T R A N S L A T O R ' S I N T R O D U C T I O N
Intizar Husain chose to call his now-famous novel Basti, a word that can refer to any place where groups of people live, from a neighborhood to a city. The novel itself is full of towns, including not only present ones in Pakistan and India, but also at least one from the past (the Delhi of 1857), some mythic ones from Muslim and Hindu story tradition, and two invented ones, Rupnagar and Vyaspur. Although all the outward events clearly take place during Zakir's adult life in Lahore, Lahore is never identified by name -- it remains "this city" from first to last. And the inward events take place in Zakir's memory and imagination alone, as he moves among the times and places of his personal and cultural history. The author has in some cases blurred the transitions. I have tried to clarify them a bit by providing breaks in the text to show movements in time and place, and using " . . . " where fantasy passages begin. Parts of Chapters Seven, Eight, Ten, and Eleven include fantasy and tangled thoughts. While I have provided footnotes identifying quotations and references, the tangle itself is part of the writer's artistry.
I have tried to make the translation convenient both to readers who know a great deal about South Asia, and to those who know less. Thus wherever possible I have preferred glossary entries to footnotes, since they are less obtrusive to the reader who does not need them. To avoid visual distraction, glossary entries are not identified in the text itself, but all the important names and terms, and most secondary ones, can readily be found. Since the cultural material presupposed by the novel is such a rich mixture of traditional and modern Muslim and Hindu (and Buddhist) material, the glossary is extensive; but it is focused narrowly on the use of each name and term in the novel itself, and seeks to convey only the minimum background information the author clearly expects the reader to have.
In places, the novel presents the translator with intractable problems -- passages in which the language shifts radically from one register to another, in ways that are immensely evocative in Urdu but virtually impossible to capture in English. The use of traditional Muslim religious vocabulary (e.g., in the story of Cain and Abel in Chapter One) can be only weakly suggested by language reminiscent of the King James Version. Rhyming prose and other characteristic flourishes from the Perso-Arabic story-telling tradition (e.g., in the description of the flourishing city in Chapter Seven) lose much of their elegance in English. The changes in register used for the speech of servants (e.g., the energetic speech of the Hindu servant girl Phullo in Chapter One) cannot be sufficiently differentiated in standard English; nor can the effect of the Sanskritized style of some of the stories from the Hindu tradition (e.g., the questions asked by the raja of the sage in Chapter Seven). These losses are simply part of the price both translator and reader must pay.
There are certain kinds of characteristic speech-markers, however, that I could and did retain. Traditional Urdu is notable for its love of direct address and direct discourse. Speeches often begin with a form of address -sometimes a name or kinship term, or very commonly a vocative particle of some sort; while omitting or translating most, I have retained a few of the more vivid, including the rueful ai and the ubiquitous, indispensable, untranslatable yar. In general, each sentence of mine translates one of the novel's sentences, with a minimum of alteration. I have not "transcreated" the text or smoothed out its stylistic idiosyncrasies.
My goal is not to make the characters sound like Americans. I want a careful balance: sentences that are within the range of standard English, but a rhythm that retains the flow of Urdu. I want the reader to have an agreeable double experience: to realize through the semitransparent medium of English that people from a different culture are living their own lives, not ours. While the sentences swim in Urdu like fish in a sea, in English I want them at least to swim like fish in a well-designed aquarium. Urdu is an Indo-European language with a grammar not radically different from that of English, and modern Urdu prose does manage, for the most part, to come across into English without unacceptable losses. (This is unfortunately far from being the case with much of the older prose and poetry.)
Some Pakistanis have criticized my choice of this novel, on the grounds that it offers a "negative impression" of their culture, a mood of "nostalgia." Certainly Basti has been controversial; and certainly it is nothing like a definitive, complete picture of modern Pakistan. But surely no intelligent reader will expect it to be. Self-critical literature is one mark of an open and confident society; sophisticated literature is one mark of a rich and healthy language. Basti is not a perfect novel, but it is a fine one, and revelatory, and very powerful at its best. I hope it will become part of a growing repertoire of good Urdu novels translated into English; there are a number of promising modern works that would well repay the translator's efforts.
I am grateful to Professor Muhammad Umar Memon of the University of Wisconsin, who proposed this project. For insight into the Urdu text I thank Professor Razi Wasti, former Qaid-e Azam Visiting Professor at Columbia University, who answered many questions; Janab Qamar Jalil of the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan, who had previously compiled a useful serial glossary; and my students at Columbia, who read parts of the novel with me and shared their thoughts and feelings about it. My special thanks go to the author, Intizar Husain, for his kindness and patience with my many questions during my visit to Lahore in 1988. For valuable comments on the translation as a work of English prose, I am indebted to my teacher and friend C. M. Naim of the University of Chicago, to my friends David Rubin and Jennifer Crewe, and especially to my mother, who is a superb grammarian and detector of small errors. All the calligraphic designs that appear in the book were generously provided by my friend Adil Mansuri. Chapter One of the novel recently appeared in Edebiyat, and I thank the editors, Michael Beard and Julie Meisami, for their comments and encouragement.
Above all, I am deeply grateful for the help of
my best friend and collaborator, the distinguished critic Shamsur Rahman
Faruqi, who listened to me read my whole draft aloud while he compared
it with the original. His comments not only saved me from numerous mistakes,
but immeasurably increased the subtlety and depth of the translation. I
have had the best possible help in this task, and any errors that remain
are mine alone.
Frances W. Pritchett
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