Photo Credit: Tanveer Shehzad / Dawn
Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2013, Intizar Husain (1923-2016) has chronicled the changes that unspooled from the Partition of 1947 possibly like no other writer from the Indian subcontinent. Starting his literary career close on the heels of Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), he too has viewed the events of 1947 as an immense human tragedy; however, unlike Manto and the other writers associated with the powerful literary grouping known as the Progressive Writers’ Movement, Intizar Husain has shown no predilection for depicting the communal violence that spiralled out of Independence.
If Manto probed the horrors of Partition with all the delicacy of a camp surgeon, laying bare a sick, ailing society like “a patient etherised upon a table”, Intizar sahib has chosen to view Partition as hijrat or migration; the greatest cross-border migration in recent history, which he repeatedly likens to a recurrent historical partition, is for him brimful with the possibility of exploring the past while unravelling the present.
And so, instead of a compulsive scraping of wounds, a cataloguing of unimaginable horrors and a depiction of a sick, momentarily depraved society that his contemporaries found fit to do as a way of exorcising the evil within, Intizar sahib has chosen, in story after story, to imaginatively revisit a syncretic, tolerant pluralistic past in a search for meaning, to find out why the tide turned so irreversibly, and why a revisit in real terms often becomes so difficult.
It has only been recently – close to over thirty years since his first novel Bastiappeared in 1979 – that the literary world in India has taken stock of his immense contribution not merely to Urdu prose but to a subaltern history.
What is more, the Man Booker shortlist has at long last brought attention to the one overriding concern articulated by Intizar Husain throughout his literary career: namely, the persistent refusal among human beings to learn from past mistakes.
For, if there is one overarching theme that strings together Intizar sahib’s career as a novelist, short story writer and journalist, it is not merely the haunting sense of loss for a way of life that is irrevocably gone but also a lingering regret. He seems to rue the possibilities that Partition presented but were lost or frittered away. He talks of how, suddenly, almost by accident, Partition allowed writers like him to “regain” a great experience namely hijrat that has a unique place in the history of Muslims.
He even finds a religious sanction for the choice some are forced to make when they leave their homes in search of newer, safer havens. In the story Dream and Reality (Khwaab aur Haqeeqat), one of the characters says, “Friends, remember the hadith of the Prophet: When your city becomes narrow and small for you, you must leave it and go away.” Yet, this unique opportunity too is squandered and the loss makes him sad.
As he once said in an interview: “And the great expectation we had of making something out of it at a creative level and of exploiting it to develop a new consciousness and sensibility – that bright expectation has now faded and gone.”
His epochal novel, Basti, is set in 1971 when war clouds are gathering over the subcontinent, the new country of Pakistan is no longer fresh and pure and hopeful but soiled and weary and entirely without hope, and news from distant East Pakistan is ominous.
Its protagonist, Zakir, has already faced one tumult, that of 1947, when he left India and migrated to the Land of the Pure. After the first “luminous” day spent walking the streets of the new city (Lahore) that is to be his home, savouring the delight of walking about freely without the fear that someone will slip a knife into his ribs, soaking in the new sights, sounds and smells, Zakir stays awake all night, weeping and remembering the city, streets, sounds and people he has left behind. “That day seemed very pure to him, with its night, with the tears of its night.”
But those days of innocence and goodness and large-heartedness of the new people in the new land united not so much by one religion but by a common loss and the feeling of homelessness slip away. “After that, the days gradually grew soiled and dirty. Perhaps it’s always like this.”
Gradually the goodness and sincerity leach out and in its place there is greed, corruption and intolerance.
Looking back, Zakir reflects, “Those were good days, good and sincere. I ought to remember those days, or in fact I ought to write them down, for fear I should forget them again. And the days afterward? Them too, so I can know how the goodness and sincerity gradually died out from the days, how the days came to be filled with misfortune and nights with ill omen.”
Slowly the vim and vigour of building a new nation begin to sap. Gradually, the cities on both sides of the new border get filled with new people: “People have come from all kinds of places. Like kites with their strings cut, that go flying and come down on a roof somewhere.” So these people, each with their own stories, alight on strange roofs. And speaking through them, in the course of everyday inconsequential conversations, Intizar Husain slips in statements of great import and consequence, and says many things that his own oblique style of storytelling does not allow.
For instance, in answer to a question that haunts an entire weary generation of post-1947 Pakistanis: “Was it good that Pakistan was created?”, Intizar Husain makes a wise old Maulvi sahib in Basti reply: “In the hands of the wrong people, even right becomes wrong.” And elsewhere in the novel, there are many seemingly random comments that stay for a long time in the readers’ memory: “When the masters are cruel and the sons rebellious, any disaster at all can befall the Lord’s creatures.” Or “When shoelaces speak, those who can speak stay silent.” Or “In times such as this, throats become strong and minds weak.” Or, “Tomorrow might be even worse than today.”