Book Review: The Hussaini Alam House/Huma R. Kidwai

[First published in Cafe Dissensus]

Daphne du Maurier begins Rebecca thus: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while Ihuma kidwai couldn’t enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate…There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream… For Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more.’ While for the unnamed narrator, Mrs. De Winter, Manderley denotes the stifling memory of Rebecca, in Huma R. Kidwai’s novel, The Hussaini Alam House, the house is a repository of fond memories for generations of an elite Hyderabadi Muslim family. In Kidwai’s novel, the house is a metaphor for the transformation that the Old City and its Muslims have undergone since the Partition of India (1947).

Narrated in a flashback by Ayman, the daughter of a feisty mother and a leftist father who died early, the novel narrates the story of three generations of a Hyderabdi Muslim family who had acquired the Hussaini Alam House from the heir of Nawab Faridun Jah in the early twentieth century. Although the novel weaves its narrative around the figures of the autocratic Bawajaan, and the sophisticated, yet patriarchal, Mir Rajjab Ali Khan, who trace their genealogy to Persia and Turkey respectively, Kidwai’s novel foregrounds strong, rebellious, and educated women characters, who show exemplary resilience in the face of changing political fortune after 1947, when the Nizam was forced to accede to India through the orchestration of a brutal Police Action.

When I happened to meet the author, Huma R. Kidwai, in Hyderabad in January, 2012, she appeared excited about her forthcoming novel about a Hyderabadi Muslim family. She did not forget to mention that it was the first Anglophone novel about Muslim life in Hyderabad. While Kidwai’s novel is certainly the first to be written in English about Hyderabadi Muslim life, it employs a well-traversed trope of nostalgia that had been set in motion by Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940). In Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), Attia Hossain, the first Muslim woman Anglophone writer in India, accomplished a similar feat in setting her novel against the backdrop of partition and nostalgia for a time gone past.

Ahmed Ali did not merely write about Indian Muslim life in English. He successfully employed social realism as the preferred aesthetic mode for writing about the vanishing glory of Indian Muslim life. Ali’s significant contribution in regard to realism has been his invention of the domestic, contrasted to earlier Muslim fiction writers’ predilection for the fantastic. Attia Hossain added further depth to the genre of domestic fiction, specifically depicting women’s life in the zenana or inner space of the house. Kidwai’s vivid description of the domestic space follows in the footsteps of earlier stalwarts. In a recent novel, My Little Boat, Mariam Karim, too, explores the alienated subject confined to domesticity.

Because of its emphasis on the domestic space, the novel might appear to merely flirt with the complex history of Hyderabad vis-à-vis the Indian state during partition. There are fleeting descriptions of the destitution that many Muslims, who were employed in the service of the Nizam, had to face after the state was annexed by India: ‘Khalajaan would say nothing beyond this even though I pestered her for more details with a child’s perverse interest in all things gory. But her eyes darkened with pain or fear or both. That wound would not heal – for Khalajaan, for Bawajaan, for Mummy and for hundreds of thousands of others – all Muslims.’ Further, in the novel:  ‘Surprisingly, many [rickshaw pullers] were educated and most had served in the Nizam’s government as clerks, petty shopkeepers, retainers of jagirdars like Khalubawa and some had even taught at Osmania University before the ‘Police Action.’’ Kidwai’s strategy to focus more on the domestic serves two purposes: it narrates the ability of women to come to terms with altered reality much better than men could do and, also, to avoid talking of the traumatic. The domestic sphere manages to provide a sense of camaraderie which can’t be found anymore in the political sphere.

One could fault The Hussaini Alam House for its elitism seen in the narrator’s love for Urdu and Persian languages and literature (her mother was an Urdu poet herself), nostalgia for the lost glory of a Muslim culture given to courtly decorum and sophistication, and the tendency to trace family genealogies to ancient Persia and Turkey, yet the novel conveys a progressive message. Ayman’s last words resonate long after one finished reading the book: ‘In the tradition of the women of Hussaini Alam House, I shall take a worn-out, overused, scratched and scarred, broken and mended, dilapidated like that house, but as big and as beautiful, heart with me. I am willing to embrace.’ Ayman’s willingness to embrace highlights the changing milieu of a Hyderabadi Muslim woman who has finally come to terms with her own troubled past, linked inextricably with the past and shifting fortunes of the city.

[P.S. Commenting on the London Book Fair some years back, Amit Chaudhury very eloquently wrote how the western countries have failed to notice the tremendous output of Indian authors writing in the vernacular languages. He sought to dispel the notion that the Indian writing scene had been abuzz only in the last thirty years with the publication of a group of talented Anglophone writers. What Chaudhury left unsaid was the emergence of a new crop of Indian publishers who find publishing Anglophone fiction a lucrative proposition. As the Indian middle-class thrive piggybacking neo-liberal economy, the visible consumption of English-language fiction is on the rise. The likes of Chetan Bhagat have already created a new market for writers who are based in India. Kidwai’s immensely readable novel highlights the shifting terrain of book publishing in India in almost last hundred years. While the earlier Indian Anglophone writers were exclusively published in England (Ahmed Ali was encouraged and actively recommended by E.M.Forster), Kidwai represents a new crop of writers who are essentially home-grown and who represent a distinct local sensibility.]

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