The quieter the writing, the more closely one needs to listen. That seems to be the case with Aamer Hussein, who scorns the desire to dazzle with calisthenic prose. Having first encountered his short fiction (Insomnia and Other Stories), one feels this observation about Usman, the protagonist of Another Gulmohar Tree, could just as well be applied to Hussein himself—“In the short stories he was writing, which he had realized were the real expression of his gift, his tone could… seem bald, and his quiet timbre shocking.”
The word “shocking” is a loud word in Hussein’s universe. His writing is so clearly not about shocking, jolting or even disturbing the reader (a self-reflexive line in the book talks of Usman’s style being described by critics as “flat, laconic or lapidary”). What Hussein prefers is an immersion into a more natural kind of storytelling, where the narrative flows simply from one moment to another. There are no surprises here, no twists in the tale, no complicated sub-plots, no grand denouements. Another Gulmohar Tree tells the story of how Usman and Lydia fall in love with each other in 1950s London, and how Lydia follows Usman to Karachi, where he overcomes his natural shyness and asks her to be his wife. Lydia, who changes her name to Rokeya (even though Usman has not told her to), takes to her new country with an all-embracing affection, raising their three children, painting, writing art reviews and, towards the end of the book, collaborating with her husband on an English translation of his much-lauded, politically allusive fables.
Nothing happens in this book, not in the sense that most readers would expect. Yet the tale and the telling of it grow on you. This is a book about the now-waxing, now-waning nature of an enduring love; about the subtleties that differentiate friendship from love, passion from companionship. “Love was its own weight, its own task,” as Usman realizes towards the end of the book. But beyond that, Another Gulmohar Tree is a story that has as its defining centre the nature of writing itself, the fraught relationship between a writer and his craft.
“But in the work of writing, which continued to rise like a glass barrier between him and everything he loved, he was still aware of his old and overriding search for perfection; every phrase was an almost impossible challenge, and writing an entire story the most onerous of responsibilities.”
Usman’s disappointment in himself; his annoyance that his first novel, which he considers “immature and sentimental”, is a best-seller in a lurid new edition, while his more refined stories don’t have an audience; his being overshadowed by the upstart young writer Shah Bilal—all coincide with the attenuation of his emotional link with Rokeya, the woman he loved enough to say, “I wish I could see you again.” Their connection was strongest when they were telling each other the stories of their divergent lives, each translating for the other their foreignness into something intimate and real. The more Rokeya blooms in her adopted country (much like the gulmohar, which Rokeya discovers is a transplant, originally from Madagascar), the more estranged Usman feels from her. In her sketches, Rokeya develops a “vernacular idiom of her own”, but when she attempts to write a short story, her editor friend Jani dismisses it as being “imitation Somerset Maugham” and Usman as “very amateurish”.
What divides them is art, what connects them is art. Both lament the loss as a loss of words: “She’d talked on and on… But she’d lost the gift of those words that had bound him to her over distances of latitude and longitude.” And he “would have not found the words to tell Rokeya… what he missed most was the way she’d spontaneously drawn a bird catcher’s net of tales around him, which… served to enmesh his own stories with wings still flapping.”
It is when they work together on translating his fables that love is regained.
“They spent many hours together… returning to the rapt companionship of their early years, arguing about choices of words, paragraphs, tenses… Rokeya began to weave Usman’s words, as he said them, into a single tapestry of many parables and images even richer and stranger than the tales he’d originally told.”
That is the tapestry that opens the book. Usman’s Song, as told by Rokeya, whose “gift of faith” is a renewed belief in the transfiguring power of words.
Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist and translator whose latest book is the novel Rupture
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