Inheritance by Dur e Aziz Amna
In this fluid, lyrical piece of life writing, Dur e Aziz Amna reflects on a study abroad program in Paris, and in doing so, interrogates the idolisation of canons, her longing for literary forefathers, and the ideas and forces that went into creating her debut novel, American Fever. Through the streets of St Germain to the parks of Ann Arbor, Aziz Amna examines ‘belonging and unbelonging’, and the writers that have shaped her work and life.
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Each morning, the nuns put out our breakfast. Then they glowered at us from their stations as we slathered warm baguettes with butter. I did not intend to begin with a stereotype, but we were in Paris, and the nuns were Parisians.
That summer, we were staying at the French outpost of an American Catholic university in St Germain. The Yale study-abroad course we were attending was called Age of Cathedrals, a survey of the culture and monuments of the High Middle Ages. We read thin translated excerpts from Peter Abelard and The Song of Roland, and visited churches in and around Paris. After each excursion, we had long, decadent meals, sponsored by the university. I don’t remember much of what I had during those meals, but from the notebook I kept during that time, I have gathered several lists.
‘23/7/12. Flat pasta with white sauce and salmon, chocolate mousse.’
‘4/7/12. Warm bread, crusty, melting in mouth, scallops that swirl like jelly, escargo (?), croissants, coffee in v. small cups, tartar, mashed potatoes, lovely presentations, butter, clams, stuffed liver.’
The boys in the group were constantly competing over who could order the most outrageously expensive item on the menu. They would go for the lobster, the Irish coffee, the most luxurious digestif. I would always order after them, so I could get the same thing.
I was taking cues from boys that entire summer. The first night I hung out with them, I observed them smoking and requested a cigarette as well, which I then held out for a light until one of them, his lips curled in a dry smile, told me I had to be sucking on the other side. Later in the summer, two of the boys were discovered in the shower by an apoplectic nun, doing to each other what they had told me to do to the cigarette.
‘1/8/12. Love me two times, baby.’
This entry is from a visit to Pere Lachaise, where I went mostly to pay respect to the Doors vocalist Jim Morrison. By then, I was buying my own cigarettes, and I lit one by his grave.
I think of my visit to Pere Lachaise in 2021, while reading Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks, in which she writes about visiting Brodsky’s grave in Venice. I read out her ruminations on saudade to my Portuguese husband, then quickly inhale Lost Children Archives and Faces in the Crowd. In an interview with Rain Taxi, Valeria speaks of Borges and Cortazar and Marquez. ‘That was our canon,’ she says. “Most of us came of age reading very few women writers. We had to go out and actively find them.’ In another interview with the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, she is asked how she thought of creating and citing an entirely fake novel within Lost Children Archives. ‘You know, it’s actually not that bold coming from the Latin American tradition,’ she replies. ‘We have such a long tradition of wonderful, literary liars.’
This makes me feel acutely impoverished as a Pakistani writer. Who are my forefathers in literature?
In Paris, I was reading the usual suspects, attempting to feel my way around a canon I had never been privy to. The previous year, as a freshman at Yale, I had hastily retreated from a class on the classics after finding out that everyone in the room had read Homer in high school. That summer, I was trying to elbow myself into a certain belonging.
I read A Moveable Feast and wrote lines upon lines in the notebook that tried too much to be like Hemingway in Paris. In at least three different places in the notebook, I quoted the same Kerouac from On the Road.
‘Where go? What do? What for?’
I read Kundera; ‘on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.’
I read Carpentier, because a boy I liked had taken a college course called The Jungle Books, the readings for which included Los Passos Perdidos. I must have borrowed that book from him – and the rest from other people – because I had been raised to scoff at those who bought books, and because I remember stealing the nuns’ extra baguettes for stale lunches, so I must have had little spending money. One of the few books I did own, a copy of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Nuskha Hae Wafa, was back in New Haven. I had left it with the boy, the only time I have parted with it. With poetry, however, the codex is irrelevant. If you have read it enough times, the verses will arrive as naturally as morning breeze in the desert. Sure enough, stray lines from Faiz appear every now and then in the notebook.
‘Dil to chaha par shikast-e-dil ne mohlat hi na di.’
(‘The heart tried, but the defeat of the heart did not allow it.’)
This is from an odd ghazal written upon his return from a Dhaka ravaged by the atrocities of 1971. It has since become a classic, sung by many and quoted by many more. To me, it’s one of his weaker pieces, watery and muddled — or perhaps nothing a Pakistani poet says on the subject can be adequate.
Ghalib also appeared frequently in those days of leisure.
‘30/7/12. Luxembourg Gardens and Ghalib. ‘Matt puchh ke kia haal hai mera tere peeche.’
(‘Don’t ask how I fare without you.’)
When I wasn’t reading, I was walking. The summer, I walked more than I ever have in my life, aided by a paper map crumbling at the creases, the last time I ever used one. I must have re-read Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke that summer, because a note from the diary mentions ‘feet sweating sockless in battered boat shoes’, shoes that I had to discard as soon as I left Paris because no amount of airing out could take away their stench.
In 2021, I start a dogged search for inheritance. Having a child has finally convinced me of the value of the audiobook, which you can peruse while babysitting in the easiest manner possible — walking. Baudelaire characterized the flâneur as the ‘gentleman stroller of city streets,’ so I doubt my extensive walking through Ann Arbor counts as flâneuring, but I construct within the barrenness of suburban streets a parallel city. The corner of Revena and Washington is where Ibne Insha says something funny. Around Abbott, I sway to Zia Mohyeddin’s recitation of Faiz. Waterworks Park is where I finish Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s novel Chakiwara Mein Visal.
I read Ibne Insha’s Dunya Gol Hai, one of his many accounts of his time at the United Nations and the accompanying travels to Japan, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and more. The book, like so much of Urdu literature, is speckled with verses of poetry, quoted without credit. It’s not plagiarism, in the pervasive sense of the word; it’s the presumption of knowledge on the part of the reader, or perhaps a disputation of the idea that anyone can own poetry. At one point, he quotes Ghalib.
‘Dil phir tavaf-e-ku-e-malamat ko jaye hai.’
(‘There goes the heart again, perambulating the street of blame.’)
The verse echoes in my mind with such force that I pause the recording and look up the ghazal it is from. In 2000, my father’s youngest sister, my favorite aunt, graduated from Rawalpindi’s C. B. College with an MA in Urdu Literature. Ibne Insha is quoting from her most beloved ghazal by Ghalib, about whom she has said that were he alive, she would happily wash his feet and drink the water.
The preface to Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi’s novel Aab-e-Gum, which I also read this summer, is perhaps the most astonishing introduction I have ever come across — capacious and hilarious and then, in the very next sentence, so devastating that I stop in my tracks and rewind. At one point, he notes that Ghalib is the only poet in the world whose work you enjoy more the less you understand it. At another, he disclaims in advance that the book might not have enough plot for some readers. ‘I have said this elsewhere as well,’ he writes, ‘that plot belongs to films, novels, dramas, and conspiracies. I have not found any sign of it in ordinary life.’ I foot the brake on the baby’s stroller. Perhaps it is a banal enough observation, but it is strikingly similar to one that I made in my own debut novel, American Fever:
‘Those are the endings of novels: the big blow-out, the climactic confrontation, the earnest question, the clear answer. In life, we either talk around one another, or then there’s silence.’
I feel guilty. In my hunger to find literary ancestors, I am reading man after man in Urdu. There are so many men.
Over the phone, I ask my father if there are Pakistani women writers he recommends.
“Of course,” he says, and lists ten different men above 50.
‘She asked for women,’ my mother says in the background.
‘Well, I’m giving her a list of writers she must read,” he answers. ‘What can I do if women didn’t write well enough?’
I laugh, my mother laughs. Soon, she takes the phone, and we talk about the things we always talk about — her job, my work, the baby, diapers, night feedings.
Another observation from my novel:
Hira, the sixteen-year-old female protagonist, doesn’t waste a beat when her mother asks her, ‘If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be?’
‘A Pakistani man,’ she replies. The mother inhales sharply.
In her autobiography, Buri Aurat ki Katha, the Pakistani feminist Kishwar Naheed recounts having a young, expectant mother hug her in delirious joy. ‘I’m going to be a mother! I’m going to be a mother!’ the younger woman exclaims. Kishwar wonders why she never felt that way when she had children. ‘Where was I?’ she asks, and then answers herself.
‘You were waking up at five to clean the house and make breakfast, then you went to the university at 11, then to the office, and worked there till 6. Then you came back home and did housework and listened to the in-laws’ bickering. Then you read till late at night until you slept. And one such day you found out you were pregnant, and the day you didn’t go into the office is when people found out you were a mother.’
Later, my father sends me slim poetry volumes by the poetesses Parveen Shakir and Fahmida Riaz via a friend flying back from Pindi. In Parveen’s best known ghazal, she writes:
‘Mujh ko tehzeeb ki barzakh ka banaya varis / jurm yeh bhi mere ajdad ke sar jaega.’
(‘They made me heir to the purgatory of politeness / For this crime too, I indict my forefathers.’)
There is a story about the celebrated writer Patras Bukhari, sitting in a hotel room in London with his friend and writer Daud Rahbar, reminiscing about Lahore. In response, Daud recites a verse by Iqbal.
‘Mein hikayat-e-gham-e-arzu, tu hadith-e-matam-e-dilbari’
(‘I am the narrative of the pain of loss, and you a description of the mourning of love’)
Growing up, I never learned to love Iqbal, because so many people insisted that I did. After his death, he became the national poet of a new country he had never seen but had supposedly dreamt of; he was assigned in school, quoted in middle school speeches, mistaken for one of their own by narrow-minded nationalists. What can be worse for a poet than coming to represent a nation?
I tell Abbu about reading the Patras anecdote in a book and he says, ‘Yes, yes. It’s from an essay by Daud Rahbar, right? Daud visits Patras sahib in his hotel, and recites the verse, and Patras starts to cry.’
I sit there, stunned.
‘When did you read this, Abbu?’
‘Years ago. It’s a hotel by the Marble Arch, yes?’
There are people who have spent their entire lives caring about those words, those books. If I haven’t, and if I continue not to, it is only my loss.
I never read Dante. I don’t think I ever will.
New York belongs at daybreak to only me, just me. There are places I have lived – New York, London, Ann Arbor – where I could convince myself, at least on the good days, that I belonged. Paris was not one of them. There, I was a stranger, and a happy one, and since that creature is such a rarity, I was secure that summer in a way I rarely am. I was reading all these men, men after men who had lived such different lives from me, but I was doing so without baggage. I was reaching out for whoever I thought wrote well, without realizing or caring for the slant of history and power that determined who I would reach out for.
I don’t mean to bemoan the loss of that innocence.
Who among us has never missed lost innocence?
In 2021, I read Khadija Mastur’s celebrated novel Aangan. It is a family drama set during Partition, although one could go pages within the book without recognizing the larger political landscape. The novel takes place entirely within a residential courtyard. The domestic is everything. Of the outside world, we hear only through the newspaper-wallah screaming out daily headlines about Hitler and the war, or then the men in the family who keep getting imprisoned for their political ambition, severely inconveniencing the women’s lives.
A friend tells me he found the novel refreshing, a perspective he had never read before. I felt like screaming for most of the book. Its fingers kept tightening around me, constricting me. The claustrophobia. The shutters. The closed doors, the small rooms.
I have been in those rooms. I have been around those women, who sit and wait for their men to come home. All day, while the men walk the streets, the women, they sit and wait.
I abhor the performative do-goodness of shaking up the canon, the insult of making a book a checkmark on your conscience.
In In Theory, Aijaz Ahmed writes about the effects of print capitalism, ‘the privileging of print in a pre-dominantly non-literate society’ like united India. Up till the eighteenth century, the center of literary production there was often ‘the artisanate, the peasantry, the women, the shudras, the precariously located clusters of dissent.’ All this changed with the arrival of printing presses, shifting the balance to a more privileged class of people.
Questioning the canon and reading widely is a noble endeavor, maybe, and can denote a certain morality, possibly. Reading the bourgeoisie not only in English but also in translation, not only from the Western hemisphere but from around the world – the Nigerian rich and the Pakistani rich and the Malaysian rich – is great for the reader’s self-esteem, surely. Yet so much of what we should have heard has never made it to the page. Poverty is the sexiest subject in the world, until the poor person writes about it.
In his retirement, my father is now busy putting finishing touches on his memoir of growing up in his rural hometown of Talagang, the same place Colonel Muhammad Khan left to go fight for the British in the Second World War. Talagang and its surrounding areas were fertile ground for recruitment. The Potohari farmland is not as fruitful as the plains further south, and so what else was there to extract but the bodies of men, which became, as my father writes, ‘cheap fuel for a foreign war’? In a chapter on the effect of war on Talagang’s people, Abbu describes the ways in which it changed the songs and idioms of town.
A married woman, long waiting for her husband to return, might sing,
‘Busray di laam tutt jaye / Ni mein randiyon suhagan hovan’
(‘If only the war of Busra would end / I would turn from widow to wife again’)
A mother sits in a dark courtyard. She cannot write; she never learned how to write. Instead, she whispers a lullaby only the dark of the night can hear.
‘Kalay khanbh ne kaavan de / Bus kar German ve, putt muk gaye maavan de’
(‘The crow has black feathers / Enough with this war, Hitler, too many sons have perished’)
In Paris, I thought that the answer to questions of belonging and unbelonging, the only way towards truth, was the written word. While writing the novel, I thought the same — who has ever written a true book without dreaming it to be the cure? I read my father’s words, and reconsider.
Dur e Aziz Amna is from Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Aljazeera, and Dawn, among others. She won the 2019 Financial Times / Bodley Head Essay Prize and was long-listed for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2020. She is a graduate of Yale College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, American Fever, is out in August.