Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Book Review: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein

I recently happened to read Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia, a collection of seven fine short stories, which came into print in 2007. I had heard of and read Hussein before since he reviews books for the Independent, but hadn’t read any of his books till now.

The best thing about the stories in Insomnia is that they are so beautifully and delicately crafted, without a single wasted word. Hussein comes across more as a calligrapher than just a writer. The first story, ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ gives a foretaste of what’s to come. Each ‘postcard’ is a snippet of life as a Pakistani man visits Sanlucar with a special friend. ‘Do you still feel Pakistani?’ the narrator is asked. ‘I do, when I feel anything at all.’ A little later when Muslims’ loyalty to their adopted countries is questioned, the narrator says, ‘I guess I am a Muslim in Europe too. And foreign wherever I go.’

I finished ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ in no time and moved on to other stories. However, I was forced to return and read it again because the fleeting images created were still floating around in my mind and I had to confirm if they were real.

The Crane Girl has a number of foreign teenagers, children of expats, playing teen games in the posh West-end in London. It took a bit of time for me to realise that Hussein has set this story in the 1970s. Murad is the protagonist and he strikes up a friendship with Tsuru, a Japanese girl of fragile and unusual beauty with ivory skin. But Tsuru soon goes away and Murad misses her so much that missing Tsuru becomes a habit and Murad stops noticing how much he still did miss her. When Tsuru is away, Murad and Shiego become friends. Shiego is a bit older than Murad and he has a lot more money, which he splashes on Murad. It becomes a bit too obvious for the reader to find out what the girlish Shiego has in mind, but then Tsuru returns unexpectedly. The ending is not conclusive, but this is a great story and I’ll leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.

Hussein seems to have special admiration for authors who write only in Urdu and who fight the ‘system’. Does this arise out of any guilt which Hussein feels in being a Pakistani writer based in London, when there is so much action taking place back home and so many battles being fought on a daily basis? Armaan in Hibiscus Days is one of those writers whose writings (in Urdu) can cause workers to riot on the streets. But Armaan also has a drinking problem and beats his wife Aliza before they break up. Armaan may be a brutal man, but Hussein handles him very gently. Rafi Durrani and Saadia from The Angelic Disposition appear to be much more saintly. They are also very different from Armaan. Rafi Durrani likes to read Wodehouse and ends up flying for the Royal Airforce in the Second World War. Saadia finds reading in English to a be a chore, even if it is book gifted by Rafi.

I liked The Angelic Disposition best, mainly because of the way Saadia maintains a close friendship with Rafi Durrani, whom she has met just seven or nine times. The friendship is nurtured through correspondence and both parties remain loyal to their spouses. Saadia didn’t marry her husband for love, he is much older than her and theirs seems to be a platonic relationship, though Saadia does conceive once. The story starts from pre-partition times to the late seventies and Hussein keeps one guessing till the end.

Murad from The Crane Girl fame makes two more appearances, in The Book of Maryam and Insomnia. The Book of Maryam is short and sweet and has poetess Tahira, chaperoned by Murad make a cameo appearance in London. There are vague references to a dictator, but one is left guessing as to the period when this story is set. In Insomnia, which has lent its name to this collection, Murad has a special friendship with Sri Kunti, a poetess from Java. Though there is a lot of similarity with Tsuru and The Crane Girl, Sri Kunti and Insomnia are none the less very different in that, the teenage angst which characterises The Crane Girl isn’t there.

The Lark, set in the years during which the Second World War raged, tells the simple tale of a young man going home after a long absence. He likes those he will leave behind, and he will miss them greatly, just as they will miss him. Nevertheless, he is happy to be going home. As usually, this slip of a story leaves behind many flavours for the reader to swirl around and enjoy.

After Insomnia, Hussein has published a novella ‘Another Gulmohar Tree’

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Short Story: The Man Who Went Home Early

Prem almost blew his chances within a few seconds of being seated. I ought to have foreseen it and forewarned him, but I hadn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be a good thing. I had hardly asked Prem, ‘what would you like to drink?’ when he opened his big mouth and asked Ricky, ‘do you have any kids? I’ve got two.’

‘Prem, what would you like to drink?’ I quickly repeated, fully conscious of Ricky’s irritated eyebrow that had risen a notch even as he nursed a glass of good scotch whiskey.

‘The thing about having children is that you want to go home as early as possible, and sober. When I was a bachelor, I would have grabbed this offer and asked for a double peg. But now, I am gonna settle for a fresh lime soda sweet.’

‘A fresh lime soda sweet,’ I told a passing waiter and quickly turned around to see if Prem had done any further damage. He had. He had taken out his wallet and pulled out a picture of his wife and children.

‘No, I don’t have any children,’ Ricky said, without even bothering to take a real look at the picture. Prem wasn’t hurt, instead he continued to hold out the open wallet until Ricky peered at the wife and two snotty children and said, ‘very nice.’ The satisfied family man put his wallet away with a flourish and told Ricky, ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’

Ricky lost his irritated look. Not everyone has heard of Ricky, not unless you are in the business of building very tall housing complexes or are looking to buy a flat from a builder.

‘You are looking to buy a flat?’ Ricky asked Prem politely. No one would mistake Prem for a prosperous builder, especially when he wore one of his well-worn leather strap sandals.

‘No Sir, I have my own flat. And ……..and my own business. I supply bathroom fittings to builders like you.’ At that Ricky resumed his irritated look. I could imagine what Ricky’s thoughts at that moment would be. The bastard has engineered this meeting, he would be thinking. It wasn’t really far from the truth. I had indeed told Prem that I would be meeting Ricky for one of our monthly powwows, where we exchanged information and Ricky bought me drinks and tried to persuade me to write good things about himself and his building company. Drop by at around seven-thirty, I had told Prem, whom I knew practically from my kindergarten days.

The waiter brought Prem’s lime soda. Prem stirred it carefully and said, ‘I should have asked for sugar and salt. Do you like that combination?’ he asked Ricky.

‘Yes, I do,’ Ricky admitted without losing his irritated look. I didn’t really care. Journalists can’t afford to care. We are in the business of collecting information and selling them or bartering them for something useful. One can’t afford to worry too much about such matters in my line of business, though my sale to Prem was unlikely to pay any professional dividends.

‘I supply bathroom fittings to builders like you,’ Prem repeated. When you have some time, I would like to tell you about my business. I can provide you with ..’

‘I’m sure you realise that I have very good suppliers who supply fittings and other interior stuff on a scale you couldn’t even imagine. And at very good prices too.’ There was a finality about the way Ricky spoke. ‘Another drink for you?’ he asked me.

‘Sure, why not?’ I too had a family like Prem, but that never made me say No to a drink. Especially when it was expensive Scotch whiskey.

Prem looked ill at ease. What was bothering him? I wondered. Had he, despite his broken down, minuscule antennae, sensed that Ricky was not well disposed towards him? I was wrong. Prem got up and said, ‘excuse me. I need to use the washroom.’

Ricky looked through him and so I gave Prem a nod at which Prem put down his half-empty glass and trotted off to the loo.

‘Interesting chap!’ Ricky said. ‘I wonder if he comes here often.’

‘No, he doesn’t.’ Prem obviously didn’t fit in. Almost everyone around us in that South Bombay bar had an air of prosperity which I hoped I exuded as well, but Prem definitely didn’t. ‘If I hadn’t asked him to come here today evening, he wouldn’t have. We have dinner together once every month or so. We usually go to Baghdadi or Bade Mian and have a bite, chat about old times and push off home.’

‘Ha! Ha! I thought Prem was rushing home to his family when he decided to drop in here and accidentally ran into us.’ Ricky laughed.

‘Actually, Prem doesn’t have a wife or kids for that matter.’ My voice was deadpan.

‘What do you mean? What about that picture in his wallet? Is he some kind of pervert to carry around a picture like that and talk like… you know what I mean.’

‘That picture is genuine alright. And Prem did have a family. Past tense, but its all over.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Prem’s wife left him. Ran off with an office colleague. Took the kiddies with her as well.’

‘In that case, why does that idiot carry that picture with him? And why did he have to tell me about it? For chrissakes, I didn’t even ask for that information!’

‘He is too embarrassed by what happened. Rather than wait for anyone to ask him if he has a family, he jumps the gun and tells all those lies.

‘Hmm! That’s quite something.’ Ricky was quite taken up by Prem’s tale. I could see the beginnings of a small sympathy wave.

‘I guess you are the only person he has talked about his real situation? You guys being friends from kindergarten and all that!’

‘Actually, he didn’t tell me either. After his wife left him, he avoided everyone, including me. Prem’s elder brother got in touch with me and asked to help Prem. Till then, we used to meet on and off, but never regularly. But after that, I have been meeting him every month. It took him a while to admit even to me what had happened.’

Ricky pursed his lips, but was silent.

‘He does have that business he told you about. And as you would have guessed, I did ask him to come here at seven thirty so that you could meet him. His business doesn’t do very well and it will be a big thing for him if you could give him a small order.’

‘Did you ask him to…’

‘Did I ask him to show you those pictures and talk about his wife? No….’ I laughed. In fact, if Prem were to ever find out that I told you his real story, he is likely to punch me. You can see the sort of guy he is. Too much pride and honour and too little business acumen.’

We didn’t get to say much more because we saw Prem slowly make his way back to us through the crowded bar room.’

Prem sat down and took a big gulp from his glass. His shoulders were bunched together and he made no further effort to converse with Ricky.

‘I ought to be leaving soon,’ Ricky told us. ‘We ought to do this again,’ he told me, pointedly excluding Prem from his invitation. Prem didn’t seem to care. He didn’t even make eye contact with Ricky. As he was leaving Ricky said, ‘Prem, why don’t you note down my number and give me a call tomorrow? Prem looked astounded, but quickly gathered his wits about his and took out his mobile phone to record Ricky’s number.

‘Shall I give you a missed call?’

‘Why not?’

Ricky had a bemused expression on his face as he switched off his phone and walked out.

A minute after Ricky left, Prem said, ‘shall we leave? It’ll take me an hour to get home from here.’

‘Let’s go and have dinner at Baghdadi for old times sake,’ I said.

‘I can’t. I need to get home.’

‘Listen, your family won’t be destroyed if you are late one evening.’

We ordered kubboos and chicken tandoori at Baghdadi, which was just around the corner.

‘Do you think he’ll place an order with me?’ Prem asked.

‘You never know. I hope he does. Call him tomorrow. You’ve got nothing to lose.’

‘A single order from Apian Builders can turn my fortunes around. I want to send Ritika to one of these international schools. May be Ecole Mondial. They are so very expensive.’ Prem had a faraway pensive look on his face.

‘Things will work out Prem. Just hope for the best. And by the way, when you call Ricky, don’t …’ I was going to say, don’t go on and on about your family and children, but I stopped myself. What was the harm if Prem tried to tell Ricky that he wanted to send Ritika to Ecole Mondial or that his second child Vedant could read, though he was barely three? In fact, it would prop up the fiction I had created around Prem. The chances of Ricky actually running into Prem’s family were very remote. Of course, there was the possibility that Ricky would find out that I had fibbed, but hopefully Prem would have delivered on a couple of orders by then.

I am a journalist and I don’t really care about matters like this. If I hadn’t been on my third whiskey, I might not have even made up that story. Even if Ricky found out the truth and cut me off all together, I wouldn’t give two hoots about it. I would find some other ‘source’ among the various builders in Mumbai and cultivate him. Get him to buy me drinks. However as Prem wolfed down the last morsels of his kubboos and chicken tandoori and said, ‘I better get home soon. Vedant won’t sleep till he sees me,’ I said a silent prayer so that my inebriated gamble would pay off.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Does this picture justify US occupation of Afghanistan?

Time has this cover picture of a pretty Afghan girl with her nose missing. Sliced off by her husband after he chopped off her ears. If Aisha didn’t have such pretty hair, one could see that her ears are missing as well. Aisha’s husband’s actions were sanctioned by a Taliban judge, for Aisha had committed a heinous crime – she had run away from her abusive in-laws. Human rights activists constantly say that events like this one justify the US occupation of Afghanistan. In my opinion, they don’t. For one, Aisha suffered thus a year ago, when the US was occupying Afghanistan. In other words, US presence in Afghanistan did not make a whit of difference to Aisha. Things are unlikely to change even if the US stays on for another 30 years.

Things would have been different in Afghanistan if the US hadn’t supported the Mujahiddin when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. The Soviets were no different from modern day Americans. They too wanted to impose their (commie) values on Afghanistan and they would have succeeded if the Americans hadn’t decided that an Islamic Afghanistan was better than a communist one. Even after the Soviets left, if only the Americans had allowed Najibullah’s regime survive, matters would have been different. May be Aisha might not have suffered thus. Here is a very good Huffington Post article on this point.

As Ben Hur’s childhood friend Messala said, to fight an idea, you need another idea. The Soviets had communism in addition to their weapons, as they fought in Afghanistan. Soviet style communism had so many flaws, but do the Americans have anything half as good?