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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Basti -- Intizar Husain

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Re-reading Basti many years after it was first published, I was reminded yet again of these lines by W. B. Yeats. For, like Yeats’ poignant yearning (‘For surely some revelation is at hand’) in ‘The Second Coming’, this novel too is consumed with a search for signs of revelation (basharat in its Urdu original). And meeting Intizar Husain in his own basti during a visit to Lahore I was struck by a singular fact: he looked as much a stranger in a strange land there, in what has been, after all, his new (?) homeland for over five decades, as he does on his frequent visits to India. Perhaps it is partly due to the bemused, somewhat perplexed look he wears most of the time, a bit like R. K. Lakshman’s Common Man. But it may also be due to his ability to occupy a small corner of the frame, again like the eponymous Common Man, and never the center stage. Not given to holding forth on any subject, least of all his own writings, his world view or his compulsions as a writer, Intizar sahab prefers to be a quiet observer contributing little to the conversation that eddies and flows about him, even when the conversation is about him or his craft as a story teller.

There is no denying that Intezar Husain’s contribution as a story teller is enormous, especially in the genre of partition narratives. If Manto laid bare the ugliness of 1947 and its immediate, brutish aftermath with the urgency of a field surgeon, Intizar Husain probes those wounds ever so gingerly, peeling away layers from old memories to reveal wounds that have still not healed and may never heal, at least not in his life time. At least not when fresh wounds are repeatedly inflicted on skin that is still sore and tender.

Basti, written in 1979, is set in 1971 when war clouds are gathering, 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 did the hijrat (migration) to the Land of the Pure. After the first ‘luminous’ day spent walking the streets of the new city (Lahore) that was 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 leaches 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 begins to sap.

When he can see nothing ahead of him, when the future – both for him and his country seems bleak and unpromising -- Zakir sets off backward. Through the thickets of his memories, he crosses the vast forests of Time and travels backwards, to Rupnagar, a place at once mythic and real, a place of enchantment and danger that he has left behind in a country that remains forever nameless. What he remembers most about Rupnagar are the trees, birds and faces that are now lost to him. He seeks to fill their place with the trees, birds and faces of his new basti and succeeds only partly because those others keep jostling and pushing through the maze of his memory. He is not the only one; others who like him have left cities behind in search of new homes carry parts of their old lives. ‘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 many stories, have alighted 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 story telling 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?’ Husain makes the wise old Maulvi sahab reply: ‘In the hands of the wrong people, even right becomes wrong.’ And elsewhere, 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.’ The novel’s single most poignant moment is probably when Zakir’s dying father bequeaths him the keys to a house they no longer own, the ancestral home in distant Rupnagar. ‘These keys,’ he says, ‘are a trust. Guard this trust, and remember the kindness shown by the earth we left, and this will be your greatest act of dutiful behaviour.’

An early proponent of the cyclical novel, Intizar Husain’s narrative is never linear. It traverses back and forth like the dastan of yore, round and round like a kite with a cut string, it drifts and soars, backwards and forwards. And it isn’t just Rupnagar and memories of an idyllic childhood that flit in and out in the telling of what is essentially a story about ‘the fall of Dhaka’, Basti deploys a host of other stories from the recent and ancient past to tell the story of the present times. Intertwined with stories from Zakir’s own past, are stories that Intezar Husain has gleaned from a variety of sources: from Arabian Nights, Mahabhrata, Holy Quran, Bible, Jataka Katha, Upanishads, Ramcharitmanas, Sufi malfuzat anecdotes, the events of 1857, as well as from the early history of Islam. The anarchy of the present times is linked with incidents from a past, both recent and ancient, that Intizar Husain shares with millions all across South Asia.  – incidents related to Karbala, Lahore, Dwarka, Shahjahanbad as well as nameless forests and glades from the remote hinterland of India where ascetics with matted locks dwell in nameless forests merge seamlessly and effortlessly into a connected whole. While seemingly a rambling, personal narrative, the novel makes several strong political statements, the strongest being its questioning of the two-nation theory propounded by the Muslim League. The ‘idea’ of Pakistan, Intizar Husain seems to be telling us, was betrayed by the Pakistanis themselves, and not by their eastern cousins. For else why did Pakistan put the debacle of ‘the fall of Dhaka’ so quickly behind? Why did the Pakistanis reconcile themselves so quickly to defeat? Why did no one ever wonder why the Muslim League set up in Dhaka in 1906 suffer such a death blow in that very city in 1971?

Vanished days never come back and time past is passed forever. While Zakir, and perhaps Intizar Husain himself might acknowledge this, everywhere in Basti – and, in fact, the bulk of Intizar Husain’s ouvre – the past hangs heavy, threatening to overwhelm the present. Why is this so? The answer is provided partly by Intizar sahab himself in a very useful interview with noted writer and translator, Asif Farrukhi, appended at the end of the novel. In response to Farrukhi’s question regarding his tendency to recall, again and again, events from the past, he says, ‘No story comes to an end: from it a new story emerges. From that new story still another story emerges, and from that one stories continue to emerge.’

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

(Rakhshanda Jalil has translated a collection of Intizar Husain’s stories entitled Circle & Other Stories. It is being published in Pakistan by Sang-e-Meel Publishers.. )

Basti, Intizar Husain, Translated from Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp 254.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

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