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Revisiting Abdullah Hussein’s ‘The Weary Generations’: Politics, Poetics, and Partition

By Raza Naeem

‘Those, however, were the marginally happier days…’

It is rare for a translated work to survive the legacy and celebration of the original work. Yet in the case of the 20th-century Indian subcontinent, such is the case with two celebrated novels, Quratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya and Abdullah Hussein’s Udas Naslein, published in 1959 and 1963 respectively. Both novels, perhaps for reasons of enhancing the international reputation of their authors, were self-translated into English, in 1998 and 1999 respectively.

The latter, originally Udas Naslein in Urdu, was recognized as a path-breaking, albeit ‘Pakistani’ intervention both on account of its scope, as well as the innovation in language. The English version, translated by the writer himself, thirty-three years later, can and should be treated as an independent work of fiction in English; and if indeed this treatment is successful then The Weary Generations arguably becomes the most significant Pakistani work in English in the immediate post-partition period since the publication of Zulfikar Ghose’s The Murder of Aziz Khan in 1967. The title of the novel, which has now attained the status of an aphorism in 21st-century Pakistan can be traced to the fact that Hussein never looked at life in a small way; rather he viewed the big picture, putting everything in context. This meant that he was not the one to focus merely on individual issues like caste and 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 is 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 independence.

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 itself.

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 called Roshan Pur after his own name, but also one of the two dynasties we encounter in the novel, the Khans. Closely related to the Khans is 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.

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 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 own solidarity with the oppressed and underprivileged much later.

While returning to his ancestral village, Naim gets a first-hand 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 is one of several occasions witnessed by Naim that would forge his activism against British imperialism and feudalism.

Though often accused by 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 sowing, harvesting, and cutting of the 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 in the masterpiece, Aik Chader Maili Si.

Hussein’s Punjab is also the land where there is a jealous guarding of privileges by the peasant and the 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.

World War II was raging in the background, and Naim enthusiastically recruits in the British army, seeing action in Europe and later Africa. This part of the novel has some of the most affecting scenes from the war, and Hussein is unique among his novelist contemporaries for the depiction. Snubbed by Naim’s superior for being too inquisitive about the still-distant war, there is a memorable passage among these scenes, 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 masters.’

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 awarded with land, pension, title, a distinguished service medal for his services; and also the hand of Azra in marriage, despite stiff opposition of 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.

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 and a gradual acceptance of the prevailing situation. One was the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in April 1919 where thousands of unarmed protesters and spring revelers were gunned down by the British. The brief 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[1]. The other episode was 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 the Aga Khan versus Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar) over the issue of joint electorates and the increasingly 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 ‘reforms’, 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.’

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 could never 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 Naim, observes pithily, “If you don’t grow up with women, you never grow up.” Yet this reality is utterly lost on Naim, who though loves and eventually marries Azra, can never 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. Eventually she fails to gain her husband’s respect through her ambivalent stand to his politics and politics in general. 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 are eventually brought back to the familiar routines of city and country(side).

[1] These stories are ‘Tamasha’ (Manto), ‘Amritsar: Azadi say Pehlay’ (Chander) and ‘Reenganay Walay’ (Abbas)

Raza Naeem
is a Pakistani writer and translator based in Lahore. A past recipient of a prestigious 2013-2014 Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship at the University of Bradford in the UK, awarded for his interpretive and translation work on the non-fiction of Saadat Hasan Manto, he is presently working on the English translation of Abdullah Hussein’s novel, Qaid, and has recently reviewed Hussein’s last book, Faraib, for The Friday Times.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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