The present, 34 years too late but rather euphoric hullabaloo over Intizar Husain's Basti is perhaps the appropriate time to talk about some of his earlier work. Basti doesn't exist in a vacuum. In fact, it is a summation, an ingathering of many strands that precede it in the author's earlier, sizeable corpus. Here, I propose to present my reading of a part of his fictional work.
In a 1963 article, 'Hamaare Ahd ka Adab' (Literature of our Times), Husain has captured rather well the general climate of optimism and hope pervading his own thinking as well as that of a few other writers in the decade following the birth of Pakistan. In the aggregate of the writing of the decade he discerns three attitudes in relation to Partition: the reductive attitude of the Progressives, who marginalised, indeed trivialised the event and denounced the communal massacres in the name of humanity; that of Saadat Hasan Manto, who used the incident as an exploration of human possibility in a moment of crisis; and that of such poets as Mukhtar Siddiqi, Qaiyum Nazar, and Yusuf Zafar, who systematically avoided any mention of the event lest literature degenerate into journalism.
A still newer attitude was also making its hesitant but unmistakable appearance. It identified the hijrat as the seminal experience of the age, and arose out of the necessity of turning that experience into something creative. This was Husain's own attitude as well.
In 1974, when I queried Husain about that article during the course of a lengthy interview, he admitted to his earlier optimism, adding: "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. […] I do not mean that a nation does, or has to, keep its history alive in its memory in every period. […] So, that experience, I mean the experience of migration, 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 […] in developing a new consciousness and sensibility - that bright expectation has now faded and gone."
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 once and for all - these are but a few sad notes that give his despair a tragic resonance.
How does Husain look at his country's disaster and breakup? In a sentence, he sees the period between 1947 (Pakistan's creation) and 1971 (Pakistan's fragmentation) as a process in which the light of conscience is steadily extinguished in the individual. Man's frantic efforts to retain his humanity are subverted progressively, until he loses all moral distinction.
In examining Husain's creative work up to the 1970s, Javaid Qazi divides it into three distinct phases and shows how the underlying literary concerns of the writer, while remaining basically unchanged in each phase, acquire different emphases and employ different techniques. Thus in phase one, the decade of the 1950s, the emphasis is on social, cultural, and religious symbols; in phase two, the decade of the 1960s, on animal imagery and metaphor; and in phase three, the decade of the 1970s, on concepts of self and self-identity. The unifying theme is that of man's effort to keep his humanity, or humanness, intact, and his inability to do so.
This corresponds fairly closely to my own descriptive taxonomy of Husain's work, which I see, rather, in terms of a metaphor of journey. It starts with the realisation that while something has grievously gone wrong, something else, with abundant creative possibilities, has also been gained. I suggest a thematic triad to delineate the three stages of that journey as: (1) reclamation of memory, some initial success in this project, but, ultimately, failure, leading to (2) man's moral perversion and fall, resulting in (3) the extinction of all the creative principle in life.
In an earlier article, I have exhaustively dealt with this thematic triad by examining a number of short stories to support my argument and also warned against too uncritical and rigid an identification of each of the three leitmotifs with stories in each of the three phases. While it is true that each phase has its dominant thematic strain, the latter is not found there to the exclusion of other phases, which may offer still newer variations of that strain, or ramifications hitherto unavailable in the principal phase.
Briefly, the odyssey begins in 1947. India's Partition was followed by a painful dislocation of sizeable numbers of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. Any exodus or dislocation is always a frightening experience. For Muslims, however, it is also filled with grace. Exodus, in Husain, carries within it the germ of unbounded future creativity. It is also a time for renewal and fresh beginnings. Through a boldly imaginative backward leap, Husain equates - rightly or wrongly - the 1947 exodus of Indian Muslims with the historic hijrat of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to Medina in 622. In spite of its attendant pain of separation for Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions, the first Muslim exodus turned out to be a stunning moment of creativity for the nascent Muslim community, which, in its wake, came to political power. In a way, the latest Muslim migration in 1947 was simply a reenactment of the seminal Mecca-to-Medina hijrat, or a renewal of contact with the archetypal experience of distant antiquity at the very least. It also carried promise and hope, something in the nature of a varidaat (a spiritual experience), as he puts it.