Posts by Aamer Hussein

In Review: Ismat Chughtai’s Quit India

This varied and beautifully calibrated volume succeeds in sustaining the legacy of one of India’s most radical twentieth-century authors.

Twenty-six years after her death, Ismat Chughtai (1915-1991) is one of Urdu’s most famous short story writers; among her immediate contemporaries, only Saadat Hasan Manto’s reputation matches hers, and we can confidently say that she has no successor.

The Quilt, the first of her works to be presented to international audiences in the year of her death, was a collection of her short fiction. The title story, which had a lesbian theme, created a scandal and attracted the ire of colonial censors when it was first published in the early forties. Other stories in the volume proved the author to be a storyteller of the finest calibre. In 1995, more than half a century after its original debut, a translation of her magnificent feminist bildungsroman, The Crooked Line (1942), where the heroine’s life paralleled her own, pre-empted and fictionalised many of the ideas from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Although it is still in print in the US with the pioneering Feminist Press, the UK edition has been discontinued. Several more translations of her stories, essays, memoirs, and long and short fiction, accompanied by a slew of biographical and critical studies, have enhanced her reputation year by year and made her one of the most translated writers across the subcontinent. However, they have only been published in India and Pakistan and have not been picked up by Anglo-American publishers.

Chughtai’s fiction ranges from stories for children and reminiscences of her friends and family, to the harrowing low life in Bombay’s slums and drug-fuelled high life in the city’s gaudy film world, to a novel about Islam’s first martyrs—a choice that surprises admirers of this iconic socialist-feminist icon. But even today some critics claim that The Quilt overshadows her other fictions and use the early stories to measure her later work. Others, including myself, would say this is grossly untrue: Ismat, though she preferred to write about what she knew best, was versatile within her chosen range of subversive kitchen sink drama and outspoken social satire, as we can see from the several renditions into English of all her major works by Tahira Naqvi, her most frequent translator, which are published in Delhi by the pioneering Women Unlimited (Penguin India also publishes a handful of translations by Mohammad Asaduddin).


In Review: Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness

Simple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done.

Navid Hamzavi and Asymptote’s long-standing Contributing Editor Aamer Hussein review Yaghoub Yadali’s Rituals of Restlessness, translated from the Persian by Sara Khalili (Phoneme Media, 2016).

Nihilism in the Nietzschean sense is “one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”

Rituals of Restlessness by Yaghoub Yadali seems to have a nihilistic outlook on life. Kamran Khosravi, the protagonist, wants to get rid of his real life in a fake accident in order to construct a new life in unknown territory. He chooses an Afghan migrant to replace him in a car crash down in the canyon. Spiking his tea, he makes his victim unconscious, puts his own clothes on him, sets his car on fire and pushes it down the canyon to make others believe that Kamran Khosravi is dead. We never know whether he is just imagining doing all this or, as the narrative suggests, actually goes through with it and later regrets it; whether he makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, or whether he’s just on his way back to his wife who has left him. Much of the book is taken up with these three lines of interwoven plot, without shaping either a solid character, or identifying a cultural or philosophical issue.

Whether Rituals of Restlessness even comes close to addressing that crisis in Nietzsche’s quote, whether it recovers from its dull narrative to explore this question in greater depth, whether it comes anywhere near reflecting on philosophical or ontological aspects of life is open to debate.  The shallow characters, the superficial reading of folk culture in contrast to urban culture, and the lack of depth of social understanding, render the novel tedious and shut down a critical approach to it. The novel even fails to portray the roots of that restlessness so as to convey a better understanding of the antagonist’s logic for his (attempted) suicide, which in itself could have opened it up for broader interpretation. READ MORE…

My 2015

Having managed to sidestep Ferrante's Neapolitan novels all year, I did, however, enjoy two Italian writers greatly.

Having managed to sidestep Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels all year, I did, however, enjoy two Italian writers greatly.

In the early 1950s, the Italian Luce D’Eramo (1925- 2001) wrote a series of unusual short stories that were first published in journals by the likes of Alberto Moravia and later collected under the evocative if rather literal title of Racconti Quasi di Guerra [Almost Stories of War]. In the first of these she published, ‘Idilli’, we hear the alternating accounts of a young couple living a precarious life as casual labourers on the outskirts of a war-torn city, in a style shorn of every embellishment but nonetheless poetic in its sparseness. Another,  ‘Straniera’, is the first-person narrative of a migrant worker in Nazi Germany. We see her strategies of survival: forging medical letters, exchanging contraband cigarettes for bread, and stealing books from burning libraries, until she (nearly) gets caught for defaming the Reich. In the now iconic ‘Il 25 luglio’, the young narrator discovers that Mussolini has been arrested and fascism has fallen.

These, and other stories from her entire career, have now been collected in Tutti I racconti (2014); I’m working my way through the later ones now, and am surprised that d’Eramo, who is probably best known for her novel Deviazione, a devastating account of the narrator’s adolescent infatuation—and subsequent disillusion—with Nazism, hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I hope that someone will soon translate at least one story from this collection for Asymptote. READ MORE…