Saturday, May 7, 2011

Up In The Air

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


At one point in Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger, the central character writes a letter mentioning “Kalidasa's poem about the cloud messenger, carrying love messages back from a man in exile to the city he'd left behind...letters of infinite longing." A little later, he realises that “one day he would have to be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place, and back again from present to past”. This, then, is the shape of the novel: a mélange of memories held together by a elegiac sensibility.

The Cloud Messenger tells of the peripatetic life and longings of the bookish, sensitive Mehran, whose story switches between first and third person in the telling. We follow Mehran from youth to middle age: he’s brought up in Karachi, spends long sojourns with maternal relatives in Indore, studies and works in London and travels often to Italy, among other places.

Specifically, the novel revolves around Mehran’s interactions with the three people who most affect his life: Marco, his flighty fellow-student; Riccarda, the magnetic older woman with whom he has a short-lived affair; and the damaged, charismatic Marvi, with whom he embarks upon a choppy romance. Mehran’s life segues between meetings with these three in different parts of the world, and the novel details the ups and downs of their relationships with the passage of time.

Mehran and others are deeply influenced by Urdu and Persian language and poetry, often discussing and introspecting on its practitioners, especially the Sufi mystic Shah Abdul Latif as well as others such as Khusro and Faiz. The treatment of the novel, thus, is suffused by an intense, almost pained, romanticism and though there are evocative moments, this distilled sensitivity occasionally comes close to effete posturing.

There’s often a touch of haziness, too, as we skim along the events of Mehran’s life. Some passages appear overly diaristic, and at other times, he appears a distant, indolent figure. "If there was any excess at all, it was not of verbiage but of emotion,” he writes at one point, and the danger of drawing a map of the emotions is that the topography can become quite indistinct.

There’s no question, though, that it’s a deeply-felt piece of work. In particular, some moments between Mehran and Marvi are moving, and at other times, the mood of melancholia is deftly handled. Hussein has produced notable short fiction in the past, and from the evidence of such episodes in The Cloud Messenger, that appears to be where his particular strengths lie. 

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