by Muhammad Umar Memon

Basti (1979) is set in a city in Pakistan, presumably Lahore; its time is the last few months of 1971 preceding, and leading up to, the traumatic fall of Dhaka; its protagonist is a young professor of history -- Zakir, a typical Shiite name. Originally from a small town tucked away somewhere in the mythic landscape of eastern Uttar Pradesh (India), Zakir, along with his parents, moves to Pakistan in 1947, leaving behind not just an idyllic childhood, but also his childhood sweetheart Sabirah, a cousin of his. Sabirah never comes to Pakistan, even when Muslim life is threatened in India and her own immediate relatives emigrate to what was then East Pakistan. She never marries, nor does Zakir. He is in love with Sabirah, but lacks the will to either call or fetch her from India.

Although the novel chronicles only a few months in Zakir's life, his whole life, and, more importantly, his entire cultural personality extending back through a millennium and a half of Muslim history, is recalled through skilfully deployed flashbacks. Being a professor of history, Zakir is aware (perhaps all too well aware) of the course of Muslim history in the Subcontinent; being a Shiite, he is also aware of the course of this history beyond India in the mainlands of Islam. This history has been one of constant internecine feuds among Muslims for political dominance. In fact, for Zakir, it was the advent of the scheming Umayyads on Islam's political horizon in 661 C.E. that inaugurated an interminable era of dissension, strife and hatred. There are references to Muslim South Asian history throughout the novel: the 1857 war of independence from the British Raj; the creation of Pakistan in 1947; the 1965 war between India and Pakistan; and finally the 1971 political disintegration of Pakistan with the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. The novel ends with this last event.

Basti does not replicate familiar reality. Events, otherwise concrete, appear swathed in an eerie half-light; they hover at the edge of consciousness, recognized not so much by their physical attributes as by their effect on Zakir. Characters, too, appear shorn of physical traits and particularizing detail; only their mental events are given. Evocative speech, rather than the unfolding of a well-constructed plot, moves the story forward. The impression of dramatic immediacy is created by employing a combination of narrative voices. But the transitions between the third-person omniscient narrator and the first-person narrator are often so seamless as to be almost unnoticeable.

In its design Basti resembles an elegant hour-glass: two large sections -- comprising Chapters One to Six and Eight to Eleven -- held together by a slim waist, Chapter Seven. Chapter One, much the longest, is made up entirely of Zakir's past. It is recalled through a flashback frequently interrupted by events in the narrative present. By the end of Chapter Four the past is fully asssimilated to the present. Henceforward, events occur in the narrative present. The slim middle portion is reserved almost entirely for the events of the twelve days of the 1971 war and the thoughts and feelings they evoke in Zakir -- as recounted in diary form. The events of the last section are overwhelmingly psychic. But they occur to Zakir in an indeterminate time following the breakup of Pakistan, symbolized by the fall of Dhaka.

This seemingly simple structure hides a conceptual complexity of considerable magnitude. The ostensible purpose of the prolonged flashback is to acquaint the reader with Zakir's past. But it is not there merely to evoke a childhood idyll, as some have wrongly assumed. After all, the childhood is recalled through the eyes of an adult Zakir, who both mediates and transforms its events, assigning them a value and importance based on his experiences in the present. The process of remembrance itself is triggered, moreover, by specific events in the present. The purpose of the idyll is thus to bring into focus some fundamental psychological traits of Zakir's personality -- traits which will later provide the rationale for his conduct and responses to events in the present.

The idyll establishes Zakir as a fairly complex character. And the narrative structurally supports this complexity by employing a set of devices associated chiefly with post-realist fiction. Linearity and chronology, if not altogether suspended, are nevertheless kept at bay as far as possible. Events in the present are juxtaposed with analogous events in the past, some even extending back a millennium or more. The cumulative effect is that of a distorting prism, a dizzying collage of discontinuities and refractions, of melting images and blurring edges. The narrative structure thus not only supports but also replicates the structure and state of Zakir's mind.

Let us look a bit more closely at the first chapter. The hypnotic idyll, which breaks upon the senses with its immense evocative beauty, underscores the beginnings of a faintly tragic note: the perception that the paradisiacal time and space of Rupnagar, seemingly impervious to change, have finally succumbed to the corrosive powers of time. Zakir's paradise is a pre-industrial town in memory -- pristine, whole, full of wonder and harmony between man and nature. Above all, it is a town full of religious accord. The latter aspect of the town's corporate identity is brought out in the largely cordial interaction of its mixed population of Hindus and Muslims, and in the symbiotic existence of two diametrically opposed visions of truth, as embodied in the Hindu and Muslim stories of the creation of the world. Here the parallel worlds of Bhagat-ji and Abba Jan, of Hindu mythology and Muslim legend and lore, could coexist.

Eventually Rupnagar is pure fiction. Unlike most other cities later in Zakir's life, it has no reality in geographic or cartographic fact. It exists only in cranial space. The very name Rupnagar (City of Beauty) -- like Husnpur (Beautiful Town) in the author's first novel Chandgahan (Lunar Eclipse) -- represents a yearning for things that might have been. It is a utopia which harks back to Husain's idealistic vision of what Hindu-Muslim culture was or should have been.

Rupnagar could not survive as a myth. Its purity was sullied. But the discord and destruction which ruptured its harmony already existed within it as a latent possibility. They were not imposed from outside. The rupture is signalled almost within paragraphs of the creation stories. Little Zakir, having learned how the world came to be, wonders what happened to it next. The crumbling, foxed tome in Abba Jan's bookshelf introduces him to that archetypal story of fratricide -- Cain's slaying of his brother Abel. That helps a bit. But it also leaves him confused. He wants to know why Cain slew his own brother. He asks his grandmother. Her explanation grips him with both wonder and fear. (The tragic motif of fratricide will appear as a central metaphor again and again throughout the novel with the regularity of a mournful refrain -- reaching a climax in the dismemberment of Pakistan.) The outbreak of plague in Rupnagar, and the ominous appearance of a black cat (which, too, will reappear later in the novel), further intensify the sense of impending doom and disharmony.

With the act of Partition, the destruction of Rupnagar as a haven of peace is complete. Scenes of the religious violence of 1947 merge with nightmarish scenes of civil disorder and anomie in the Lahore of late 1971. The chapter thus connects the two aspects of time through Zakir's consciousness. At a subtler level, because the past is recalled from a future point in time, it both provides relief against the present (cf. the opening paragraph of Chapter Two), and confirms the present anomie as inevitably atavistic. The idyll, figuratively speaking, is also the hell. Creation ends in destruction. And the events and human conduct which fill the intervening space explain, causally, the inescapability of death and destruction.

Thus the opening chapter contains the reduced blueprint of the entire novel. Creation, the immorality of human conduct, and consequent destruction -- all three major events are present here. The rest of the novel simply expands on them. For instance, the joy and exuberance of Zakir's first days in Pakistan, the uplifting hope that something positive will emerge from the migration experience, can easily be equated with the joy of "creation." The middle part presents the progressive deterioration of Pakistan as a moral ideal, which forces Zakir to withdraw into himself, frantically seeking some untapped inner source of strength. The pace of violence around him increases, Pakistan loses its eastern wing, the country is placed directly in the path of destruction, and, to compound the tragedy, Zakir's own father dies.

Critics have often asked why Zakir and his friends do not act, rather than merely experiencing; why they do not move more energetically to help their country during such harrowing times. They might at the very least voice their disapproval of the situation, rather than merely rush off to an old, run-down cemetery, as Zakir and Afzal do, and lapse into a state of inconsolable torpor and grief. But Zakir's silence, and his apparent lack of overt political activism, do not stem from some inherent flaw in his moral fibre, but from a particular view of history -- one shaped in the crucible of Karbala. Seen as such, his behavior is not failure. The novel is not about political resistance and activism. It is about how a personality survives in a morally corrupt universe by drawing on its own inner resources.

Zakir is a Shiite -- which is to say that the events of Karbala belong to the deepest strata of his inner life. The details of the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala are quite well known and need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that the episode of his slaying is full of pathos, passion, and suffering. Outnumbered and outmatched, abandoned or betrayed by many of his supporters, Imam Husain marched against the Umayyad forces with all the odds fatally against him. Right from the start he had no illusions about the outcome of the battle; yet he did nothing to avert it.

After Karbala, Shiism would seem to have given up faith in armed struggle as a viable means of achieving essentially spiritual and moral goals. After the occultation of the twelfth linear Imam in 874, Shiite concern with material history and empirical time itself noticeably declines. Instead, aspirations for victory come to be placed, dramatically, in meta-historical time. The Muharram piety -- with its mourning assemblies, memorial services, self-flagellation, and display of grief -- underscores a Shiite desire to share vicariously in the pain of Imam Husain and to symbolically connect the "here and now" with sacred time and space, with the karb (pain) and bala (test, trial, tribulation) experienced by the Imam.

Zakir, the historian, whose name means "one who remembers," walks through his time and space with the graphic memory of Shiite suffering. The more the world around him crumbles into chaos, the more he withdraws into himself in what appears to be almost a scramble for a very private kind of salvation through the Shiite principle of the interiorization of suffering. Being the person he is, Zakir is not likely to react openly to such temporal issues as the conduct of the government and the nature of political authority. Where, in the Shiite world-view, have government and authority ever been anything other than corrupt? Events in East Pakistan seem to be merely a replay of the earlier Islamic civil wars. A history in which brother kills brother is being re-enacted with inexorable normative force.

Material events, instead of inciting to physical action, can perhaps heighten the sense of suffering. They are therefore irreplaceable items in the baggage of redemption. Grief, experienced in all its intensity, helps the personality rise to sublimity. Thus a similar restraint, an acceptance of pain, is evident even in the most personal areas of Zakir's life. His love for Sabirah, whose name means "patient" or "enduring," remains unfulfilled not because of external impediment, but by deliberate choice. Zakir does not expect love to blossom in a morally imperfect world. Even his minor encounters with women -- with Tasnim, with Anisah -- come to nothing. In the end, we are left with a personality curled back upon itself, seeking salvation through redemptive suffering in the impersonal cruelty of empirical time. Zakir and Sabirah love each other with an intransitive love.

Zakir, the central character in the novel, sees himself and his world as a cultural continuum. He re-experiences moments of South Asian Muslim history going back to the turmoil of 1857 -- the "Mutiny," as the British still call it, but the "First War of Independence" to most South Asians. In the aftermath of this disaster, British colonial rule became more firmly entrenched in India. It was there to stay -- or so it seemed. The year of 1857 was the darkest moment for the Indians, more so for the Indian Muslims. After all, the British had wrested power directly from the Muslims, and it was a Muslim emperor whom they had deposed and exiled. The Muslims emerged from the "Mutiny" in a politically weakened state. Their confidence was shattered and their pride severely injured. While most drowned themselves in self-pity, and others plunged into a romantic recital of their former glory, some, like Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), thought more pragmatically. This pragmatism would become the foundation of the efforts that eventually led the British to fold up and leave their prized colony.

However important, the Muslims' share in the eviction of the British was only as large as their numbers. Being a minority -- albeit sizable -- they could not have realized their goal without the Hindus, the majority population of India, among whom the process of reformation and national awakening had started even earlier than among the Muslims. While nationalist aspirations united the two communities, much else divided them. And even on the nationalist front, mutual distrust never allowed the two to work together except for brief periods. The British, naturally, stood to gain by the division, which they fueled and fanned, often unabashedly; but they deepened what already existed.

As the vision of eventual freedom became a distinct possibility, it also shattered the dream of a united India. Hindu-Muslim suspicion and mutual distrust intensified. The British departure in 1947 was accompanied by the worst Hindu-Muslim riots and bloodshed India had witnessed in her history. India was partitioned along religious lines on August 15, 1947, amidst religious rioting which resulted in countless dead and homeless on both sides of the new Indo-Pakistan border. Many Muslims saw their homes divided, with part of the family now living in Pakistan, part in India.

The emergent geometry of the new South Asian map needed all the exuberance of religious imagination to be appreciated. A tri-colored India was flanked on its eastern and western borders by the stark Islamic green. In time the religious element, which had provided the rationale for the creation of Pakistan, proved too weak a bond to keep the country united in the face of its linguistic and ethnic divisions. Consequently, in 1971, the eastern wing of Pakistan broke away and, after a bloody civil war, emerged as the sovereign state of Bangladesh.

Intizar Husain is one of the most powerful, prolific, and talented Urdu fiction writers from Pakistan./1/ He was born in an orthodox Shiite family, for his father and an uncle were recent converts to Shiism. The rest of the family, however, were predominantly Sunni Muslims. The family history included at least one Sufi or religious figure in each generation. Open-minded and ecumenical in spirit, these men looked upon their faith as a living and spontaneous experience of the divine, unencumbered by the confining literalism of exoteric precept and text. Husain's own father, by contrast, was something of a maulvi (a zealot, a preacher) and a "proselytizer." A man who despised modern ways, a man much like Zakir's father, he didn't allow his son to be ruined by the "new kind of education." So Husain ended up receiving his early education at home in his native Dibai (a township in the district of Bulandshahr in India) under the watchful eye of his father. This education included a study of Arabic and of predominantly religious texts, though on the sly the inquisitive boy managed to read a number of Urdu books -- among them a fascinating one "with yellow covers and pictures of magicians and genies" whose name he was to find out only much later. It was The Arabian Nights, a book that has had an enduring influence on the greater part of his fiction.

The family moved to the larger town of Hapur. Husain was enrolled in school there, and eventually moved on to Meerut for his college education. On August 15, 1947, Partition brought his college career to an abrupt end. While still in India, he was paralyzed by the level of religious violence around him. In his own words:

But when the process leading to Partition began and the series of riots started, I reacted strangely and I felt a sense of anxiety, as if something were slipping through my hands. I hadn't yet emigrated and saw everything which was going on around me. I tried to put my reactions to all this into writing, into prose. . . . I think that it was because of this that I became interested in becoming a short story writer. When I emigrated to Lahore, I left behind any idea of becoming a critic or a poet (Husain 1983:155).
Husain's literary career began almost as soon as he set foot in the new country. He became a short story writer -- but not of the fashionable leftist Progressive kind. He felt a need to probe deeper into the past. "I recollected our ancient traditions and legends, the Mahabharata of the Hindus and the history of the Muslim migration, the hegira." His questions about human nature and behavior were asked "against this whole background" (Husain 1983:161).

As his thinking developed, he found himself examining the "Indian Muslim culture of which I am a product and which has shaped the history of which I am a part." This "creative amalgam" was the result of an attempt "to understand the Islamic revelation in terms of our land," and "to merge that revelation with our soil." But this process of amalgamation was threatened by the "puritan frame of mind":

I believe that there was this on-going cultural process which was brought to a halt in a very unnatural way. Its progress was blocked by a few Muslims who were victims of this puritan frame of mind and also by some conservative Hindus. On the one hand, there was the Muslim who tried to erase all of his history and live in some period before Muslims had come to India. On the other hand, there was the conservative Hindu who strove to ignore all this interaction and return to some earlier period before it began.
The efforts of "reactionary" elements on both sides ended by "ushering in those tragic events which have afflicted us ever since" (Husain 1983:167-8). It was with this pained consciousness that Husain approached the experience of Partition.

When Husain settled in Lahore late in 1947, he found that in the new nation too, creative writing tended to reproduce the same limited attitudes which the Progressives had earlier displayed toward Partition. He was disappointe -- that is, until one day he read a few lyric poems by the young poet Nasir Kazmi (1925-1972). Suddenly he knew that this was the voice he had been waiting for -- the voice "which could convey me to the depths of that experience, to its very soul." The two kindred spirits soon found each other. Their thinking accorded so well that Husain even announced that they were "the first literary generation of Pakistan," and "the representatives of a new consciousness" (Husain 1983:164). Within the novel Basti, many have seen Zakir's close friend Afzal as based on the character of Nasir Kazmi.

Husain at first hoped that the experience of hijrat, or Emigration, would be a source of creativity and growth in the life of the new nation. He sought to turn the temporal event of the Prophet Muhammad's hijrat from Mecca to Medina in 622 C.E. into an archetypal event of renewal, an epiphany that could enact itself again and again across time and history. As time wore on, however, he came to fear a collective loss of memory.

But today, after our political ups and downs, I find myself in a different mood. Now I feel that sometimes a great experience comes to be lost to a nation; often nations forget their history. . . . So, that experience, I mean the experience of Emigration, is unfortunately lost to us and on us. And the great expectation that we had of making something out of it at a creative level and of exploiting it in developing a new consciousness and sensibility -- that bright expectation has now faded and gone."/2/
Husain's weariness is fully plausible in a man robbed of all hope by his country's failure in leadership. Suppression of democracy, annulment of civilian government, inauguration of military dictatorship -- all accomplished in one fell swoop by Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan in 1958; the painful outcome of the 1965 military showdown with India; and, perhaps most humiliating of all, the 1971 civil war which blew away the fragile unity of Pakistan forever -- these are among the sad notes that give the despair a tragic resonance.

If 1947 divided the South Asian subcontinent on the basis of religion, 1971 left no doubt that religion itself had proved an insufficiently strong bond to keep people united. Such estrangement could be explained only by the weakening of the individual and national moral sensibility. Society had not been regenerated or renewed. The loss of memory, the loss of collective identity, spelled disaster and even death -- a death which didn't come soft-footed or unannounced, but was preceded by a state of moral turpitude in which a nation's conscience darkened and lost all power of distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. As time wore on and the political fortunes of the new country showed little sign of improvement, a profound uncertainty set in as to whether the loss could ever be recovered. Correspondingly, the effort to recollect became more intense, more urgent. Intizar Husain began to show in his stories a fear of being irrevocably estranged from his essence, a sense that there might be no creative life possible outside one's own tradition. The death one faced within the tradition became preferable to the death that resulted from abandoning it.

Over the years, Husain has never stopped writing. The author of some one hundred twenty-five Urdu short stories, all of which have appeared in Pakistani and Indian periodicals, Husain has also experimented with a number of other forms:  novella, novel, biography, and plays for stage, radio, and television. He has also edited a number of old Urdu tales, translated Russian and American fiction, and compiled anthologies of Urdu fiction. His conversations with the late poet Nasir Kazmi on various literary issues and problems used to appear regularly in several literary journals. He is, however, best known as a master of the short story. Among his published works are seven story collections, three novels, a novella, a travel account of his two visits to India more than three decades after Partition, and a collection of his literary essays and book reviews.

Husain is married, has no children, and makes his home in Lahore. After working for nearly three decades as a columnist for the daily Urdu newspaper Mashriq (The East), he moved over, in 1989, to the English newspaper The Frontier Post. A man of mysterious silences about himself, quiet and reclusive, Intizar Husain must now be in his late sixties.


/1/ This account of his life is based on biographical details contained in Husain (1983).

/2/ Intizar Husain, "Intizar Husain aur Muhammad Umar Maiman ke darmiyan ek bat-chit," in Shab-khun (Allahabad) 8,96 (1975), p. 19.  Translation mine.

A Few English Sources on Intizar Husain

Husain, Intizar. 1983. "A Conversation between Intizar Husain and Muhammad Umar Memon." Trans. by Bruce R. Pray. Journal of South Asian Literature 18,2 (1983):153-186.

Memon, Muhammad Umar. 1980. "Partition Literature:  A Study of Intizar Husain." Modern Asian Studies 14,3 (1980):377-410.

-------. 1981. "Reclamation of Memory, Fall, and the Death of the Creative Self: Three Moments in the Fiction of Intizar Husain." International Journal of Middle East Studies 13 (1981):73-91.

-------. 1983. "Pakistani Urdu Creative Writing on National Disintegration: The Case of Bangladesh." Journal of Asian Studies 43,1 (1983):105-127.

-------, ed. 1983a. The Writings of Intizar Husain. Special issue, Journal of South Asian Literature 18,2 (1983).

-------, ed. 1987.  An Unwritten Epic and Other Stories. Lahore: Sang-e Meel Publications.


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