The Cloud Messenger: A book review


Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger is the story of Mehran, a traveller who has physically lived in London most of his life after he left his birthplace, Karachi in his teens. But mentally, he travels in search of a place that ‘he could make [his] own’ (p. 92). His travels, both physical and emotional, also comprise of people he meets and the relationships that he forms with them.

Hussein takes the title from a poem by the well-known Sanskrit writer, Kalidasa, titled ‘Meghaduta’ or as it is known in English, ‘The Cloud Messenger’. Kalidasa’s poem is about a yaksa, a subject of King Kubera, who was exiled for some misdeeds. But the exile meant he had to be away from his beloved wife. So when the rainy season begins, the yaksa decides to send his beloved messages through a cloud. But there are few similarities between Hussein’s novel and Kalidasa’s poem, apart from the title.

Hussein’s story does not fit perfectly with the Kalidasa’s poem. Therefore, if you have read the ‘Meghaduta’, don’t ignore Hussein’s novel, thinking that it would be similar. It’s not. In fact, the novel is much more surrealistic with the rhythmical, dreamlike quality of Persian and Urdu literature, particularly poetry, incorporated into the novel’s narrative structure. Even the overall themes and content of the two texts are completely different.

Kalidasa’s poem, on the other hand, has a more elegiac quality as the yaksa laments his separation of his beloved wife. The stanzas generally consist of elaborate descriptions of all the natural and man-made landmarks that the cloud would have to pass while it travels to the yaksa’s city to transmit his messages to his wife.

The lack of this elegiac quality is what actually differentiates between Hussein’s novel and Kalidasa’s poem. Even if it appears in the middle of the story, it doesn’t carry on throughout and the novel ends at a positive point in Mehran’s life where he has started to move on and develop as a writer.

The Cloud Messenger is structured in four distinctive parts, in terms of narrative. Hussein alternates between the first-person and third-person points of view throughout the novel, telling us the story of Mehran, his many ‘homes’, his travels, the people he met throughout his life and the relationships he formed with them. Based on the content of each part, the narrative switches from first-person to third-person point of view, then back to first-person, finishing the novel with a third-person omniscient point of view. Yet, the reader is never consciously aware of the switching of the narrative perspectives because the writing flows so smoothly throughout the novel, only leaving off where there are things that mustn’t be put onto paper as they are too personal.

The novel, like most of Hussein’s other works, is another insight into the lives of those who have lived in multiple and culturally varied places for many different reasons. This is also a common, unifying factor between Mehran and all the people who have meant something to him during the course of The Cloud Messenger. All four of them, including Mehran, are souls who are in search of something that they have not been able to find in their lives until the point where their lives cross with each other or with Mehran’s. What these four characters are seeking is more or less different from each other and it cannot really be pinpointed exactly in a limited space, be it an 800-word piece like this or a scholarly book. It is that nebulous.

“The children of estranged parents and [im]migrants have much in common. They learn early to elide most details, and to embroider a significant few. Riccarda was both.”

(p. 56)

The above quote from the novel shows how Mehran connected with his friend Riccarda. The fact that they were immigrants was probably the point where they both connected. It also became the basis for their friendship, along with their shared tastes in films, books, food and other such things, which were equally important in their friendship.

The Cloud Messenger is full of intertextual references. However, a complete novice in Urdu and Persian literature may find it hard to recognise and understand these references. But the references actually relate to Mehran’s rediscovery of himself and his roots. Not only does his education in Urdu and Persian literature help him to rediscover his roots but as we see at the end, his career shapes up in relation to his extensive reading of local literature from his homeland (his writings become based on the literature of the home he had left behind when he came to London in his teens).

Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger is highly recommended, especially if you like to experiment with different types of genres and writing styles. Also, reading about so many different poets and writers of Urdu and Persian might actually motivate you to pick up a book of Ghalib’s or Faiz’s poems, or if you prefer Urdu prose, then Qurat-ul-Ain Hyder’s Aag ka Darya (River of Fire) or Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar. Not just that, you might actually end up multi-tasking with books, reading Pinjar in the morning and Hussein’s other book, a collection of stories, Cactus Town at night. Just because his writing and his depth of reading makes you want to read every book he’s written, as well as every book he mentions in his works.

*All quotes are from The Cloud Messenger, published by Telegram Books, London in 2011.


Originally published here.


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