Tribute: Intizar Husain Columns

Burden of memories, reality of the present

Early on in the Pakistani writer Intizar Husain’s novel Beyond Lies the Sea, a character says, “All sorts of rogues and upstarts, thieves and robbers and terrorists have a field day; the respectable folk are at their wits’ end. Where have we ended up?” And indeed the city they ended up in was unlike any other they had ever seen. For one thing, the sea itself was new and frightening for most of these muhajirs who had come from land-locked towns and hamlets. What is more, each muhajir brought with him his own Pandora’s box of memories, memories that made him name the new enclaves, gardens and housing societies after the ones he had left behind.

Aqa Hasan, an effete gentleman from Lucknow, who is given to venting his ire about the ways of the new city (Karachi) and its people, also bemoans: “It is a reign of tyranny and dictatorship. Those who were low born roll in wealth and the shurfa go hungry for even one meal. And on top of it all, no one’s life or property is safe.” And then addressing his question to Majju Bhai, a blithe spirit and by far the most colourful character in the entire list of dramatis personae in the novel, Aqa Hasan goes on to ask: “My dear sir, these are difficult times… What lies ahead?”

To which Majju Bhai blithely replies, “The sea.”

Majju Bhai’s breezy answer refers to an urban legend from Pakistan’s hoary past when stabs at democracy and genuine people’s representation still seemed possible. In the run-up to the presidential elections to be held in January 1965, a motley group of political parties coming together as Combined Opposition Parties (COP) decide to field Fatima Jinnah, sister of the late M.A. Jinnah and popularly known as ‘Mother of the Nation’, against the incumbent General Ayub Khan. The COP comes up with an impressive nine-point agenda including restoration of direct elections, adult franchise, democratisation of the 1962 Constitution and, among other things, greater representation to the Urdu-speaking muhajirs in Sindh. As a warning to the Urdu speakers not to vote for his opponent, Ayub is said to have famously declared, “ Aage samandar hai…” (The sea lies ahead.) The implicit threat was twofold: one, the muhajirs had burnt their boats when they had crossed the border for, clearly, they could not go back; and two, having done so, this fifth entity ( paanchvi qaumiyat), namely the muhajirs, really had no place to go. In other words, if they didn’t like it they could lump it!

Not everyone in Pakistan shares Intizar Husain’s mournful longing for a syncretic past or yearns for the sights, sounds, smells and seasons of the beloved land left behind. The second of his trilogy of Partition novels, Aage Samandar Hai, shows that there were many among the Urdu-speaking muhajir who were aspirational, upwardly mobile and keen to shed the ‘baggage’ of the past and had little patience for Intizar sahab’s brand of nostalgia. Two characters in the novel, Tausif and Baji Akhtari, were low-caste Kamboh in the past but have successfully refashioned themselves as high-born Saiyads and remodelled their lives by taking part fully in the nation-building project such as it is; they are exemplars of a new world order. It is in their home that we first encounter the ominous figure of Ghazi sahib who will prove to be the cause of the city’s undoing.

Clad in a green robe, a constantly moving rosary between his fingers, Ghazi sahib is the epitome of a monolithic and inflexible Unitarian Islam with his stern gaze and unforgiving relentlessness towards those he considers not true to the tenets of Islam. Guarded by Kalashnikov-toting ‘volunteers’, he is busy dreaming of a nursery of martyrs, young men he will train to lay down their lives for a larger cause.

What we should mourn

Today, when we mourn the passing of Intizar Husain at the age of 92, let us not merely mourn the passing of a literary legend, the last of the great Urdu writers of our times, a nominee for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, the man who told incredible stories about the Partition with gentleness and humanity and none of the abrasiveness and combativeness of Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander. Let us not merely mourn the loss of a literary giant who was all the more taller for his whimsical humour and ordinariness.

Instead, let us mourn the passing of an era. Let us mourn the loss of a man who understood his country and ours, and who cared for both with enormous empathy and great wisdom. Let us mourn the man who wrote unflinchingly, and with brutal honesty, of a land he made his home and which he undoubtedly loved. For it takes a brave man to speak of the soiling of dreams, to look inwards and outwards, to live in the present and also cherish the past, to live in the ‘here’ and now, while constantly visiting and revisiting the ‘there’ that has been left behind.

Let our tribute be as much to Intizar Husain, the man of letters, as to Intizar Husain, the man of courage and conviction. Let our tribute be to a man who believed in friendship and the joys of a shared past and who, despite all odds, was hopeful of new beginnings. For truly, with Intizar Husain gone, there is a vast emptiness ahead. Who will now speak up about the ominous figure of Ghazi Miyan and others of his ilk? Who will point a figure at the rot within? Who will carry the burden of memories and still own up to the present?

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, and literary historian. This tribute is drawn from her introduction to The Sea Lies Ahead (HarperCollins, 2015), which she also translated.)

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2020 8:53:56 AM |

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