Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Hussaini Alam House - Huma R. Kidwai

Huma Kidwai writes beautifully. And she brings alive a part of Hyderabad that I never have been to but one that I want to visit as soon as I can now - Hussaini Alam in the Old City - and she evokes a time which I can never visit but which I dearly want to. The 'Hussaini Alam House' is set in the Old City of Hyderabad, sometime in the late sixties and creeps into the twenty first century. It is a story that continues for about thirty years or so, during a time when the young protagonist, the rebellious, studious and watchful Ayman grew up in that house. It is probably also the time that the author also grew up, so there could be biographical traces which if anything, only make the book delightful to read, especially if you are a Hyderabadi.

Apart from writing with great precision and poise and describing the house in such detail that you are actually transported there, Huma writes with tonnes of feeling. The house is one where the young protagonist experiences death, chauvinism, illness, misery, poverty, helplessness, unfairness and injustice as the rich Muslim family is suddenly reduced to near penury after the Hyderabad state is annexed to the Indian Union after the Police Action of 1948. The head of the house, Syed Aminul Hussain, the maternal grandfather of the protagonist, also known as Sarkar, dictator, Bawajaan etc holds the house together until he dies. The oldest woman in the house is Sarkar's mother-in-law Qamar-un-Nissan, and then Sarkar's wife and the grandmother of Ayman, Meher-un-Nissan. and then there is Khalajaan, foster sister of the the protagonist's mother, Ayman's mother herself, a communist, a rebel and a writer, and then the protagonist and her older sister Aapa or Mariam the beautiful. With these women lived Khalubawa, Khalajaan's much older husband and an ex-jagirdar, and Naveed Ahmed who marries Ayman's older sister Aapa. Ayman's mother's brother, Mamu or Dr. Hidayat Hussain lived close by and constitutes the fringe cast along with the girls' cousin Altaf. These people and the pets, the maids who work for almost nothing, make up the story. But looming big in all their lives is the House.

The male dominated decisions that affect the lives of the three generations of women, their marriages and the impact of these marriages on their lives forms the innermost thread of the story. Huma describes the inherent weakness of males and effortlessly makes the women much stronger, shows them handling greater responsibility and suffering. She captures the various personalities in the women - the strong and silent ones, the generous ones, beautiful ones, the creative ones, the rebels, the ones who compromise easily and ones who gave up too easily. Through the eyes of the young girl it all comes together with all the emotions intact, heavy and silent, dark and brooding, and deeply and disturbingly real.

Huma chooses an interesting structure as she unveils the story in a non-linear manner through each character of the house. The story goes forward and backward but as you find in the end, it does span a period of thirty or so years in the life of the protagonist and is always moving forward. From being without money and a huge estate, the illness and the deaths of Sarkar, his mother-in-law, Ayman's own father, her grandmother (to throat cancer), her mother (to temporary insanity), her Khalajaan, the discovery of some hard facts about her family, the slow dissipation of culture, values, heritage, communal harmony and mostly happiness, Huma holds each thread delicately and strongly. I read Orhan Pamuk's 'Istanbul' where he endlessly talks of the huzun or the air of sadness that hangs over Istanbul, but nowhere has that huzun been brought out so well than in this house. To me, with no disrespect to Orhan Panuk, Huma captures that air so well that it seeps under your skin in that house much more than what Pamuk attempted to do in his book. The house has a life within it that carries this sad, silent spirit which is not entirely depressing because it does strengthen everyone of them, especially the women.

By the end of the book you feel as if you know every inch of that house, every facet and secret of each person, every pet, every maid and you feel really sad as the protagonist walks through that house for one last time before it is sold. I wanted to ask Huma if it was biographical but I realised I don't need to now. It does not matter anymore. Because once you read the book you know that even if she had not really experienced the emotions in her life, she has more than made up in creating and writing them down. The pain, the sadness, the longing all flow through with such authenticity and permeate you, that it does not matter if it really happened - Huma has lived them again for the reader - and this is the greatest strength of the book. Well done Huma, you deserve a big hug for writing so honestly, so deeply and so starkly. The last part of the book, of the dream sequence of the protagonist walking nude by the beach, sums it all up just as the words 'I have made my peace - with myself and this world' make for a perfect climax and the final 'I am willing to embrace' makes it all so uplifting in the end. Wonderful stuff.

Huma writes beautiful, well-crafted lyrical prose. She is an accomplished writer. Her writing is rich and textured, well-researched and full of authentic feeling and emotion. Many scenes are described so beautifully - such as the one where the protagonist dreams of the death of her grandmother in the early part of the book - which straightaway enters a part of your soul that knows the feeling, but has not been able to find the words to describe that. Huma does that for you.

I loved the words of wisdom her Khalajaan gave her - 'It is important to start on a road and trudge along regardless of the pain. Every step is one less and then you will be there. If you fall, don't look around for help. Pick yourself up. If you fall at the same place twice, consider yourself a fool. You've been walking in a circle. Time to break the line.' Perfect advise for anyone.

'The Hussaini Alam House' is of a Hyderabad, a people, that seem to have disappeared but still exist. Some aspects may have gone but the emotions and feelings are very much there. Huma's book is very visual and I do hope that someone makes a movie of it. On the negatives, I only wish the editor had done a better job and cut out a few repetitions - such wonderful writing deserves better editing. Also Ayman never comes before us fully and clearly somehow and I was left wanting to know more about her, what she does, where she lived, what her husband was like etc. But overall, it's a book anyone who enjoys good writing will enjoy. I did. Congrats Huma and may you write many more such books and find greater peace, joy and success.


Rajendra said...

I am reading it now, and I agree it is a wonderful piece of writing. I have rarely come across a writer as good.

lalita iyer said...

beautifully written review, I may add.
Good reading.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Lalita.