NEW DELHI: Pakistani author Aamer Hussein, whose stories weave a tapestry of situations in life, says it's still a mystery for him where from exactly a story idea and the characters come.
"37 Bridges and Other Stories" is a new collection from one of the leading exponents of the short story, blending modern art with soap opera, traditional tales with contemporary realities and humour with wisdom.
From the experimental "The Tree at the Limit" to the mellow, almost mythical "The Swan's Wife," and to the rambling conversations of two Karachi veterans lunching by the sea while their city rains down on them in "Two Old Friends," these tales examine belonging and displacement, homes and would-be homes.
Five stories, including the diptych "Knotted Tongue," originally written in Urdu by the author and translated into English to explore new voices and visions are also included in the book, published by HarperCollins India.
"Where exactly a story and its inhabitants come from remains a mystery to me: what makes me choose a subject for a story? Often it's a real incident, as in the title story of my collection when the narrator is taken to the Bridge of Locks in Paris; or a particular visual image or set of images, as in 'The Tree at the Limit;' it could be a phrase I overhear, or even a book I read or a story I'm told," he says.
"Many of my characters come from life, but they're never real portraits, just as the narrators who sometimes resemble me are never exact self-portrayals. Then there are quite a few who are entirely imaginary...," Hussein told PTI in an email interview.
He says "a longing to move outwards, away from stultifying circumstances, rid themselves of external burdens" is a trait his characters have in common.
"It's a trait that readers point out may also lead to the wanderlust many of my characters."
Hussein began publishing fiction in the 1980s in journals and anthologies. His first collection of stories, "Mirror to the Sun," appeared in 1993, which was followed by "This Other Salt," "Turquoise," "Cactus Town" and "Insomnia."
He has also published a novella "Another Gulmohar Tree" (2009) and a novel "The Cloud Messenger" (2011).
Hussein, whose stories have been translated into many languages, including Italian, Arabic and Japanese, doesn't feel the characters of his short stories belong to a novel.
"And I doubt any of them will come back, except Umair who appears in several stories at different ages. But I don't think he'd appreciate the very long flight that is the novel - he prefers to hop from story to story. I'm not really interested in conventional plots, but in shapes, patterns and encounters. The novel isn't a form I enjoy; I've tried it once, but doubt I will again," he says.
Many of his characters are "pretty real, others may combine traits of several people I know; and some are borrowed from other stories, or entirely imaginary. But once they're in a story, they have very little resemblance to anyone I know in reality, unless I deliberately choose to portray real people."
Hussein has read and written primarily in English all his literate life, and usually speak it his family.
"I learnt to read Urdu (and Hindi and Persian) at a later stage. My interest in Urdu literature developed in my 30s, when I was already a published writer, and kept growing. I love the language, but surprised myself when I wrote in it for the first time three years ago, partly because a poet-friend persuaded me."
He thinks Urdu was harder than English "as I write much, much more carefully in Urdu, but in many way I find it more expressive and musical than English. English remains easier, but Urdu is at times more satisfying."
Hussein says he hasn't kept up much with new English fiction from Pakistan because of lack of time.
"But I have many friends who write in Urdu, and I try to read everything they write: Asif Farrukhi, Fatema Hassan, Fahmida Riaz, Afzal Ahmed Sayyad for example. I'm told there are some good new novels which I'm looking forward to reading, but my reading of choice is short fiction and poetry. I am told, though, that the younger generation of writers isn't as prolific or as talented as mine was. I don't know," he says.