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Narratives from an oriental loom

ONE gets the impression that in A Chronicle of the Peacocks Intizar Husain is trying to dig into some other reality than the quotidian one we face. And that ain't a cakewalk, buddy. It is hard enough to chronicle our day-to-day angsts, struggles, daydreams (often more seditious than the nocturnal ones) and humiliations — especially if you fall foul of politicians or the police. (You wouldn't want to meet some Chief Ministers at the end of a dark lane.) But old man Intizar Husain brings it off. You can almost see him ploughing away through mud and metaphysics, panting a bit, but making a success of it all in the end. Subhan Allah, Intizar sahab.

The canvas is wide — from Lord Buddha and the Jataka tales to the multitudinous migrations of 1947. Here he plays his masterstroke, likening the migration to hijrat, Prophet Muhammad's exile from Mecca to Medina. (Though Karachi was not exactly a Medina for the Muhajirs — a word derived from hijrat.) In fact exile is the central metaphor of the book. Once the characters leave their roots behind, they remain strangers in a strange land. This leads to the second important metaphor — that of people being trapped between hostile systems, nations, stranded on railway platforms because the train that was to bring them from Lahore across Attari has been cancelled. The Pakistanis go back depressed to Karachi or wherever. It is the Indian Muslims who have gone there on a visa who have nowhere to go and spend the long night on the platform.

"An Unwritten Epic", reinforces Intizar Husain's central thesis. The Muslim village of Qadirpur is hemmed in by Jat villages. Much space is given to the exploits of Muslim toughs. Pichwa, his reputation boosted by a man testifying that he had seen him defeat a Jinn, organises the defense of the Muslims. Jaffar gets his spear out, Qurban Ali the sidebar of his cot, Hamid a rusty dagger. Staves are turned into spears. But the story soon turns into a diary. We never get a whiff of the battle with the Jats. Instead we find that Pichwa is a character in the author's unwritten novel. (Verisimilitude takes a slight knock here). He goes to Pakistan, feels lost there. Eventually Pichwa goes back to Qadirpur, which is no longer Qadirpur, but named Jatunagar now, and dies there. Where is Qadirpur, asks the author and answers: "Ek dhup thi jo saath gai aftab key." (A sun ray that vanished with the sun.)

Intizar Husain's stories often tread that twilight zone between fable and parable. And the narrative is spun on an oriental loom — reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights or the Jataka tales, each story becoming an offshoot of the previous one and an embryo of the next tale. And his command over the narrative lies in the fact that never once does the reader feels let down.

In "The City of Sorrows", peopled of course by Muhajirs, he creates a nightmare. Nameless people, with murder on their hands, people who have disrobed women forcibly, come together. It is not immediately known if it is the dead speaking to the dead. The theme of exile runs through the story like a thread — "Old man, have you noticed that the earth never accepts those who leave their homelands?" And again: "During the first migration we left the graves of our ancestors behind. This time we left dead bodies behind."

In "Barium Carbonate" rats swarm all over the haveli of Syeddaniji, resulting in a black market in rattraps. Even Barium carbonate, specially ordered by harrowed citizens, vanishes from the medical stores on the very day it arrives. And Ashraf, who has left his property in India waits endlessly for his compensation from the Claims Office, because he will not bribe the officials.

Hisaar is a ritual Arabic prayer to ward off evil spirits. In a story by the same name we go through the sludge of superstitions drawn from Muslim folklore — Jinns and things, and tales from Sheikh Chillis — centipedes stuck in the brain, which the Hakim cleaves open, putting a live coal on the centipede, thereby curing the patient.

The book has been edited flawlessly by Mini Krishnan, with a fine introduction by Professor Alok Bhalla, an extensive glossary, and an informative interview with the author. The stories have been rendered in excellent English by the translators, Alok Bhalla and the late Vishwamitter Adil who died last year. Yet a mean reviewer could, I suppose, find odd passages to cavil at. In "Tortoise" we have Gopal saying "O bandhus, how much we used to walk in those days." You can either say "O friends" or, if you must have the Hindi plural, then it should read "O bandhuon". On page 55 we have "Motrima Fatima Jinnah". That should read Ms. Fatima or Mohterama Fatima. On page 27 Prajapati is chasing Usha. She turns into a cow and runs. "Prajapati turned into a bull and ran after her. He caught her and united with her." "Then she turned into a peacock and flew away. He too turned into a peacock and flew after her. When he caught her, he united with her." Now surely it is neither Husain's nor Bhalla's contention that the peacocks were homosexual. Surely Usha turned into a peahen prior to the "unification!"

The interview is splendid and yet a really mean reviewer could pick holes. Twice, on Pages 214 and 215 Bhalla refers to Moharrum being "celebrated". Moharrum is a month of mourning and is "observed", not celebrated. Despite these hiccups, this is a splendid book. Intizar Sahab needs to be ranked with Manto.

A Chronicle of Peacocks: Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories, Intizar Husain, translated from Urdu by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil, Oxford University Press; p.257, hardback, Rs. 395. (Funded by the MR AR Educational Society, Chennai.)


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