Mythic Realism Books

A palimpsest of pasts: ‘The Chronicle’ by Intizar Husain, trs Matt Reeck, reviewed by Harish Trivedi

Intizar Husain (1925-2016) has slowly and steadily emerged as probably the best fiction writer of Pakistan, a tortoise who has inched ahead of the hares named Manto and Qurratulain Hyder. His grand theme is the idea and formation of Pakistan, the Partition through which the new country was born, and the predicament of the many Muslims who migrated hopefully to the promised land. These muhajirs, of whom he himself was one, form the staple of his fiction. They went across often empty-handed but with a whole load of cultural and historical baggage, which the new nation struggled to make its terms with.

Through indirection

Husain thus narrates the nation, except that he flows over and narrates more than one nation. When does the history of Pakistan begin — in 1947, in 1857, in 1192 when the first Muslim dynasty in India was established, or in the hoary Hindu-Buddhist past when the history of undivided Indian began? The Muslim conquerors found here a country with a long history and rich culture, which some of the more enlightened of them attempted to grasp through translations they commissioned of the Ramayana , the Mahabharata and the Upanishads. It is these multiple pre-Muslim pasts that Husain seeks to endow the new nation of Pakistan with, for without them it would not begin to make sense.

This novel, The Chronicle, published in Urdu in 1987 as Tazkirah, that is, a biographical memoir, is the middle novel in a

loose-limbed trilogy. The first of these, Basti (1979), meaning a settlement or township, was translated into English under the same title by Frances Pritchett in 1995; it begins with peacocks calling as if from Brindaban, home of the peacock-feather-wearing Krishna, and proceeds to encompass the Partition of 1947 as well as the war of 1971 when Pakistan imploded into two disparate Islamic nations, thus giving the lie to the very rationale of the creation of Pakistan.

The third novel, Aagey Samundar Hai (1995), was translated by Rakhshanda Jalil as The Sea Lies Ahead (2015), the title being a reference to President Ayub Khan’s veiled threat to the turbulent muhajirs to quieten down or else be driven into the deep blue sea.

The blurb of The Chronicle says that it is “set in the terrifying times of Zia-ul Haq’s rule”. But this is to do violence to Husain’s subtle art, for Zia is mentioned not even once in the novel. We gather indirectly some way into the novel that Islamic fundamentalism now holds sway over the country. When the hero Ikhlaq goes looking to earn some extra money to repay the loan on the house he has built, an editor asks him to write a book on Islamic banking, for “economists don’t know anything about Islam.”

Dread and censorship

When he says he doesn’t either, the editor next suggests a book on the “Islamic revolution” stretching from Iran to Pakistan; “it would be of service to Urdu and to Islam.” But these are cynical business propositions in the comic vein, for the editor himself believes that the Islamic revolutionaries have “ruined our country. They’ve made the entire younger generation irreligious.”

Husain’s finest stroke of artistic representation comes when one morning Ikhlaq’s wife goes to the gate to buy from a screaming newspaper vendor a special edition and says, “Look at this. Can it be true?” In Ikhlaq’s office, someone from another desk says, “Good riddance!” and invites angry glances. A peon says, “Sir, it’s very bad what has happened.” It is through such subdued whispers in an atmosphere of silent terror that we are left to infer that — the still unnamed — Zia has suddenly died in a plane crash. The dictator is gone but the dread and censorship linger.

What the novel eloquently recounts in several deftly intercalated episodes are half-nostalgic, half-fantastic accounts of the grand past of Ikhlaq’s ancestors who lived in a succession of palaces and havelis , all now deserted and left behind in India. Going even further back are passages of mythology as narrated in a parallel journal by Pandit Ganga Dutt, a Hindu neighbour and “a spiritual brother” of Ikhlaq’s grandfather. These are stories of the righteous Yudhishthir, and of “Hazrat Markandey rishi”, and a just and generous king named Indradyumna, whom even well-read Hindu readers of the novel may have difficulty recalling. Incidentally, the translator Matt Reeck provides no glossary, no introduction, calls balushahi ‘donuts,’ chickpeas ‘garbanzos’, and reduces martial law to ‘marshal law’.

What helps Husain weave all these different strands together is his light poetic touch and his compulsive qissa-go style of seemingly provisional artless narration. His is not magic realism but deeply embedded mythic realism, which floats a foot or two above the ground and transcends mere facts. He once told interviewer Alok Bhalla: “I am a Muslim, but always feel that there is a Hindu sitting inside me.” Similarly, we can sense a Purana sitting inside this novel.

The writer taught English at Delhi University.

The Chronicle; Intizar Husain, trs Matt Reeck, Penguin Random House, ₹499


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