Transcending territoriality

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Basti; Intizar Husain, translated by Frances W. Pritchett, Oxford, Rs. 345.
Basti; Intizar Husain, translated by Frances W. Pritchett, Oxford, Rs. 345.


A simply structured multi-layered narrative.

The uncharitable might say that but for the past, Intizar Husain would not have had a future. But truth to tell, the man who blends the personal with the impersonal, specific with the universal, actually has the past much to thank for. Be it drawing generously from the Jataka tales or the Panchatantra fables or even the layered Shiite tradition or the more modern existentialism, his tomorrows have been taken care of by yesterdays.

Yet Intizar Husain does not live in the past, so much as he draws from it. His nostalgia is not comforting, there is that disquiet air that runs through his works, and Basti, arguably the finest novel on Partition, is no different. Distance in time often diminishes emotion, but in Husain’s case it only serves to distil it: what goes away is the peripheral, what is retained in the essential.

Lack of activism

As always, here too we find a simply structured tale through a multi-layered narrative. His hero Zakir is, to many, the author’s alter ego. Many have questioned his passivity in the face of grave challenge. His silent acquiescence in the face of oppression in Pakistan, which was then smarting at the division of the nation. Many in Pakistan — where Husain shifted in 1947 after having spent his formative years and early youth in Bulandshahr in what was then Oudh — have questioned his central character’s lack of political activism, often accusing Husain of doing little to infuse his man with positive energy. But others have risen to his defence: the characters of his novel are his creation, they are not Self masquerading as somebody else.

But all along, Husain has crafted his work without too much import on ideological schism that pervaded the sub-continent from 1940s to the 1960s: he even migrated to Pakistan not on an ideological predilection for an Islamic State but on the call of his preceptor. He has never been a prisoner of an ideology. That is also the reason probably why his works have transcended territoriality and time.

Basti is not the comforting exercise in reminiscence. Zakir is a professor of history, which gives Husain the right to talk of the Umaiyads and Tantia Tope with equal felicity, of the 1857 war, of Khan Bahadur, hailed by many for his role in helping the British, of the 1947 Partition, and finally the emergence of Bangladesh, as religion ceases to be the glue to hold the disparate State together.

Of course, his Shiite upbringing is reflected too when he makes a little detour to Ashura, to Imam Husain’s address to his 70-odd followers, urging them to carry on the fight, move after sunset because “night will provide you a cover; use it as a steed”.

In fact, his hero Zakir almost manages to live up to the Shiite belief of looking at any tribulation as “an active choice made independently of rewards”. Yet Basti is not so much a story of Zakir as it is a look at the Muslim history of the subcontinent. And beyond.

Improved version

Divided into 11 chapters, besides a longish interview with the author by Asif Farrukhi, the book is translated by Pritchett who has tried to strike a balance between those who know the subcontinent history and the nuances of Urdu well, and those reading it elsewhere. Actually, the book is an improved version of the first translation that appeared more than a decade ago.

In the current form, it is, as Muhammad Umar Memon says in the introduction, “an hourglass”. It has two large sections, comprising the first six chapters and those from eight to eleven.

In between is a slim chapter seven which talks only of the 12 days in Bangladesh’s creation. Not much essence is lost in translation with the elementary words of formal or informal address being retained.

Where the fresh edition gains in comparison to the past is in the gently unfolding interview of Husain, who is known to be a loner, a man who speaks when spoken to, and expresses his opinions with the care of a goldsmith at work.

Husain’s Basti may not have satisfied those who look for a heart that bleeds for the subaltern in every character; a kind of short story or novel equivalent of the Anjuman Tarraqui Pasand or the Progressive Writers Movement. Yet, it provoked a lot of healthy debate and some undeserved criticism when it was published first in 1979.

The debate goes on: is Basti as much a landmark in literature as, say, Qurratainul Hyder’s Aag ka Darya? Is Husain guilty of abdicating responsibility as a Pakistani writer? Or is he an independent creative being, more concerned about the aesthetics of his craft than the nationalist valour of any hue? Worse, has not he recycled some of the instances and little nuggets from the memory bank? Isn’t he, as Enwer Sajjad once asked, guilty of creative depletion? The answers are, as usual, not easy. And Husain does little to communicate beyond the known in his conversation here. What comes through though, a change for him, or his characters, is not any one-off event, a violent upheaval, making a clean breast of the past. It is a gradual process of assimilation and elimination, as the need be.

And at the end of the day, every individual survives not because he took to arms in a corrupt world, but because he is able to draw on the inner reservoir of moral fortitude.



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