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Another Gulmohar Tree, By Aamer Hussein
The roots and branches of a family at war – and peace
Friday 05 June 2009
Aamer Hussein is doing something quite original in his fiction. He explores the meetings of cultures, but he is no sociologist. He fuses elements of folk tales and mythology into his work, but is not a magic realist. His characters live human lives, both creatures of their societies and individual men and women who love and work, marry and raise children, highly conscious of their hopes and limitations.
His new novel begins with a series of exquisite fragments from fairy stories. Usman, sitting beneath the gulmohar tree, feeds a little hungry green frog and is rewarded with a pile of gold coins; Rokeya befriends a wild deer; a girl is sacrificed to the crocodiles and becomes the bride of the Crocodile King.
And then we are in the London of 1949. Usman, 40 years old, a writer from Pakistan, meets Lydia, an illustrator, ten years younger. They become firm friends, but not lovers, and an English friend, amused by their innocence, describes them as "Puzzled angels, visiting earth on holiday, lost until you finally find each other". They kiss for the first time the night before Usman leaves to return to Pakistan.
In the two years they are parted, he writes letters that show "no sense of loss". But when Lydia's divorce is finalised, she takes a ship to Karachi. From the Hotel Metropole she sends him a note, "If I don't hear from you within two days, I'll leave for Bombay".
He hurries there. Shortly after, they are married. Lydia takes the Muslim name of Rokeya. She changes her Western dress and makes friends among the educated and middle-class world that Usman inhabits as editor of a cultural journal. They have three children. Rokeya tells them fairy stories, but supplies the characters with the names of their own family.
Usman feels that he is growing old, and that as a writer he has been left behind. His politics have become more conservative; his children irritate him. After years together, evening conversation has turned a little tetchy. But, at the end of this book, in the almost Tolstoyan portrait of the family gathered together, Aamer Hussein shows that he has the rare gift of expressing enduring and radiant happiness. Usman sees his children gathered under the gulmohar tree in his garden - and the meaning of the opening fables is revealed to us.
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