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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Elegy to a vanished world -- review of a new book on Hyderabad

Huma R. Kidwai. The Hussaini Alam House, Zubaan, 2012, p. 213.

Not since Attia Hosain have we had a chronicler of Muslim life in English. There was Anita Desai’s In Custody and Shama Futehally’s delicately nuanced Tara Lane, but such depictions have been few and far between. In mainstream English literature, the Muslim presence has been a shadowy one, occupying the margins of the English readers’ collective consciousness. Considering the largely ecstatic reviews of most recent books dealing with niche communities – be they Parsis or Syrian Christians or Coorgis -- this absence seems remarkable.

Huma R. Kidwai attempts to fill the gap with her story set in a two century-old house in Hyderabad. Once splendid and opulent, the house has fallen on hard times and its occupants – each a living-breathing example of old-world life and manners – carry on in the face of terrible odds but eventually leave or die. The house, empty and forlorn, remains: a mute symbol of all that has been irrevocably lost.  While comparisons are no doubt odious, I must confess I could not but help compare Kidwai’s The Hussaini Alam House with Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column. Both elegies to a vanished world (Hyderabad in one and Lucknow in the other), they reveal how – in the hands of a truly gifted writer – nostalgia can rise above lament and a requiem to a lost childhood need be neither self-indulgent nor morbidly sentimental. What is more, Hosain’s language that carries within it the sheen of burnished gold and the ripples of unexpected eddies and swirls, lifts her story and makes it soar far above the confines of plot and circumstance. Kidwai’s prose, regrettably, does not do so.

Possibly, Kidwai could have been better served with an alert editor. Her publishers have, shockingly, allowed several pages to be replicated in toto and failed to pick the slack: inconsistencies, factual errors, repetitions, discrepancies, echoes and an unfortunate tendency towards adjectival excess, all of which add to the unnecessary flab in the novel. Possibly, with some stringent pruning The Husaini Alam House might have lived up to the expectation it arouses. For, stripped to its bare bones, it has the makings of a saga:  nine-year old Ayman comes to live in a large ramshackle but charming old house; her father is dead and her mother crazed with grief and despair. She is raised by idiosyncratic but loving relatives: Nanima, her great-grandmother who is as loving as she is eccentric; Amma, her grandmother who is wilful and energetic; Mummy, her mother who has abandoned her yet mesmerises with her intelligence and intensity; Khalajaan the epitome of grace under pressure who loves her like a mother; and Aapa, her elder sister who is as temperamental as she is beautiful. The only two men in this household are Bawajaan, her grandfather who takes her into his jealously-guarded male domain and Khalubawa, the exemplar of refinement and quiet fortitude. And then there is the house and the city, both essential to her story, both a prop and an actor in the tableau that forms scenes from her past life, both poised on the brink of change.

Had Kidwai not adopted a documentary-like approach, she might have redeemed the promise that glimmers amidst the pedantry and polemics. The notorious ‘Police Action’ that heralded the break from an aristocratic past; the Progressive Writers’ Movement that flowered on Deccani soil and bore ample fruit in the revolutionary poetry of Makhdum; the tragic decline of Urdu in a State that had once been its greatest repository – all this and more cannot merely be used as picturesque emblems to stud a narrative; each deserves a more nuanced narration, maybe even a novel in itself. And, yet, Kidwai can also catch you unawares with her sharpness and insight. Of her majestic Khalubawa, immensely dignified despite his straightened circumstances, she writes: ‘This very dignity made him utterly vulnerable to the increasing irreverence and mediocrity of a newly-born nation that prided itself in throwing out every symbol of its past, including its refinement.’

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