A Pakistani writer who saw himself as part of ‘a great tradition, as much Muslim as Hindu’
by JAVED MALICK
Writer Intizar Husain PHOTO/Tanveer Shehzad, White Star/Herald
The well known Urdu writer, Intizar Husain passed away on February 2 in Lahore. He was 92 and was ailing for sometime.
Widely regarded as the best fiction writer in the language since Qurratulain Hyder, Husain’s main achievement was the perfection of a unique style of fiction writing, which departed from the mainstream tradition of realistic fiction – developed and enriched by writers like Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chughtai – and, instead, built on the age-old traditional techniques of story-telling. The corpus of his stories shows his mastery of an extensive range of narrative traditions. He drew upon Babylonian, Greek and Hindu mythologies; Biblical, Quranic and Buddhist texts; magical tales of West Asian and Indian origin; the traditions of the moralistic fable, the Qissa and the Dastan. While his treatment and techniques were traditional, Husain’s concerns were unmistakably contemporary.
Born and educated in Uttar Pradesh, Intizar Husain migrated to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. He began his literary career during the difficult years of the late 1940s. His early writing – like the work of major Urdu writers of that time – described the painful experience of the partition and the accompanying riots. His celebrated novel, Basti concerns a group of people who were uprooted from their homes. Through different characters and their several though different stories, the novel gives powerful expression to the terrible atmosphere of tension and fear and the sense of loss – material as well as spiritual.
Although his more recent novels and stories do not make any direct reference to that difficult period in the history of the subcontinent, they nonetheless reflect a mind, a consciousness that was fundamentally shaped by that traumatic experience. Nostalgic memories of childhood and an anguished, restless quest for happiness; an irresistible longing for transcendence and a simultaneous awareness of the impossibility of such an escape; confusion, anxiety, and a sense of loss – these continued to be the threads of experience with which his stories were woven.
It was 1993 and Husain was visiting India to receive the first Yatra award for “excellence in writing in the Indian subcontinent” (instituted by Rupa and Harper-Collins, India). I met him at the India International Centre where he was staying. He talked to me at length about his work and his views on things of social and cultural significance. Although 23 years have passed since then what he said in the course of that conversation remains very relevant for us even today. Here are some excerpts from a conversation:
What made you abandon the realistic style of writing?
After about 8 to 10 years of writing in that tradition, I began to feel that realistic fiction had reached a dead end and had started repeating itself. The reason was that the social questions of the late 1940s for which realism was the most suitable form of expression had, in the subsequent decades, given way to new questions which required a very different treatment and expression.
What was it in these questions that caused you to turn towards the ancient traditional narratives?
A question that was most vigorously debated in Pakistan during the decades following independence was the question of its history. It was inevitable that such questions should arise. Now we had a new nation state, a new country. But then where did its history begin? Where and what were our roots? Where were the roots of those who had migrated from India? So there was an interesting controversy. Some argued that our history should be traced back to Mohammad Bin Qassim. Others disagreed, and said, no, it begins with Mohenjodaro and Harappa. These new types of questions had a profound influence on our fiction. For example, Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Dariya starts with the Vedic age and proceeds from there. Thus an involvement with history, with questions from the past, was developing in society as in literature. This was the time when I started writing stories that were very different from my earlier work. They were not linear, realistic narratives. I also became increasingly more interested in mythologies and legends, which was perhaps an influence from my childhood.
Many of your stories draw upon Hindu or Buddhist sources. What made you turn to them?
As a Muslim, the stories from the Quran and Islamic history were available to me. As I was working with the Islamic texts and Alif Laila stories, it occurred to me that there is an enormous treasure of old stories which belongs to our own land(the Indian subcontinent). These too are part of our tradition or heritage. I had known them from childhood and was inspired by them. I now tried to use them in my fiction. Buddha fascinated me as a great story teller.
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Intizar Husain: Finding past again
by MUHAMMAD BADAR ALAM
Where the sparrows chirp, the cuckoo sings, the trees sway and the monkeys frolic, there lives Intizar Husain. In his idyllic abode, there exists no distance between the human and the natural, between the real and the ethereal. In fact the two worlds appear fused into each other. There is, indeed, no transition from one to the other but only a continuous flow in which everything – even houses, streets, trees, apparitions and ghosts – seems to be an inseparable ingredient of the community’s life. Sadly this heavenly lodging exists only in the mind of its sole human dweller.
In reality, Husain lives in a single-storey concrete house among a jungle of brick and mortar off one of Lahore’s busiest roads. Car dealers, auto-workshops and private schools thrive where he would have liked his Garden of Eden to exist. Yet he is quite satisfied, having spent his childhood in a town which was as close to his ideal as possible. “I have idealised my childhood,” he tells the Herald while talking about his native town of Dibai. Located near Aligarh city in Uttar Pradesh, the town was “closer to nature than to cities,” he recollects. “People there had never heard any unfamiliar voice. New sounds – like the noise of a moving train – were not known to them.”
For young Husain, born on December 12, 1925 to a “fundamenalist” father, life in Dibai was an unceasing carnival of religious festivities.
“There was a lot of glamour attached to Shab-e-Baraat then. Alas, it no longer exists because of the puritans among us,” he laments. In those days, recalls Husain, the Hindus and the Muslims would participate in each other’s festivals without fear or trepidation. In fact, the young Husain would steal lamps from the parapets of his Hindu neighbours on the night of Diwali. “No one ever objected to that.”
This is not to say that life was all bliss in Dibai; it’s just that he does not want to remember its unpleasant aspects. “We are always selective about our past. We remember only the things which we want to remember. If there was a Hindu-Muslim riot in Dibai, I would better not remember it.”
His father, Manzar Ali, was an orthodox Shia Muslim and wanted his only son – born after four daughters – to acquire religious education. “My father was against modern education,” he says, “So I was schooled at home and was mainly taught Arabic, Persian and religious texts. I also memorised the translation of a sizeable portion of the holy book.”
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(Thanks to Robin Khundkar)