Intizar Husain and His World

The unreconciled creative and political selves of Pakistan's most celebrated living writer

01 June, 2013

“THE FUTURE OF THE SHORT STORY is dark because trees keep diminishing in the world and men grow more numerous. In a world of nothing but men, journalism can grow, but the poem and the story cannot,” wrote Intizar Husain, in his essay, ‘Vikram, Vampire and the Story’ in 1974. While, in his inaugural speech at the recently held Karachi Literature Festival, he spoke most eloquently about how stories would survive through troubled times, giving people solace and succour. Referring to the frame story of Arabian Nights, he pointed out how Scheherazade’s storytelling humanised the tyrant king who till that point would marry a damsel each day and kill her before the break of dawn. “Many people are asking why a literary festival at a time when the city of Karachi is being rocked by violence? … I would like to invoke Alif Laila [Arabian Nights] and say, if anything can counter the wave of violence … it is storytelling.”

Husain, the iconic Pakistani Urdu writer of Indian origin, who was nominated earlier this year for the Man Booker International Prize, is a man very difficult to pin down. A realist, symbolist, writer of abstract stories, romantic, escapist, memorialist, mythographer—he is something of each and yet contained by none of these categories. He sounded the demise of the short story long ago but nonetheless went on to become one of its most accomplished practitioners, giving the modern South Asian short story an entirely new spin by foregrounding an Eastern tradition of storytelling, one in which, according to Husain, “things of this world are not discrete, isolated and utterly separate from each other, but are, somehow or the other, related to each other…” Segments of his large short story corpus (seven collections to date) have been available in English translation for some time, beginning with The Seventh Door and Other Stories (Lynne Rienner Publishers 1998), ably translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, following which sundry collections appeared in India and Pakistan. Frances W Pritchett’s English translation of his novel Basti was published by HarperCollins India in 1995. A new edition of the book appeared under the New York Review of Books Classics Original imprint last year.

In the development of modern fiction in Urdu, the short story has played a role usually assigned to the novel—that of narrating the nation. The absence of any significant novel in Urdu for more than half a century after the publication of the first modern novel in the language, Umrao Jan Ada (1899), propelled the short story to centre stage where it successfully engaged with issues of social reform, colonial modernity and the emerging concept of nationhood. Premchand (1880–1936) laid the foundation of the realistic story in Urdu, and was followed by writers of the calibre and fecundity of Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto, all of whom exploited the genre’s potential to the fullest. Many of them came together to form the Progressive Writers Movement of the late 1930s, which stressed the social role of literature and acted as a galvanising force for this generation of writers. That the movement grew doctrinaire over a period of time and gradually dissipated does not take away from the fact that it played a crucial role during a foundational period of modern Urdu literature, enabling it to go beyond airy fairy romance and fantasy and unlocking its transformative potential. Intizar Husain grew up in a literary climate in which the PWM was a great force, but as he began to write he found himself totally out of sync with this socially conscious strand of Urdu writing.

The early modern fiction writers in Urdu grew up on a tradition of prose romances known as dastaan and fables and parables known as qissa and katha, but were really schooled in the craft of realistic story writing handed down from the west: Guy de Maupassant, Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham were their inspirations in the early years, and later James Joyce, Albert Camus and Franz Kafka. The Urdu short story expanded in range and complexity, in theme and style, right through the 20th century. Intizar Husain and Naiyer Masud, arguably two of Urdu’s most charismatic living storytellers, read and translated some of the great stylists of western fiction such as Turgenev, Chekhov and Kafka. Both Husain and Masud absorbed the Western style but combined it with the virtuosity of the Eastern tradition to develop a unique narrative style of their own. With them the Urdu short story has scaled new heights.

BORN CIRCA 1923 in the village of Dibai near Aligarh in today’s Uttar Pradesh, Intizar Husain spent his childhood in this dusty, sleepy, nondescript countryside. His father, wanting to protect him from the corrupting influence of English education, taught him Arabic at home for a number of years, while he read books in Urdu only “on the sly”. He reminisces in an interview with Muhammad Umar Memon:

I used to wander through nearby woods and groves, picking mangoes, jaman, the fruit of tamarind trees and such like. All the while, the stories and legends associated with those trees, those fields and those open spaces were becoming a part of my being … There was a book at home which I started to read, a book with yellow covers and pictures of magicians and genies. Eventually I learnt that it was called The Arabian Nights. My father had a small personal library which had many religious books, which I also read through.

His earliest memories were those of a procession led by Muhammad Ali, the fiery Khilafat leader, and the death of the poet Allama Iqbal. When he was about ten, his family moved to Hapur, a small town near Meerut, where he was enrolled in a regular school. After school he went to Meerut College and acquired a Masters degree in Urdu in 1946–47. The heady days of the Indian freedom movement were culminating, amidst great turmoil, in the independence of the country. Caught in the vortex of that turmoil, Intizar Husain left Meerut for Lahore at the end of 1947. He says in the same interview:

When the process leading to Partition began and the series of riots started, I reacted strangely and I felt a sense of anxiety, as if something were slipping through my hands. I hadn’t yet emigrated and saw everything that went on around me. I tried to put my reactions to all this into writing, into prose. Two short stories resulted: ‘Qaiyuma ki Dukan’ [Qaiyuma’s Shop] and ‘Ustad’ [The Teacher], both of which are included in my collection Gali Kuche [Streets and Alleys, 1952]. These works I wrote in Meerut during the time of the riots and I think that it was because of this that I became interested in becoming a short story writer…

Unlike Saadat Hasan Manto who found unrelieved gloom and irredeemable human debasement in the violence of Partition, Intizar Husain initially displayed optimism about the great possibilities in the new country. He, in fact, celebrated the exilic moment as hijrat–the flight of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Madina in 622 CE to establish Islam as a religion of peace and egalitarianism—and saw in it a tremendous opportunity for Muslims to reinvent themselves. In his essay ‘Hamare Ahd ka Adab’ (Literature of Our Times) he says:

In the history of the Muslim peoples, hijrat holds the position of an experience which repeats itself time and again. With its association of long-enduring pain and sorrow, both internal and external, it becomes a creative experience…

In Lahore he seemed to have found his literary habitat soon enough. We see him reading out his first stories in the gatherings of both the Progressive Writers Movement and Halqa-e Arbaab-e Zauq (Circle of Arbiters of Taste), the two leading literary organisations in the newly created country. As he and his fellow Pakistani writers crafted their narratives, they also grappled with the challenges of building a tradition.

A new country can be created through political instrumentality, but a tradition does not flower overnight; it requires pollination and sedimentation over centuries. The debate on Pakistani national culture and literature was spearheaded by the mercurial Urdu writer and critic, Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919–1978), who veered from the modern and cosmopolitan views he held in early life to narrow, religious nationalism later in his volatile career, and who, like Husain, had migrated from India to Pakistan in 1947. There were debates about whether Pakistani Muslims should trace their tradition from the time of Harappa and Mohenjodaro (which, after all, fall within the territory of Pakistan), the birth of Islam (zuhoor-i-Islam) or the advent of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. By his own admission, Hussain was “particularly attached” to Askari and participated enthusiastically in the debate, which raged for some time, but gradually petered out because it was, by its very nature, irresolvable. The search for a ‘pure’ or ‘singular’ tradition, it could be argued, is always a doomed enterprise; traditions are by definition porous, hybrid and multiple. Husain puts this debate in context in the introduction to the anthology Pakistani Kahaniyan (1988), which he edited to showcase the achievements of the Urdu short story in Pakistan in the 50 years after Independence:

Sometime after the establishment of Pakistan, the question of the identity of Pakistani literature came up … If we were a different nation [from India] then what was our national and cultural identity? Where did we trace the beginnings of our history from? We could certainly trace it from the advent of Muslims in the subcontinent, but how about the eras before that? Wasn’t the ancient period a part of our history? What were our relations with Muslim history and its traces all over India? Where were our roots?

In a sense, Husain’s entire literary career has been a search for these connections and traces. Pakistan did not offer him the inclusive world of pre-Partition India where different communities had a shared existence, giving rise to what he thinks of as one of the world’s most magnificent civilisations. Thus, despite his defence of Partition in his discursive writings, the characters in his novels and short stories are not propelled by any notion of a mission that they achieve in the land of their hijrat. They might have arrived in Pakistan with grandiose dreams of spiritual fulfilment and material prosperity, but faced with the crude realities of relocating themselves in the hostile environment of a new country, those dreams are soon shattered. They are haunted by memories of the past. The wholeness that characterised their earlier existence has gone out of their lives. They experience isolation, uncertainty, deprivation, grief—a sense of being cut off from a better and richer past. In his story ‘Seediyan’ (Stairs, 1973) two young migrants, Razi and Syed, can neither sleep nor pray because they are continuously troubled by memories of the alam (a black banner, a Shia religious symbol) in the Imambara they have left behind in the town they had once called home.

This disconnect between Husain’s creative and discursive selves manifests itself in his style too. While he appears quite austere and stern in his argumentative prose, the language of his stories, particularly the early ones, exudes a freshness and empathy that create an immediate rapport with the reader. Husain’s stories of the early phase collected in Gali Kuchey and Kankari (Pebble, 1955) have been written, by and large, in the realistic tradition and display his virtuosity in portraying scenes from countryside and small town, his skill in depicting the little joys, sorrows and ironies of daily life in a language that is natural and colloquial, warm and intimate, interspersed with dialogue laced with wit and conventional wisdom.

One early story that stands out from the rest is ‘Ek Bin Likhi Razmiya’ (An Unwritten Epic), which has received as much critical attention from readers and critics as, perhaps, Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’. It displays Husain’s admirable control of his subject and reveals how he could hold different points of view together. The story, in essence, shows how the events leading to Partition did not lend themselves to the creation of an epic. The so-called epic hero of the story, Pichwa, is diminished rather than exalted by Partition, while the narrator, abandoning his pursuit of the epic, gets himself allotted a flour mill through questionable means.

Here, as also in the case of many other stories, one finds Husain’s creative vision radically at odds with his politico-religious views. This story, though written circa 1951, is significant also because its author-narrator makes a comment that has special relevance for Husain’s later career as a writer:

I can’t understand why living things should be written about. I write about corpses of things. The alive, the actually existing objects have a tangibility about them. How can you possibly write about them? There stir in them neither ambiguous shades nor suggestive shadows. They are fit for reportage or political verse, but not for poetry or fiction whose subject can never be the actual, tangible, living object.

Clearly, Husain is here anticipating his later career when his canvas gets crowded with dead characters from history and mythology, his narrative style becomes more pared down, realistic details steadily disappear giving way to a minimalist style of narration, largely shorn of the rhythms of everyday speech.

IF THE EVENTS of 1947 produced a rich crop of writing in Urdu, 1971 left Urdu writers largely unmoved. The year is a watershed, marked by shame and silence, not only in Pakistan’s politics and self-definition, but also its literary and cultural life. The denial of democratic rights to the Bengalis of East Pakistan and the forceful imposition of Urdu on them did not evoke any reaction from Pakistan’s literati and intelligentsia. In fact, the seed of dissension was sown right after Independence when MA Jinnah in his infamous 1948 speech at Dhaka University declared Urdu to be the only state language of Pakistan. It is ironical that Urdu, a language that was trying hard to find its place in the sun in India after Partition, became an instrument of oppression in East Pakistan. All Urduwallahs were blissfully unaware of this fact.

It has been left to Bengali writers such as Akhtaruzzaman Elias, Humayun Ahmad and Selina Husain, and more recently, Tahmima Anam, to depict the unspeakable atrocities of the ‘Khan sena’ (Bengali generic term for Pakistani soldiers, and a metaphor for accumulated hatred in the Bangladeshi imagination), culminating in what some historians call ‘selective genocide’. To his credit, Husain has been more forthright than his contemporaries about acknowledging the terrible impact the debacle had on the Pakistani psyche. It changed him profoundly, making him examine some of his assumptions about Pakistan and the notion of Islamic brotherhood. He creatively engaged with this event in some of the stories in his fourth collection, Shahr-e Afsos (City of Sorrow, 1973). The title story ‘Shahr-e Afsos’ and another ‘Vo Jo Kho’e Ga’e’ (The Lost Ones) describe the terrible dehumanisation of those involved in the events of 1971. He deals with this theme in some later stories as well, such as ‘Asir’ and ‘Neend’ (The Prisoners, Sleep, both 1981).

Moreover, in both Akhri Aadmi (The Last Man, 1967), his third collection, and Shahr-e Afsos, one sees a tendency for individuals to become faceless, reduced to pronouns or mathematical numbers, deliberately emptied of all specificities, spatial or temporal, a predilection also evident in Nirmal Verma, the modernist pioneer of ‘nayi kahani’ in Hindi, around the same time. Both seem to have drawn on Kafka for this particular narrative style. In fact, several of Husain’s stories in this phase are definitely reminiscent of Kafka in their dark, menacing ambience, though they often lack Kafka’s intensity.

The events of 1971 also had a crucial creative impact on the most significant of Husain’s five novels, Basti (1979). Husain himself averred that while his stories leaned, by and large, on the archetypal, his novels have always tried to come to grips with the here and now. Basti, like Tazkirah (Reminiscence, 1987) and Agey Samundar Hai (The Sea is Over There, 1995) all deal with the contemporary situation in Pakistan. “To me these three novels seem to form a chain; they can be seen to show how in this country a sequence of turmoils came about. And each of the three novels was about a single turmoil,” says Husain in an interview with Asif Farrukhi. Basti has unmistakable echoes of a number of Husain’s earlier works in terms of narrative technique and theme. The setting of the novel is Rupnagar, an idyll of peace and tranquility where Muslims and Hindus live in perfect harmony. Husain’s way of situating the 20th century Rupnagar in the midst of both real and imagined fabled locations such as Danpur, Ravanban, Brindaban, Shamnagar, Sravasti, Karbala, and Jahanabad is emblematic of his art and narrative consciousness. “It’s a strange quirk with me,” says Husain, “that whenever something happens I try to come to grips with it in terms of the entire past history and psyche of a people, rather than view it in the context of a particular period.” The mythic sites above whose names are derived from Sanskrit, Arabic and Pali sources are sacred to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Christians, and form the collective unconscious that Zakir, Basti’s protagonist, draws on. Incidentally, the word ‘Zakir’ means ‘someone who remembers’. Like his creator Husain, Zakir too cannot see events in isolation but only in their wider historical contexts and cultural ramifications. And from this vantage point he witnesses how Muslims in Pakistan squandered the great opportunity of building a new nation.

Husain’s increasing recourse later in his career to the world of dastaans, Arabian Nights, shia relics and rituals, Hindu mythology, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and Buddhist jataka tales is an effort to reconnect with the past to discover common patterns of human experience. His extremely allusive world often offers illumination but sometimes becomes too much of a burden on the delicate shoulders of the narrative, and detracts the author from building a taut, absorbing and gripping story. Two stories that best illustrate this point are ‘Kashti’ (The Boat, 1987) and ‘Morenama’ (Chronicle of the Peacocks, 1999). The first one begins with the Biblical story of the Great Deluge and Noah’s ark, and then takes into its fold the legend of Hatemtai and the Hindu mythological story involving Mannuji and the big fish. The second one begins with a news item in the papers about the disappearance of peacocks in Pokhran, Rajasthan, after the 1998 nuclear tests, but then meanders to the battlefield of Kurukshetra to reflect on the nature of the fratricidal war in the Mahabharata. Husain endeavours to tell the story of several civilisations within the compass of a single story, which stretches his narrative energies too thin. Besides, the repetitive story-within-story formula through which parables are strung together in the above stories, as well as in famed stories like ‘Kachwe’ (Tortoise, 1985) gets tiresome after a point.

Husain is a writer of extraordinary catholicity and wide sympathies, without pretensions or rancour. However, if there is one persistent bête noire in his literary universe, it is the Progressive Writers Movement of whom he has been dismissive, ostensibly because of its facile optimism and didactic tendencies. Similarly, he has always been candid about the fact that he does not see much merit in what Sartre called la littérature engagée (a literature of engagement) or, for that matter, in Manto’s in-your-face realism geared towards exploring the supposed humanity in depraved and fallen characters. This seems curious to me because Husain’s own works too are didactic in a deeper sense: they constantly gesture towards the moral universe inherent in a prelapsarian state. Idylls such as Husain’s Rupnagar or Qurratulain Hyder’s Lucknow are created in fiction through a yearning for innocence and unclouded childhood memories, and can rarely stand up to adult scrutiny. To use them as a touchstone to measure the depravity of contemporary times is not only not fair, but also cannot offer meaningful insight into understanding the complexity of the modern world.

Husain’s latest book, part autobiography, part travelogue, which he fashions as his swan song, is titled Justuju Kya Hai? (What’s the Quest? 2011). The first half of the book chronicles Husain’s early life in India as well as his writerly and journalistic experiences in Pakistan, where he found work soon after migration at journals such as Afaq, Khayal, Imroz and Mashriq, while in the latter half he recounts his experiences of travelling through India later in life. Husain’s lucid, limpid prose is a pleasure to read but the book is largely factual and does not lead us to a new awareness of his writings. In invoking Ghalib’s famous ghazal—“Jala hai jism jahan dil bhi jal gaya hoga/ Kuraidtey ho jo ab raakh justuju kya hai” (If the body is burnt, so must have the heart/ Why rake the ashes now, what is the search for?)—in the book’s title and opening line, Husain is certainly pointing to the outcome of his life’s quest. However, the informed reader is reminded of how Ghalib, who, standing on the debris of the glorious Mughal past saw intimations of the future in the coming of electricity to the wide avenues of Calcutta, had the foresight to celebrate this “new civilisation” and exhorted the reformer and activist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan not to remain fixated on the past but embrace a future pregnant with possibilities. (In Basti, two of Zakir’s dream-memories are about Rupnagar being invaded by electricity, an ambiguous trope of modernism that causes disquiet among some of the town’s residents.) One is also reminded of Tagore reflecting on his death bed, as World War II loomed, on the “crisis of civilisation” and declaring, “... it is a sin to lose faith in human beings”. I wonder whether Intizar saab would find even such guarded optimism another ‘progressive’ fraud, resolutely averse as he seems to be to articulating any emancipatory vision of progress for the future.