for the motherland echoes loud. In The World of the Heart, he writes: “Can London claim me, or will my roots always keep me grounded in the city by the sea?... It was Karachi I lived in; it was the hinterland of my imagination… I return often to Karachi. Images of the city as it is today are superimposed on my memory’s screen, but it’s still the capital city of my mind.” Childhood is a world of wonders, of innocence, mostly protected from the realities of life. The Lady of the Lotus reimagines his mother’s old diary — where she wrote about her singing lessons and bits about her life — as a series of short entries where her marital and maternal responsibilities are in the periphery. In Words and Music, Hussein recalls his and his sister’s childhood love for Urdu films and their various run-ins with movie stars and singers.

Dutta-Asane notes: “Stories hark back to other stories, names in one recall names in another, an emotion in one story draws upon something unsaid or left unfinished in another story.” This especially holds true for, as Hussein himself asserts in his Afterword, “a group of stories about illness and the pandemic move back and forth between memory and imagination, between faithful chronologies and an unfaithful relationship with real time.” In A Convalescence, an unnamed narrator recovers from a nasty fall resulting in a broken leg. He muses about the relationship between humans and birds, takes slow walks, and converses with friends. Waterline follows more or less the same trajectory. Both stories feature factual details and people from Hussein’s life but he only classifies the first as a “story”. Mehran in The Garden Spy is writing about the Chinese writer, Elizabeth Chau while bearing with the pandemic. Chau does not exist in real life but Hussein has written a tribute to his friend, the writer Suyin Han, which has been included in this collection.

Author Aamer Hussein (Courtesy Facebook)
Author Aamer Hussein (Courtesy Facebook)

While many pieces take off from Aamer Hussein’s own life or are “lived experiences reimagined as fiction”, ie autofiction, there are a few that arise out of esoteric inspirations and historical, even fantastic, sources which show that Hussein is magnificently well-read. “Hermitage” was inspired by the biography of a Thai Buddhist nun whose teacher bid adieu to the monastery in pursuit of earthly love and domestic bliss. Tales From Attar, as the title suggests, derives from the works of the 12th Century Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar, who is most well-known for The Conference of the Birds. It is a series of five shorts drawing on Sufi teachings to impart valuable lessons. The Name, another short piece, takes on the famous folk story of Laila-Majnu. Multiple stories reference incidents from the life of Buddha, one of them being the fable of Siddhartha and the Wounded Swan. The Life and Death of a Poet arose from a biographical essay on Nawab Mustafa Khan Shefta.

Most pieces in the collection are just a few pages long and Hussein is satisfied with being a chronicler of small histories. He admits: “I had no ambition to write a postcolonial epic or auto-ethnography. All I had as my materials were lost loves, lost hopes, lost homes. I had no sweeping grand narrative, only fragments. But no one was going to deter me from writing what I wrote in a quiet place, fractured, liminal, unanchored and unmoored, writing my way out of the dark room.” It is fitting that the subtitle of What is Saved is Life Stories and Other Tales for what is truth but stories we tell ourselves. The Hindi title, Batori Hui Khushiyan, is apt too. Aamer Hussein collects the wide scatter of memories, assimilates past with present, and builds on this fertile foundation little monuments to life.

Areeb Ahmad is a freelance writer and literary critic. He lives in Delhi. He is @Bankrupt_Bookworm on Instagram.

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