Column: Anomie in the land of hope: A brief introduction to Intizar Husain’s novel Basti By Muhammad Umar Memon
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.
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 paradisiac 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 Bhagatji 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 novellaChandgahan (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 that ruptured its harmony already existed within it as a latent possibility. They were not imposed from outside. The rupture is signaled 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 tranquility is complete. Scenes of the communal 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. On a more subtle level, because the past is recalled from a future point in time, it both provides relief against the present (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 that 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 with zest and 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 crumble into a state of inconsolable grief and torpor. But Zakir’s silences, and his apparent lack of overt political activism, stem not from some inherent flaw in his moral fiber, but from a particular view of history — one shaped in the crucible of Karbala. Seen as such, his behaviour 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 12th linear Imam in 874, Shiite concern with material history and empirical time 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 interiorisation 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. 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 here with inexorable normative force.
Material events, instead of inciting men to physical action, can perhaps heighten their 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 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 “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 1857was the darkest moment for the Indians, especially 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 banished. 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 realised 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 fuelled 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 15 August 1947, amidst religious rioting resulting in countless dead and homeless on both sides of the new Indo-Pakistan divide. 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.
Basti, eventually, is a story of “remembrance” and “patience” in the infinite space of historical time.