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The Mirror Of Wonders And Other Tales | Syed Rafiq Hussain

Beastly tales

Syed Rafiq Hussain is the most interesting Urdu writer you’ve never heard of.

His beautifully observed, unusual tales about animals were first published in the Delhi-based literary journal Saqi in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Hussain died in 1944; Aina-e-Hairat, the only collection of his stories ever published, came out a fortnight after his death. It was republished a couple of times, once under the wonderful title Sher Kya Sochta Hoga? (What Must the Tiger Think?). His work then practically disappeared from circulation until 2002, when it was republished in Karachi, Pakistan.

The Mirror of Wonders And Other Tales, Saleem Kidwai’s precise, vivid translation of Aina-e-Hairat, is the first attempt to bring this gifted, little-known and thoroughly intriguing writer to the attention of an English-reading audience. Kidwai’s wonderful introduction reproduces—in translation—two autobiographical fragments by Hussain, in which he insists, among other things, that he “cannot write Urdu at all" (“sometimes spelling even the simplest of words takes me a couple of minutes"), that he has read perhaps 2,000 stories and novels in English but only four or five in Urdu—and that he hates animals: “I have never willingly allowed the presence of pet animals in the house."

This may seem a little unbelievable from a man whose stories contain perhaps the most detailed, empathetic descriptions of animals that I have ever read: a proud tigress watching her cubs learn to pin down their kill, a crazed wild elephant on the warpath, a mongoose preparing to battle a dog. But reading Kalua, one is brought up short by his description of the black-sherwani-clad “lord of the house" as annoyed and distressed by the small black puppy his young son has decided to adopt. The dog lasts in the house only eight days before it is entrusted again to the streets from which it came. Could the sherwani-clad father be an ironic self-portrait, one wonders?

Hussain’s life also throws up the complexity of a close relationship with animals that did not preclude killing them. Kidwai tells us that while working on the Sharda canal project in the 1920s, Hussain was posted in the thickly-forested Terai region of the Himalayan foothills. There he hunted deer and rabbits on a bicycle, and under the influence of a local landlord called Haji Abdul Hamid, became fascinated by big game shikar.

However difficult a reconciliation between these things may appear to our 21st century eyes, no one who reads these stories can remain in any doubt about where Hussain’s sympathies lie. The animals in these stories cannot be described as having been “humanized" in any uncomplicated fashion—if anything, their emotional attachments are deeper and longer-lasting than those of human beings. It is humans who fall prey to envy and greed, who fail to honour the relationships they forge.

And yet Hussain’s gaze is by no means a romantic one. He may describe the tiger as picking his food from among the jungle herds like “a wise gardener gradually picks vegetables from his fields"—but he does not shy away from the inevitable violence of their deaths. The affecting tale of Biru the nilgai (blue-bull antelope) may have the quality of a coming-of-age narrative, but the domesticated animal discovering its true self in the wild must also discover its capacity for aggression. The female monkey of the title story may appear as an exemplar of maternal attachment, but there is also a mocking description of her being taken painfully to task for the crime of “untimely labour" by her impregnator, the male “large-hearted, pleasure-loving, well-bred monkey [who] therefore had another ten or twelve wives".

Hussain reserves his most sardonic voice, however, for human beings—the “not too educated but extremely broad minded young lady" who brings a baby monkey home to worship as Hanuman; the callous Anglophile husband who declares he’ll make sandwiches for the party since his “incompetent" wife has made only Indian delicacies; the aptly-named Major Boast, whose essentials for an elephant hunt include a camera but not courage. Hussain’s unsparing gaze doesn’t exclude himself—the title story is a direct indictment of his childhood beliefs in high birth and respectability. Seen in themirror of wonders, the human world seems much more bestial than that of beasts.

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