The Hussain Alam House is about the changing life of Ayman’s (the narrator) house in the Hussaini Alam area of Hyderabad in Telangana.
Ayman speaks of each of the female relatives in her house who were dear to her and played a significant role in her life and her upbringing. These included her great grandmother, Qamar un Nissan or her Nanima; her grandmother, Meher un Nissan; her own mother, Naghma Soz; her sister, Mariam and her foster bua (which means a father’s sister, though in this case it was her grandfather’s adopted foster sister), Khudsia or Khalajaan.
A chapter is devoted to each of these members. By outlining their importance or her bond with them, Ayman also throws light on the house and the Nawabi culture they followed and on the festivals they celebrated. This also gives a small peek into Hyderabad’s old city and its lanes, buildings and bazaars.
The chapters speak of declining culture and fortune (and the decline in one is related to the decline in the other), of cheerful evenings of storytelling in the courtyard, of a mournful series of deaths, of arguments, secrets and the family drama within. The novel recreates a bygone era.
The Hussain Alam House also in one instance speaks about the infamous Police Action and its aftermath on the people, the Nawabs and their culture.
Ayman’s ancestry was not from any Nawabi family yet certain cultural practices and traditions, infused with modernist sensibilities, were followed by her family members.
Each narrative of the house’s female inhabitants contains quite colourful personal stories such as Ayman’s mother’s rebellion and her career as a Urdu writer; or of Khalajaan’s husband’s strict adherence to paying salaam to Bawajaan (Ayman’s grandfather) at 9 o’ clock every morning; or her mother’s fairy tale married life or her grandmother’s running of the house and bringing up the two sisters, Mariam and Ayman.
The novel focuses on female members, emphasises on female support and friendships while also clearly showing how it was they who single handedly kept the house running (both financially and emotionally) when the male members were unable to come to terms with change such as a decline in their fortune.
This is one of the most excellent qualities of the narrative of The Hussain Alam House.
The novel does talk about the male family members particularly about Ayman’s grandfather and father but their stories are subsumed within the female narratives. Thus, though Bawajaan had a tremendous influence on Ayman (he imbibed in her a love for culture and books) and was the head of the family, it is clear from the style of telling their stories only in relation to Ayman or other female relative, that the novel is asserting the ideas of female influence and bonding.
This is another of the book’s good attributes and has been employed skillfully in the story.
Her most cherished family member is her mother despite their complicated status. Their relationship is the crux of the story. Her mother’s influence on her growth, mindset and her struggles is evident. Ayman’s sense of independence and care for her mother is itself contributed by her mother’s absence than presence.
Despite what the blurb at the back, or the novel’s title or the opening chapter say about the house as the crux, it is, I believe, her mother’s attitudes, actions and ideas that bring up Ayman in her later years.
The house is no doubt a central character. It is the backdrop and a setting for their lives. For Ayman too it formed a big part of her childhood and formative years but not later on. Her relationship with her mother is what shapes her attitudes later.
The house has indeed nurtured the whole novel and the characters’ lives, given shelter to the displaced and the lives ensconced within its four walls were unique and unparalleled.
While the novel spends a lot of time describing the people Ayman cherishes and values, not enough is said about Ayman herself. We certainly see her grow up, learn values from her household and its people, her taking up jobs later on, but we do not see her as an individual. We see Ayman only in relation to the house or a family member, except at the end, when we are privy to her own thoughts but never much in the rest of the story.
The Hussain Alam House began with the opening chapter describing the house and its inhabitants in a grocery list like manner. And that itself, unfortunately, sets the tone for the entire novel.
The Hussain Alam House can be credited for throwing light on a bygone culture, the city’s now crumbling neighbourhoods in all their glory but it cannot be credited for making all that information readable. The entire story is very descriptive. This takes away the charm of reading a nostalgically leaning story. The novel often sounds like a list, like a primary standard student’s essay on house or family. This descriptive technique also denies Ayman any voice or consciousness because she is busy describing the house or her family members.
Should you read it then?
I think I would still recommend it because its story lines are soaked in family history and for its female characterisations.
If you are interested to read more about Hyderabad and learn about one aspect of the city’s history and culture, The Hussain Alam House is a great fictional account of the same. But be wary of the unpoetic tone of the novel.