01 July 2011

The Cloud Messenger

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein is one of those rare books whose cover -- an exquisite work of art, design and typography -- is as stunning as the pages within. It is far more telling than the blurb and, indeed, far more inviting. We are very much in the age of beautiful book design, but even in such an age where custom stales infinite variety, we must pause to gasp at the sheer brilliance of this book cover.

Then, there is the evocative title. We are as clouds – a generation plagued by indecision and restlessness, ever moving, never belonging; light, wispy and carelessly in transition. This gorgeous, precipitous cloudburst of a novel takes its name from a poem in Sanskrit by Kalidasa, Meghadootham (which literally translates to ‘the cloud messenger’). But where Kalidasa’s poem is about a longing for home and beloved, Hussein’s book is more of a search, a restless, feverish wanderer’s search, for these things.

The book begins by describing the childhood of Mehran, its protagonist, in Karachi and Indore in a series of fond recollections. Mehran’s erudite, artistic family fills his days with music and poetry. Perhaps as a direct consequence of this, later, in London, Mehran quits a potentially lucrative career in finance to study Urdu and Farsi – and to fall in love. The narrative progression into adulthood becomes more personal, charting relationships and journeys. His life crumbles in many ways and blooms in other ways and the tone grows profoundly melancholy, telling tales of tragedy wrought out of inertia and a deep sense of wistfulness, rather than catastrophe or heartbreak.

The book’s narrative twists between the third and the first person, making Mehran a narrator and a hero in alternate turns. In the third person, the author is a chronicler, recounting Mehran’s story with the matter-of-fact tone of conversational familiarity. But when he slips into the more confidential, less expansive first person, the words overflow with feeling and momentous sentiment. Just as intricately, the novel seems to flit from autobiography to fiction (the author candidly admits in his final note, that the novel is ‘the story of some of the paths (he) might have taken’), from one space in time to another, from the present tense to the past tense and even from one language to another.

Much like the poetry that Mehran gives himself to, Hussein’s writing is lyrical and graceful, snatching hungrily at all that is fine in the languages we speak; it is a delicate intermingling of many languages, many memories and many loves, allowing the loveliness of one to wash easily over another; it weaves poetry into a sequence of events that would be insufferably prosaic without the sympathetic sensuousness of the way they are told; but its brilliance is truest and most terrible in its description of places and the nomad’s agitated and rootless drifting from one to another.

Mehran is never as easily torn between people as places. He coasts from city to city – Karachi, Indore, London, Rome, Delhi – and wretchedly misses a place as soon as he leaves it. The narrator writes: ‘His life in that rainless place of his birth was filled with a longing for rainy places: but now that he lives in a city where it rains all year, he dreams of the desert and the sea, and the smell of warm raindrops on wet earth. He wants another, redder moon, longer days in winter, and in summer an early, flagrant sunset.’

The people who wrench his love are mirrored in these places. The mysterious, unattainable Riccarda, whom he loves violently, is defined by Rome (‘I remember Riccarda well, wandering around the streets of Rome in cotton trousers, her hair windblown, her lips and skin unpainted.’) and London (‘whenever Riccarda was in town, I discovered a city I had hardly charted, hidden within the London I thought I knew well.’) Equally, Marco, Mehran’s companion in wanderlust and sometime friend, is defined by their time in Delhi (‘Over the next few days (in Delhi) he took me to places and showed me things I wouldn’t have seen without him’). But the strongest, most volatile relationship is with the broken woman Marvi, a drifter as itinerant and rootless as Mehran himself. ‘I spend my life longing for the place I’m not in, but when I go back I never fit,’ she tells Mehran and he deeply echoes the sentiment.

Especially during the university years, the book is also a tender critical discourse on literature and all that it has come to mean to those of us who still cling, often desperately, to the eloquence of tongues that came before us. This is as much a mystic Sufi style retelling of a wanderer’s journey as a pastoral European style classicist’s romantic remembrances of lost loves. In yet another poignant parallel to the literature that Mehran reads, the author mingles the two to create a grammar of his own.

Mehran’s limited perspective never allows any of the other characters in the novel to ever fully develop or come into their own. What drives the novel forward is neither plot nor characterisation, but the skill of storytelling. This is a slow book, lacking urgency in dialogue and plot progression, and acutely invested in individual moments and peculiar details. Here again, it is like a journey through clouds – quiet, fleeting, interspersed with events that seem unrelated and memories that seem extravagant, and still only a passing fancy. 

No review does as much justice to this book as its title – or its cover.