Author Intizar Husain talks on how the 1947 partition inspired him to write.
Writing was a hobby for Intizar Husain. He has a B.A. in English Literature, Urdu and Persian, and a Masters in Urdu. He enjoyed literary criticism; and didn’t like fiction much. But on June 3, 1947, his life was turned on its head. He had just completed his Masters in Meerut, when people began to flee the city.
“Every day, one house would be locked up and there was tension in the air. Soon the riots began,” Husain recalls in an interview on the sidelines of the second Islamabad Literature Festival.
“I thought I should write about this and I liked reportage as a genre. I wrote my first short story, ‘Kayuma Ki Dukan’, about a shop that was a meeting place. People used to meet here and chat till late in the night. After the riots, the shop closed down.”
Husain was born near Aligarh in a town called Dibai, on December 21, 1925. But, “as a writer of fiction I was born with Pakistan. Partition made me a fiction writer,” he says. In 1947, his family left India, though they were not very happy about it. “The idea was not to go away forever. People packed their things and left giving their keys to their Hindu neighbours. There is a similar situation in my novel Basti.”
“The first Partition was in the Mahabharata,” he says, “and then it was me when I was exiled. Only the Pandavas and I knew the pain of leaving one’s land. The Mahabharata is such a powerful narrative of that pain.”
When he reached Lahore, he thought he could get a job as a teacher since he had a Masters degree in Urdu. But he found it difficult. Then he was called for an interview with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was launching a new paper.
“Faiz saab didn’t say much and I was scared. He asked a few questions and fell silent. He asked me to wait for a call.”
He didn’t think he’d passed the interview so he took up a job at another weekly, but suddenly got a call from Faiz who offered him a job in Karachi.
“It was a good start in journalism. But our editor resigned and we all left in solidarity.”
As a sub editor, it was easy for him to find a new job but he decided to be a serious writer.
His first compilation of short stories, Streets and Lanes, was about what he had left behind: the composite culture of Ram Leela, Holi, Id, Moharram.
“The progressives said I was writing about the past, but it was my immediate past and that journey was important for me,” he says.
His writings featured elements from Hindu mythology and folklore — Betal Pachisi, Shankuntala, Panchatantra.
“When Alok Bhalla visited me, he wanted to translate my work as I was one of the few writers in Pakistan who used Hindu mythology.”
The first English translation of his short stories, A Chronicle of Peacocks: Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories, was a result of Bhalla’s search for stories on Partition.
“At that time he said to me, there is Manto and there is you,” says Husain.
The Partition of India was hotly debated and the question has now gone beyond writers, and historians have taken over, he says. “I am not a historian. What is the point of weeping over Partition? There was no expectation of a deep divide but the riots changed things, especially in the Punjab.”
Today, he rues, technology and profit dominate the world.
“Before writing a novel, you think how much money you will make. Manto never thought like this, writing was a passion. Now you have the choice of writing a TV serial and making more money. Everything has become so commercial.”
He was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and recalls his encounter with Indian writer U.R. Ananthamurthy at the function. It was a warm meeting, he says, and Ananthamurthy was so gracious as to suggest that Husain should have got the prize.
He has five novels and seven collections of short stories to his credit but his last novel, Aagey Samandar Hai, was published in the 1980s.
He admires Manto and Ismat Chugtai and is inspired by Chekhov and Kafka. Marquez and Qurratulain Hyder rank among his other favourite writers. The Jataka Tales, he says, are the best short stories. Asked about his next novel, he laughs, “One’s creative juices can flow any time.”