Abdullah Hussain, author of some of the finest novels and short stories in Urdu literature, never liked to be in the limelight. Since the publishing of his first novel Udaas Naslein in 1961, which is considered Urdu’s second best novel after Aag Ka Darya and translated into English by the author himself under the title Weary Generations, Abdullah Hussain has been a big name in Urdu literature. However, the great man of letters had distaste for the set traditions and patterns of Urdu fiction, mediocre writers, unintelligent critics and perhaps most of all literary gatherings.

He emerged on the literary scene as a very promising new writer with a fresh voice and a different (odd for some) style and received the prestigious Adamjee Literary Award for his very first novel. But then he was nowhere to be seen for a very long time. Abdullah Hussain moved to England where he lived for four decades. Over the years he kept writing. Giving one great book after the other, novels, novellas, short stories but never became a part of Urdu literature’s Adabi Majlis tradition. In early 1990s, Abdullah Hussain came back home to research for his epic novel Nadaar Log and perhaps this was the beginning of the end of his years abroad. A few years ago, he separated from his wife and son and came back permanently to live with his daughter Noor Fatima. He remained the same old man in this new chapter of life, meeting very few people and living a quiet and private life.            

This was the Abdullah Hussain I knew. Being a huge admirer of his work, naturally there was no limit to my joy and excitement when I read Abdullah Hussain’s name in the schedule of this year’s Lahore Literary Festival. He was finally coming out in public. It was Sunday, February 22nd 2015. The session was to be held in Alhamra Arts and Cultural Centre’s tiniest hall. We took seats in the second row well before time. The hall was soon filled and the great man walked in, taking measured steps with great care, his daughter holding his hand. Abdullah Hussain was dressed very casually, wearing a trouser and sneakers. He took his seat on the stage and microphone was placed on a cushion in his lap. One couldn’t tell by his body language that he’s the greatest Urdu novelist alive. He was eighty-four years old and perhaps none of us knew that he was fighting blood cancer.

Asif Furrukhi was moderating the session. A few minutes into discussion, we heard a great uproar at the door. The small hall with the capacity of less than a hundred was full and there was a great crowd at the door trying to push in. The session was interrupted by a man who somehow managed to get in and started shouting “This small hall? For Subcontinent’s greatest fiction writer?”. When Asif Furrukhi tried to reason with him, he called him a lot of things. Finally, Abdullah Hussain got the chance to speak. His style of talking was very simple and humble, yet very interesting. He narrated the famous story of how he became a writer out of boredom and took the pen name Abdullah Hussain from one of his Madrasi colleagues instead of his real name Muhammad Khan because there was already a famous writer of the same name. While giving away the Adamjee award, President Ayub Khan, wondered how he got taller than him and advised him to write propaganda books. He told us that once the story is out of his system, he never reviews his writings. Udaas Naslein, his debut novel has found such a permanent place in public perception that the writer had to say “I’m stuck with it” (meray galay par gaya hai). He also called Zia ul Haq, nalaaiq admi (a man unworthy of the job), a remark well appreciated by the audience. He said that he was writing a sequel to Nadaar Log but there was no time frame for its completion. “I may finish it in six months or maybe by then I’ll leave for the life after death. I don’t know”. One thing which he said will always remain with me - life’s lesson from an old man as illustrious as Abdullah Hussain. He said, “What I have learnt from life is that everything is random, nothing happens for any reason, and this is how we should take it”. Those few minutes got fewer and fewer and the session ended. I rushed to the stage and got my copy of Nadaar Log signed. He only autographed his books and insisted that people who wish to take autographs should buy his books from the stall outside. I saw him slowly walking away from the literary festival, holding his daughter’s hand. Abdullah Hussain succumbed to blood cancer and passed away on July 4 2015, just four months after that day at literary festival.               

Abdullah Hussain’s fiction has an unshakable power. It is firmly grounded in its soil and human nature. The language is simple and direct which takes the reader even closer to the characters. Injustice of life is the basic theme in all his stories. Abdullah Hussain is undoubtedly the greatest realist in Urdu literature. Romance never clouds his vision. His novels are just like a mirror image of life, exactly the way it is, with all its ugliness, beauty and just like the great man himself thought, randomness.