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Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Syed Rafiq Hussain's The Mirror of Wonders: A review

The Mirror of Wonders and other tales by Syed Rafiq Hussain, Translated by Saleem Kidwai, Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2013, Rs 250, pp. 165.

Syed Rafiq Hussain’s literary career was as remarkable as it was brief. A challenge issued by his younger sister and daughter spurred him to write in Urdu, a language he could barely read. Claiming that the ‘difference between English and Urdu literature was like that between a spinning wheel and a cotton mill or a bullock cart and a train’, he felt no need to read Urdu fiction. Yet, he chose to pick up the gauntlet thrown by his sister and daughter and write something to improve the prevailing standard! Replete with spelling mistakes, Hussain wrote the outlines of his stories in a mixture of Urdu and English. He would bring the drafts, written in his unformed Urdu handwriting, to the two ladies who would go over it painstakingly and insert Urdu phrases for the English ones. His niece recalls those frenetic sessions: ‘Between him, his sister and daughter there was a special bond; they also played an intellectual game between themselves where each had to tell a tale which made an assigned impossible situation probable.’

Hussain’s first short story, ‘Kalua’, was about a dog. In a short autobiographical sketch, he reveals the method behind his seeming madness: ‘Before I wrote [‘Kalua’] I walked all those streets and lanes of Lucknow where Kalua had wandered. The details of the railway crossing at Aish Bagh, where Kalua sniffs at the corpse of his mentor Bucha are still etched in my mind.’ Hussain wrote over a span of less than a decade, crafting his stories during his spells of unemployment and never accepted remuneration for any of his stories. He died of cancer in 1944; his first collection, Aina-e-Hairat (‘The Mirror of Wonders’) was published a fortnight after his death.

Hussain’s personal life was unconventional, to say the least. Born in 1895, he lost his mother at the age of seven; after some haphazard home tutoring and erratic schooling, he ran away from home. He reached Bombay with a bundle of books on mathematics and two sets of clothes, worked as a coolie in a foundry, carried iron for 12 hours a day, ate at roadside eateries and studied. Eventually, he took admission in an Engineering College in Bombay, was reunited with his family and after quitting several jobs found himself working on the Sharada canal in the Terai region. The Terai exercised a spell over him and appeared in his writings in all its vastness and mystery. Its densely forested tracts, its ravines and gullies, its valleys crisscrossed by many rivulets and the animals, especially the tigers, that had made it their home for centuries appear in this collection in a manner that is startlingly new even for English readers; when they first appeared in Urdu they must have charted unknown territory.

For someone who claimed to hate animals and never kept pets, Hussain showed a keen eye for detail in describing the behaviour of animals. Also, for someone who claimed to have read ‘four or five’ Urdu books, his stories established his reputation as a prose stylist and master story teller; the fact that this reputation rested on the eight stories included in the collection that, incidentally, comprised his entire ouvre, is no small feat. Combining the lyricism of William Wordsworth’s nature poetry with the exactitude of Jim Corbett’s shikar stories, The Mirror of Wonder and Other Tales is quite unlike anything in the repository of modern Urdu literature.

‘Unfortunately, my intelligence and the fickleness of my temperament had ruined me,’ Hussain writes with no trace of false modesty. And elsewhere, he admits: ‘I am a small man, I am true, I am mad, I am crazy. Whatever I am, here I am.’ Arrogant and enigmatic, yes, but also immensely talented and profoundly philosophical as is borne out by these stories that deserve to be read at leisure rather than described in a few short sentences for the purpose of this review. Yoda Press is to be congratulated for re-discovering these hidden gems, immaculately translated by Saleem Kidwai.

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