Tag Archives: insomnia

Book Review: Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia

Standard

There is only one problem with “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda”, the exquisite introductory story of Aamer Hussein’s collection on dislocation, travel and binding ties. In snippets of monologue rendered with the subtle elegance of watercolours, a Pakistani man in Andalucía revisits the thought of an erstwhile beloved, seeing their ghost in every glass and fragrance. The perfect pitch, devoid of overt sentimentality, of his lingering ache sets the bar for the rest of Insomnia high – too high.

That precision never again quite surfaces in the book. Although several of the remaining pieces in this slim collection of seven stories have their own pleasing qualities, nothing as memorable or as stirring occurs again. The story that immediately follows “Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda” suffers especially. The sophomoric romance of “Crane Girl”, about a student in London who falls for a moody Japanese girl, dulls in comparison to the richness of the preceding piece. But this is also because the adolescent voice is not the author’s strong point, as “The Lark”, about a student Nawabzada from Karachi (exoticised in Britain as “the Black Prince”) who is about to set sail back to an undivided India, confirms. There is something under-developed about Hussein’s younger characters, and it is not because they themselves have yet to mature. Throughout the book, all of his protagonists come from a certain elite cosmopolitan background, but where his adults are skillfully rendered in their accumulated worldliness, jadedness and emotional complexities, their younger versions come across as shallow, their motivations uninteresting.

Nowhere is this clearer than when “Crane Girl”’s protagonist, Murad, makes a reappearance in the eponymous story, now a globetrotting intellectual, that character niche at which Hussein is most skilled in his rendering. In this instance, as with all his melancholy adult artists and scholars, the story is executed with charm and believability. When the adult Murad, speaking to an Indonesian poetess in Italy, summons the memory of trespassing a peach orchard at age twenty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same character who had proved so facile in “Crane Girl”.

Writers are frequent protagonists in this collection, most notably in the excellent “The Angelic Disposition”, in which the subversive author S.S. Farouqi grieves the loss of a contemporary, whose friendship had sustained her spirits and her work. This is the book’s other standout tale – it is scaffolded by its historical context of Partition and military censorship yet avoids becoming overwhelmed by it. Similarly in “Hibiscus Days”, in which a translator contemplates his deceased friend, colleague and rival, and the time a small group of Pakistani academics shared in the 1980’s, commuting between continents together and apart. The world of Hussein’s strongest characters is a finely-etched one: dynamic with journeys, conversations and layered emotion. Besides these three stories, “The Book of Maryam”, about a feminist poet – another friend of Murad’s – reading poorly-received political work to an audience in the West, is an almost sly interlude, almost a statement on Hussein’s own mellow touch. It is not the strident characters who remain with us as we leave the book.

Insomnia is, at its best, a wistful meditation on what it means to be of a certain class of global citizens – of a diaspora that may well find the term itself outdated – and it stands out at a time when the postcolonial hangover still hasn’t quite retired its hold on the subcontinent’s literary output. Its more successful characters, by and large, are past that. It is not cultural angst that plagues them, but something more timeless and delicate, profoundly intimate yet recognizably universal.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Sleepless In A City That Never Wakes Up

Standard

To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to bear witness to one’s own insanity. Nothing between midnight and morning but the agitated flutter of the mind, or the pacing of the reprieve-deprived body from window to window, watching how the light changes in each one. The one from which you watch planes taking off, indulging in yourself the envy of the exiled. The one from which sad, ghostless palms flap their leaves in a wind that teases of but never delivers thunder. Even the spirits don’t stay up with you here. And you yourself, sapped and belligerent, are hardly any company.

I stopped being able to sleep properly six weeks ago, upon returning from my most recent hegira. I call them hegiras because that is what they are. I need to escape this city for the sake of my soul. The further behind I leave it, the closer I return to something resembling myself.

What can I tell you about a month and a half of chronic insomnia? I can tell you there is a point you hit where you begin to enjoy it. How nothing stirs but that which stirs within you. The silence. The sadness. The solitude. All the things you must stave off during the day, but can unwrap quietly and feast on at night. I can tell you how you begin to take pleasure in becoming a creature of nocturnal habits. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is not to live a shadow life, but to shine light on the cry of a heart in eclipse.

The night drifts on fitfully, always too fast. You like the faraway first call of the muezzin; maybe it reminds you of a city you loved once, which, for all its faults, didn’t kill half its time in slumber. You like the sounds of the train that cannot be heard in hours of traffic. But with these comes the sunrise, and how it comes – hijacking the night sky with an impatience you recognise in nothing else here but your own wretched longings. You will come to hate it – all it brings is one more day you will lose to this city.

On an average night I wake five or six times. I dream almost every night – in snatches, intensely symbolic dreams that please me more than anything the day brings. I lie awake for hours, sometimes too tired to move. I am in grief. I am in the labyrinth. I never have nightmares, and I suspect my waking life compensates enough for this. I am alive here only when all else sleeps and I, alone, am awake.

The days pass without consequence, but at least the nights are complicated. This is the only way I can live in a city of no rain or redemption. To be sleepless in a city that never wakes up is to be its only sentinel, and to see from that vantage point that there is nothing here to save.

Real cities never sleep, just like the people who don’t belong to the ones that do. The trouble with this city and all cities like it is how pleased it is to remain comatose. How pleased it is to shut it eyes and never dream of more.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.