In many ways, The Weary Generations is a chronicle of a downfall. It starts with a steady state of Indian society at the turn of the century—our hero Naim is just beginning to integrate into an upper-class, mixed-Indian-British group of youngsters. And as the book progresses, Naim’s life, mirroring society, goes from bad to worse, finally falling prey to a chaotic, senseless and brutal uprooting during the partition.
This trajectory is the reverse of our commonly heard story of Independence—that we Indians were oppressed by the British, and we awoke to a glorious period on 15th August, 1947. In Hussein’s view, things may not have been so bad under the British, at least for upper-class Indians. Subsequently, the first half of the 20th century drained and demoralised the country, leaving them hollow. Seen purely from the human impact of the political turmoil, this view makes sense, too.
The Weary Generations is Abdullah Hussein’s debut work, and tells the story of a period that changed the world forever.
Naim, our protagonist, belongs to a family of landowners in a Punjabi village—the only landowners, in fact, other than the local zamindar. As such his family is respected in the village. He has grown up outside this home, brought up by an uncle in Calcutta. Now, he heeds the call of his father and returns home to a life of farming. Life is hard here, but he manages to make a few friends among the local Sikh farmers.
But soon he is caught up in the First World War—drafted by the British to fight on their behalf in France.
He is but one of millions, just luckier than most, for he comes back home alive. The personal cost of this war to India has rarely been chronicled in such depth. Hussein mentioned in interviews that he heard the details of these stories from a soldier he met.
Next comes the freedom struggle. Hussein depicts this movement as something Naim feels obliged to take part in, without ever elucidating the why. Shorn of shining idealism, it comes across as a political event with much human cost.
Eventually and inexorably, partition arrives. Once again, Naim and his family are caught up in a political event not of their making, and once again the human cost is terrible.
Husain asks the important question of why lives must be lost for ideals. The history books are ready to tell us that the World Wars and the freedom struggle ended with positive results (the jury will forever be out on partition)—but we cannot, and should not forget at what cost the positive result was achieved. The common people who paid that price have been forgotten.
The places and people that Hussein creates are unforgettable. Whether it is the rough Punjabi village life, or the refined high society in Delhi, or the trenches of World War I, we can feel the dirt and taste the air. The characters that populate them, too, feel real with their own histories and their own motivations. Hussein doesn’t spoon-feed us, he lets us construct motives and larger narratives.