Much of my time in the 1970s was devoted to the study of Intizar Husain’s fiction. I wrote several articles on him which appeared in a number of US and British professional journals, interviewed him for over four hours in 1974, translated his short fiction extensively, brought out a special issue of the Journal of South Asian Literature on him, and later published two selections of his stories: An Unwritten Epic and The Seventh Door and Other Stories. This was his first and comprehensive introduction to the non-Urdu world. In the late 1980s, I suggested to Frances Pritchett that we translate his novel Basti. A week later she told me that she would do the translation and asked me to write the introduction, which was included in the 1995 edition of the novel published by HarperCollins (Delhi) and also in the 2007 OUP (India) edition. Since it is not part of the novel’s third incarnation, I present, in the following, a shorter version of my introduction. However, I would strongly urge readers to consult a more comprehensive treatment of the novel in my “Shi’ite Consciouness in a Recent Urdu Novel: Intizar Husain’s Basti,” in Urdu and Muslim South Asia: Studies in Honor of Ralph Russell, edited by Christopher Shackle (1989).
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, Zakir, is a young professor of history. 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 skillfully 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 mainland 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, recognised not so much by their physical attributes as by their effect on Zakir. Characters, too, appear shorn of physical traits and particularising detail; only their mental events are given. Evocative speech, rather than the unfolding of a well-constructed plot, moves the story forward. Employment of a combination of narrative voices creates the impression of dramatic immediacy. 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 assimilated 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, symbolised 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.