A part from the title and a semblance of the mood, Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger shares very little else with Kalidasa’s lyric poem of 111 stanzas, Meghadutam. For instance, Hussein’s narrator-hero, Mehran, is no exiled lover. Hussein’s kunstlerroman borrows the lilting romantic tenor of the poetic conceit used by Kalidasa in his sandesa kavya (message/messenger poetry). Yet, the cloud is many things for Hussein-Mehran’s relationships, Mehran’s quest for a language that will carry the burden of his ‘being’, the Urdu and Persian poetry that infuses his growth into the author-translator that he becomes, and the messages that he would like to send but remain in his thoughts. Hussein’s Mehran is the quintessential nomad, caught in the flows of a fast globalizing world.
The novel begins with the protagonist’s childhood and the introduction to his many topographies. Mehran lives simultaneously in many worlds: the world of urban Karachi and Mumbai, the monsoon-laden somnolent world of his grandparents in Indore, the romantic world of his mother’s imagination, the worlds of his academic search, the intersecting and quite often clashing worlds of his lovers and also the world of his longings. Mehran’s quest, in search of certainties is typically that of any educated upper-middle class boy of the subcontinent. A childhood spent between the ‘sandy, stony’ Karachi and Indore, a city of ‘forest, ravines and rivers’ to an adulthood spent searching for certainties in London, Rome, Karachi and Delhi. The essence of the novel is laid bare fairly early by Hussein in Chapter 2.2. Commenting on Mehran’s friendship with Ketan, the neighbour’s son, Hussein writes, ‘this was the beginning of a significant pattern in Mehran’s life. As a child, moving from place to place, he would form significant relationships—only to move on, leaving them behind or carrying them with him as figments of fleeting memory. Later the pattern would reverse—’…Mehran came to believe that people—and their affections—were like floating clouds: here one hour, gone the next.’ Mehran’s search is not limited to human relationships alone. It also embraces his linguistic and literary relationships. Mehran is an essential polyglot by dint of being an upper class South Asian. To his repertoire of Urdu, Persian and English, he goes on to add Italian. The novel is spiced with liberal inter-textual references to Kalidasa, Amir Khusrau, Ghalib, Faiz, Mir, Shauq, Mir Hussain, Nazir Akbarabadi, Rumi, Abdul Latif and even Neruda.
The novel’s charm lies in its craft. There is a crafted symmetry which constantly balances the asymmetry of the plot. Divided into six chapters, Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger, begins with a plaint, ‘I saw two gulls cry at dawn today.’ This echoes the epigraph from Shah Abdul Latif’s Sur Sarang, ‘My beloved puts on a garment of cloud today…’ Hussein revisits the motif at the close; his last paragraph opens with, ‘I wanted a title that echoed the rain. The sounds of gulls crying, a dead flute.’ After the first two chapters, of which the first is a lyrical prologue setting the mood of the text and the second, a third person introduction of the protagonist’s childhood spent between Karachi, Bombay, Indore, and London, all the subsections through the next four chapters are marked by years beginning with 1978 and ending with 2010. This gives the novel an epistolary feel, a confessional tenor. The narration shifts between first and third person, positing Mehran as both the protagonist and the narrator.The conversational familiarity of the third person allows the reader to grasp the nature of Mehran’s relationships and the context of his many interactions. The more confidential first person allows the reader to traverse through the emotional mindscape of Mehran. The part dealing with the first 13 years of Mehran’s life, from 1978-1991, is more expansive (pp. 49-149) than the next 18 years 1992-2010 (pp. 150-195). It is as if the plodding act of living through his relationships had sapped the lyricism out of Mehran’s life.
Mehran is a quintessential paradox: he recognizes no roots, yet he is envious of Marco’s sense of being rooted; he is essentially unshackled, yet he is constantly tied down by his love for Riccarda and then Marvi. Mehran’s life vacillates between extremes. On one hand is the exotic familyscape—the mother, a princess whose autograph is sought by the likes of Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron , and who sings haunting ragas ‘for large gatherings of acquaintances and dignitaries’ a grandmother who recites ‘Rumi’s poems in Persian and knew every one of Khusrau’s verses’ and a gamut of family members who publish their stories in ‘a journal called Sarosh’. On the other hand are his eccentric lovers—the ‘curiously absent-minded and elusive’ and significantly older Riccarda who constantly tosses Mehran between 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’). There is also Marco, through whom Mehran discovers a lot about himself. At one point Mehran says that he ‘laid no claim to Delhi. And it laid only passing claim to me’. Yet when he goes round Delhi with Marco, Mehran claims that ‘he took me to places and showed me things I wouldn’t have seen without him’. However, it is with Marvi that Mehran shares the most volatile and tempestuous relationship. ‘I spend my life longing for the place I’m not in, but when I go back I never fit,’ she tells Mehran and his life resonates with this reality.
Since the novel is essentially from Mehran’s perspective, the other characters barely grow beyond his sporadic reminiscences. The characters are as static as the plot. In fact, both Mehran and his creator Hussein, are fairly candid on the issue of storytelling. While Mehran accepts that ‘Memory is a bad storyteller; it erases all the real twists in the tale’, Hussein candidly states in the epilogue, ‘My novel is the story of some of the paths I might have taken.’ Neither stakes any claim to writing a conventional novel. The novel shares its mystic texture with the Sufi poets Hussein so loves to quote. The text manifests as a Sufi-style retelling of a nomad’s travails, a journey through the romantic memoryscapes of lost loves. This novel should be read for Hussein’s craft. He is the master of the moment, his descriptive pen captures the magic of the quotidian and like Abdul Latif, ‘paints towers in the skies,/ brings zither, violin, tambour/ and flute, to give delight.’