(The following is an edited excerpt from the introduction to Abdullah Hussein’s The Weary Generations’, penned by Raza Naeem. The novel is one of the classic fictional accounts of the partition of India in 1947, translated and transcreated from the original version of his own Urdu novel 'Udas Naslein', published in 1963. The book is now out in a reissued edition from HarperCollins India.)
It is rare for a translated edition to survive the legacy and celebration of the original work. Yet, in the case of twentieth-century literature from the Indian subcontinent, such is the story of two celebrated Urdu novels, namely Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya and Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslein, published in 1959 and 1963 respectively.
Both novels, perhaps for enhancing the international reputation of their authors, were self-translated into English, in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
It is Udaas Naslein that concerns us here. The original novel in Urdu was recognized as path-breaking, both on account of its scope as well as the innovation in language … The title of the novel, which has now attained the status of an aphorism in twenty-first century Pakistan, can be traced to the fact that Hussein never looked at life in a myopic way, rather, he viewed the big picture, putting everything in context. This meant that he was not one to focus merely on individual issues like caste, biradari and so on, but was divorced from his immediate surroundings; the big picture, in this case, being the division of Pakistan in terms of generations. Viewed in this way, the word Udaas becomes very romantic.
Hussein tried for two years to find the correct word for Udaas, but couldn’t find a better word to describe the tiredness of the generations that had stopped struggling following the ‘easy’ achievement of an independent Pakistan.
How Hussein Followed a War Veteran
The ‘research’ for this monumental novel had been years in the making, in that Hussein was historically very aware of politics from an early age. His father was a government officer who would pass on all kinds of information to young Abdullah. The latter was also allowed to sit in on his grandfather’s discussions with his father, from where he absorbed a lot. His curiosity and wide reading did the rest. More directly, while convalescing from an illness while working in the dreary confines of a cement factory at Daudkhel, Hussein became interested in the story of a war veteran who lay next to him in hospital; and even after getting better, followed the veteran to his village to get the rest of his story.
The novel may be read on three levels: as an account of events revolving around the partition of India in 1947; as a description of the politics and sociology of undivided Punjab, with its attendant system of feudalism and patriarchy; and a love story which begins, thrives and eventually falls with the fate of British colonialism in India.
Hussein has divided the novel into three major parts, locating one in colonial India and two in ‘Hindustan’. The novel begins with a rather striking event: ‘A man on horseback, holding aloft a leaking jar of honey in his hand, had staked out a large tract of land and laid claim to it.’ That man later on not only helps to found a village after his own name, Roshan Pur but also one of the two dynasties we will encounter in the novel itself, the Khans. Closely related to the Khans are the Beg family, descendants of the Mughals, India’s erstwhile rulers. Both families provide the two major protagonists of the novel, namely Azra and Naim.
The Stories of Naim and Azra
In the opening scene of the novel, we are witness to a dastar-bandi (transferring of a title) ceremony of the Khan clan in Delhi and are introduced to the main characters, Naim and Azra, as well as cameos from some important personalities of the Indian independence movement, like Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Annie Besant. Young Naim comes off, and makes an impression at the party, as politically precocious, introducing in the following words, his admiration for the jailed leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak, ‘Is that why less educated people are put in gaols? What about Tilak? He is in confinement.’ This admiration sets the scene both for Hussein’s depiction of the rigidly class-conscious milieu of the Muslim ashraf upper-class in colonial India, and Naim’s solidarity with the oppressed and underprivileged much later.
While returning to his ancestral village, Naim gets his first taste of colonial India’s class hierarchy when he witnesses a white passenger murdering a hapless peasant who merely wanted to join his wife on a train to see her off. This was one of a number of occasions, witnessed by Naim, which would forge his hatred and activism against British imperialism and feudalism throughout the novel.
Though often accused by myopic and self-serving critics of ignoring Punjab and the Punjabi language in his work, The Weary Generations could be called Hussein’s ‘great Punjabi novel’. It is peppered with minute details of the customs and traditions of undivided Punjab, like the ‘turban-mounting’ ceremony organized in honour of the brother of Naim’s childhood friend, Mahinder, who successfully lifted the animal of a rival; bullock- racing competitions; boar-hunting; and ceremonies associated with the sowing, harvesting and cutting of wheat. As I read these copious details, I remembered similar descriptions of the Punjabi milieu in the work of great masters of the Urdu short story like Munshi Premchand, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Rajinder Singh Bedi, especially his masterpiece Ek Chadar Maili Si.
Hussein’s Punjab is also the land where there is a jealous guarding of privileges by the peasant and landlord alike, and for those who cross the line, retribution is swift, as in the scene where Mahinder and his brothers hack a rival clan to death for murdering the former’s relative over the use of water.
When Naim Is Snubbed for Being Too Inquisitive
World War II is raging in the background, and Naim enthusiastically enrols in the British army, seeing action in Europe and later in Africa. This part of the novel has some of the most affecting scenes from the war, and Hussein is unique among his contemporaries for the depiction. There is a memorable passage following the scene where Naim is snubbed by his superior for being too inquisitive about the still-distant war. It is a dialogue between Naim and his childhood friend and fellow recruit, Mahinder:
‘That was different,’ he said after a few long minutes. ‘To avenge the blood of one of your own, even a rat can kill. Here we don’t even know the people. It is like killing a pig, or a jackal in the jungle.’
‘Well,’ Naim said, ‘that is what war is.’
Although supporting his weight on hands placed on either side of him on the stone, Mahinder Singh looked slumped, his back in the shape of a bow, his shoulders fallen, as if his body had taken on a different form.
‘Tell me,’ Mahinder Singh asked suddenly, ‘why are we here?’ ‘Because of the war,’ Naim said. ‘The enemy has attacked.’ ‘What, attacked our village?’
‘Attacked the British sarkar and their friends.’ ‘What is it to us?’
‘They are our masters.’
‘Our master is Roshan Agha,’ Mahinder Singh said simply. ‘Yes, and the English sarkar is Roshan Agha’s master.’
A brief hollow sound emerged from Mahinder Singh’s mouth. ‘How many masters do we have?’
Naim laughed. ‘Well, it’s just the way it is.’
Mahinder Singh got up ponderously, as if making an effort to carry the weight of his clothes. ‘I like this place,’ he said, gesturing towards the graves. ‘Here good people are buried. With names.’
Naim loses his left arm while fighting for the British in Africa and is compensated with land, pension, title, a distinguished service medal for his services; and also the hand of Azra in marriage, despite stiff opposition from her crusty feudal family. Returning to Roshan Pur, he becomes more determined to challenge the depredations of the Khan landlords after witnessing the humiliation of Ahmed Din, the oldest resident of the village who, having lost his son in the Great War, refused to pay the exorbitant motorana (motor tax) levied by the Khans. One such attempt to organize the peasants of Jat Nagar ended in Naim being jailed. Later, when sent on ‘training’ to organize oppressed peasants and workers, Naim also disagrees with violence for the sake of violence employed by the group he is asked to join, and eventually leaves that group.
Two Events Particularly Affected Naeem
Two final historical events signify Naim’s revulsion with the British colonial system and its local appendages, leading to another stint in jail and a swift weariness with all forms of struggle, an informal break with Azra and a gradual acceptance of the prevailing situation. One is the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919, where thousands of unarmed protesters and spring revellers were gunned down by the British. The brief six-page description of the massacre and the violence that followed it are among the best, to be compared with depictions of the same event in short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander and Ghulam Abbas. The other is the infamous April massacre in Peshawar’s famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar in 1930, where dozens (by some accounts, thousands) of unarmed protesters were killed by the armed might of the British colonial state. Hussein pithily sums up Naim’s dilemma at this juncture: ‘Until now, Naim’s life seemed to have led him by its circumstances not from the front but from behind, like a man being pushed along in a storm by gusts of strong wind, limiting his own movements to the resistance of his limbs. Now, in a life circumscribed by necessity, he had entered a different world – the unfamiliar territory of the mind. He could do no more than read and think.’
The dissolution of Naim’s internal dynamic of resistance is played out against national opposition to British attempts to pacify local Muslim and Hindu leaders with reforms such as the dispatch of the Simon Commission to India, as well as internal division among the Muslim leadership (in the novel, it is Aga Khan versus Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar) over the issue of joint electorates and the inevitable push towards the division of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan.
As the mad rush to Pakistan sets in, both for the privileged (via aircraft) and the underprivileged (on foot), notwithstanding the ‘fatal threat on the other side from (their) names and genitals’, a view of the opportunism of the weary generations inherent in the future self-preservation and the rush for evacuee property and plum bureaucratic jobs in the new country called Pakistan is given in the following manner:
This was a class that was rich, fairly rich and very rich, educated, calling itself liberal, indulging in anything between idle talk and lip-service, with the chief objective of having a good time together, which gave it a sense of solidarity, besides the satisfaction of taking an ‘active’ part in the historical development of their country. This was a class of people that was to remain, despite ‘reform’, largely intact and in command for many years – until the day of judgement was to arrive … As their destination came nearer, hopes of survival grew, and acquiring money finally took priority over everything else.
The Role of Women in ‘ TheWeary Generations’
A word must also be said about the women in The Weary Generations. Unlike the strong, memorable and likeable female protagonists in Hussein’s other novels like Qaid, Baagh and Naadar Log, the novel under review lacks strong women characters. Naim’s father had two wives, who never could break out of the vicious circle of patriarchy and jealousy for each other, and patriarchs from earlier generations of the Khans and the Mughals have been shown in the novel to have fallen from family grace due to having married lesser women either the first or the second time. A minor character in the novel, who becomes intimate with our hero Naim, observes pithily, ‘If you don’t grow up with women, you never grow up.’
Yet, this reality is utterly lost on Naim, who loves and eventually marries Azra, but can never really deepen his relationship with her, owing to their different class solidarities. Azra, for her part, rebels against her own kind by falling in love with, and eventually marrying, Naim, but despite being sympathetic to Naim’s concerns and being politically motivated enough to accompany Naim on a fact-finding mission to investigate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and being present at the protest against the arrival of the Simon Commission in Lucknow, cannot bring herself to act decisively on other occasions, such as at the arrival of the Prince of Wales who for her is a ‘beautiful man … and looks so nice in photographs’, and at the All-India Muslim Conference, presided over by the Aga Khan, who, in her opinion, speaks ‘beautiful English, with a slight accent’.
Eventually, she fails to gain her husband’s respect through her ambivalent stand on his politics, politics in general. And in this respect, she can be unfavourably compared to Rano, the heroine of Bedi’s aforementioned novel Ek Chadar Maili Si, who, making do with a Punjabi patriarchal milieu, manages to successfully negotiate with finesse the thin line between uneasy docility and outright rebellion. So, we are left to mourn the lack of a memorable female character in The Weary Generations; the women try to break out of the feudal-patriarchal cycle, but they are eventually brought back to the familiar routines of city and rural life.
(The author is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, ‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached through email at email@example.com and on Twitter @raza_naeem1979.)
(The above is an edited excerpt. Paragraph breaks, blurbs and subheadings have been added for readers’ convenience.)