Column: Requiem for vanished hopes: Intizar Husain's early fiction

Published August 4, 2013
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.
Muhammad Umar Memon is a writer, translator and editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies. He was Professor of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and is an Emeritus Professor now.

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.

To exploit the 1947 hijrat creatively, Muslims needed to look back to their past and define their cultural personality. It is exactly at this point that things failed to go as expected. Hope floundered. The task of regenerating society proved altogether too inhibiting. In spite of some initial success, the effort ultimately met with failure. Loss of memory - the loss, in other words, of identity - spelled disaster, even death, which, however, didn't come soft-footed or unannounced. It was preceded by a state of moral turpitude, when a nation's conscience darkened and lost all power of distinction between right and wrong.

Although a temporal event, the hijrat as a constitutive experience is not shackled or limited by time. It can be invoked anywhere and at any time when Muslims are forced out of their homes by the determination of history. Thus there is no contradiction if it is identified as the dominant experience of an age even if the aggregate of Muslims of that age in a given area did not physically experience it. Only a part of the population of contemporary Pakistan is made up of Indian immigrants. The rest remained right where they were. But even they participated in the dominant experience of their age, as Husain reiterated for me in the interview what he had already written in his 1963 article. Their participation, however, was largely psychic.

The partition of India rudely interrupted the continuity of Muslim culture. The immigrants, emerging from the vertiginous merry-go-round of events, felt disoriented and cut off from the mainsprings of their identity in their first days in Pakistan. Husain's early stories contained in his first two collections Gali Kuche (Alleys and Bylanes) and Kankari (Pebble) thus project a number of characters who make desperate attempts to reconnect with their past, thereby reconstituting, indeed reconfiguring, their fractured identity into a discernable whole. Because most of these characters happen to be Shia, the retrieval is made possible by the employment of powerful Shia symbols and images.

The process of retrieval and regeneration is poignantly displayed, for instance, in the struggle of Syed of the short story 'Sirhiyaan' (The Stairs). He has arrived in Pakistan without memories, robbed of all sense of past or personality, a plight underscored by the loss of his ability to dream. Dreams in Husain often help activate memory, needed to span a bridge between the past and present. Syed continues to live in a state of eerie suspension, until one night the topic of oneiromancy crops up among his fellow immigrants. As Razi goes over his dreams and begins to recount snatches of his life in pre-Partition India, he inadvertently activates Syed's own memory, which had lain arrested until that point. Images of the past come crowding in. By the end of the story, Syed has relived his past. More importantly, he has been made whole, fully rehabilitated to his past. This awareness is powerfully conveyed in the concluding lines of the story: "He opened his sleep-laden eyes and, looking toward Razi, said in a mysterious voice, 'My heart is beating rather fast. It seems I'm going to have a dream after all.'"

However disoriented he may be, Syed has not abandoned hope. The loss of memory is therefore only temporary in his case and can be restored relatively easily. But with time and the political fortunes of the new country showing little sign of improvement, a profound uncertainty sets in about whether the loss can ever be recovered. Correspondingly, the effort to recollect becomes more intense and urgent. Indeed, it is transformed into a frenzied struggle in the case of the nameless protagonist of the short story 'Apni Aag ki Taraf' (Toward His Fire). This nameless character has just emerged from a burning apartment building. He runs into a friend, who offers to put him up. But he declines and explains: "Shaikh Ali Hujviri once saw a mountain on fire. In the fire he spotted a tormented little mouse running frantically around. Somehow in its mad scramble the mouse managed to get away from the erupting volcano. But as soon as it had got away from the fire, it dropped dead!" An uneasy silence ensues. After some time he adds in a very low voice, "You see, I don't want to die."

In other words, he is aware that outside the building - probably a self-sufficient and self-sustaining universe - he is irrevocably estranged from his essence. Stretch the metaphor and there is no creative life possible outside one's tradition. So, even if there is death inside, he must - as do Pichhwa in 'Ek Bin-likhi Razmiya' (An Unwritten Epic) and Arshad and Nairn in 'Andhi Gali' (The Dead-End Alley) - return to his own element, his own fire, because a more painful death awaits him outside.

The second phase of Intizar Husain's writing is guided by the theme of moral fall. Akhiri Admi (The Last Man; 1967), his third collection, is more of a novel in eleven stories, as each piece explores with haunting power the steady erosion of moral conscience and the resulting decline in imaginative cognition, leading to an eventual hollowing-out of personality. The stories range from the first hesitant stirrings of evil in the heart, with the advent of doubt, to the inevitable headlong plunge into sin.

Thus in the story 'Taangen' (The Legs), the coachman Yaseen's experiences of Pakistani life underscore the decline in personal morality. A man refreshingly simple, almost childlike in his endearing naiveté, but, above all, guided by an innate morality, Yaseen finds himself repeatedly betrayed in the new country. A fellow immigrant from his hometown back in India, whom Yaseen has provided with a roof overhead for a whole month, makes off with his horse.

It seems that even nature has conspired against the country. A violent storm knocks over the minarets of the tomb-sanctuary, of the revered 10th- or 11th-century saint Ali Ibn Usman Jullabi (also known as al-Hujviri, and endearingly among the populace as Data Ganj Bakhsh). Sacred buildings, to Yaseen, exude an aura of sanctity and are somehow immune to the vagaries of time and nature. He finds the incident quite incomprehensible; he observes: "There have been terrible storms before, Syed Sahib, and there have been floods as well. Many times the river has overflowed its banks all the way up to the foot of Data's tomb, but it never climbed past the lower steps."

Yaseen wonders: after all, during the riots whipped up by communal passion, the Hindus and Sikhs resorted to stratagem after clever stratagem but failed to set fire to the Delhi Jama Masjid! The knocking over of Data Sahib's minarets - Yaseen broods darkly - must surely be the work of the Pakistanis themselves! But why?

The general morality has sunk so low that without graft and "contacts you can never get anything done." And no sooner does a perfectly honest, decent, God-fearing man set foot in Karachi, then capital and economic hub of the country, than he is divested of the smallest moral feeling. Turns into a perfect rogue! "We've fallen on evil times," is Yaseen's sad conclusion; "there's no joy left in living these days." Just about everyone has sprouted goat's legs - the metaphor of erosion of personal morality.

While 'Parchha'in' (The Shadow) and 'Ham-safar' (literally, a fellow-traveller) graphically portray the advent of doubt about self and identity, 'Akhiri Admi' and 'Zard Kutta' (The Yellow Cur) underscore man's desperate attempts to maintain his humanity, or rather his humanness, and his ultimate failure. In 'Kaya-kalp' (Metamorphosis), essentially a variation on the latter theme, loss of personality becomes an act of will, therefore the more tragic. It is no longer the rottenness of the times, but the canker on the soul of man himself.

Prince Azad Bakht of the story thus meets a different end from that reserved for the princes of popular folk-romances. Unlike a true fairy-tale hero, he neither slays the white giant nor rescues the embattled princess, but quietly submits to his considerably eclipsed role of antihero brought on by a steadily declining perception of his humanness. Turned into a fly each evening at the first rumblings of the giant's returning footfalls, and back into human form by a felicitous touch from the princess with the departure of the giant each morning, Prince Azad Bakht is stripped of the last trace of his human identity, whose eventual collapse is signaled one fateful evening when the princess does not change him into a fly but nevertheless finds him changed into a fly by his own volition. He has himself abdicated his human attributes for those of a fly! The outer change is only a metaphor for the inner change of perspective on oneself.

The two apparent attributes of this new - Pakistani - individual are his non-personality and his stark cruelty. Only he who has no sense of himself can act towards others without the least bit of restraint or discriminating judgment. No wonder this kind of man produced the unprecedented horror in the former East Pakistan. But he could have done so only by extinguishing the light of his conscience.

The interconnected themes of crass inhumanity and loss of selfhood appear again and again in the stories of Husain's fourth collection, Shahr-e Afsos (City of Grief; 1973). However, these stories are deliberately swathed in eerie unreality to discourage any attempt to ascribe them too closely to a specific time and place.

'Voh Jo Kho'e Ga'e' (The Lost Ones) provides a stark example of the collapse and death of personality. Here are four people, divested of names to symbolically enhance the sense of loss of personal ego, identified only by their appearance: the bearded man, the youth, the man with the bag, and the man with the wounded head. At some point during their escape from some traumatic event, they begin to suspect that their number is short by one. Since they have no memory at all, they cannot remember the face or even the name of the missing person, or whether, indeed, the missing person is a man or a woman. They count and re-count. Each time, the one who counts fails to include himself, which makes him think that he is, in essence, the missing man. The missing man thus replaces the real man, while the man of flesh and blood, from loss of self-awareness, fades into non-being. The tragic-comical paradox implicit in the situation is made tantalisingly explicit when "the man with the wounded head" realises that his being depends not so much on his consciousness of himself as on the goodwill of others who are willing to testify to his existence. Addressing the "old man," he says, "And suppose you suddenly decided to withhold your testimony - I would right away cease to be, wouldn't I?"

In the short story 'Shahr-e Afsos', which structurally resembles - or even looks like a sequel to - 'The Lost Ones,' the two processes of moral fall and consequent death of the personality as a creative principle converge into one. It was written shortly after the political fragmentation of Pakistan in 1971, though it makes no direct reference to that event. The process of moral disintegration and death evident (the former only as a faint suggestion, the latter as the dominant metaphor) in 'The Lost Ones' culminates in this story.

Knowledge of the circumstances amid which Bangladesh became a nation can enhance the impact and haunting power of 'Shahr-e Afsos'. If 1947 divided the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion, 1971 left no doubt that religion itself had proved to be the most tenuous of bonds for keeping a people united. Where 1947 had pitted members of one faith against those of another, the events of 1971 pitted Muslim against Muslim. Such inhumanity could be explained only by the weakening and eventual collapse of individual moral sensibility. In the present story, Husain attempts just such an explanation. If the foursome in 'The Lost Ones' are lost, the trio in 'City of Grief' - also without name or identity - have been reduced to mere corpses. They linger in the city of grief, bearing the burden of their sin and inhumanity, expectantly awaiting burial. They are disfigured beyond recognition. Their present plight is the result of their evil deeds.

The theme of moral death is introduced in the opening line - "I have nothing to say," says the First Man, "because I am dead" - and sustained throughout. What caused his death? During the breakdown of civil order and subsequent chaos in what was once East Pakistan, the First Man, by his own admission, forced a young man, most likely a Bengali, to strip his own sister - a scene which he watched with sadistic glee - and then to rape her. This act, which should have caused any man to die of shame, leaves the First Man quite remorseless. When the Second Man asks him, "Then you died?" he replies, "No, I lived on," which makes the Third Man wonder, "Lived on? - Well?"

The First Man lives on to witness a whole series of moral crimes, leading up to the most devastating of them all: the rape of his own daughter by none other than himself at the express command of the same Bengali youth who now, by a curious turn of fate, has the upper hand.

The Second and the Third Man too have gone through a similar process of dehumanisation, except that the latter is not dead but "missing" - a worse fate than being dead. He must first find himself, then die, and only then worry about burial. He looks at the human debris of the other two; lest he too should lapse into inertia before he has found himself, he tries to shake himself free from them. But the other two manage to convince him of the futility of such an act. "So?" asks the Third Man in despair. The Second Man fixes his gaze upon the Third Man for so long that the latter feels he is becoming inert. At last he says: "So you sit down, Missing Man, don't ask where you are, just believe you are dead."

In yet another story, 'Aseer' (The Prisoners), the validity of the Pakistani position vis-a-vis the events of 1971 is called into question. This story is also a subtle indictment of the thoughtless gaiety, total indifference, and crass materialism dominating the national mood in West Pakistan just as momentous and bloody events were occurring in Bangladesh. Javed, who has escaped from the grisly scene in Bangladesh, meets his old friend Anwar in Lahore. Anwar wants to know what exactly happened in East Pakistan. Even though he would like to talk about the horror he has witnessed, Javed, strangely, is unable to; something of the gaiety and indifference around him has killed his smallest desire to go over his experience. He rather wants to know more about Mirza, somebody Anwar had mentioned the previous day. Anwar informs him that this fellow, Mirza, ended up being shot as he was coming out of a political rally that had just ended.

Javed is horrified. He is truly shocked when he learns that there was no apparent reason for the killing, nor was the killing followed by any protest or event. Even Anwar didn't pay much attention to the incident. The story ends with: "Friend," began Anwar in a diffident but probing voice, "you must have seen worse things over there. Isn't that so?" Javed hesitated a bit, then said with sorrow, "Yes, you're right. But at least we knew what was happening - and why."

In a similar story, 'Neend' (Sleep), on the other hand, when Aslam, Zaidi, and Zafar badger Salman, who has just escaped with his life from East Pakistan, with questions about the horrible scenes he has witnessed, Salman evinces absolutely no desire to go over the painful experience. Instead, he repeatedly dozes off. Finally, he tells them that all he wants is to fall asleep. And he does.

Reminiscent of the experience of many veterans of the Vietnam War, both Anwar and Salman are painfully aware of the futility of talking about the incident. A visceral feeling informs them that what they have to say is not likely to be understood. The country just doesn't want to know. Then again, the experience is so formidable it can hardly be captured in words or understood by the workings of the conscious mind. The soft, subdued glow at the edge of sleep might prove more hospitable. Sleep, interestingly enough, is rarely the desire to forget in Husain's work. He rather sees it as that reassuring realm of half-light in which the meandering vision quickens, the subconscious spills over and invests fuzzy thoughts with brilliant definition, focus, and intensity. Not surprisingly, therefore, Husain says: "It is when I am thinking of writing a story, working out its details that I sleep the most!"

That a man could be murdered cold-bloodedly without evoking the slightest response among people is surely a sign of apathy, a crisis of comprehension. A senseless death can only point to a senseless life. The situation at home is thus sharply contrasted with that in East Pakistan, where warring groups have, at least, a clear perception of what it is they are fighting for or against.

What Husain seems to be saying is this: unless the western half of the country is willing to understand itself, it will not be able to understand the eastern half. This is because self-knowledge generates knowledge of the other: and self-knowledge, in order to be authentic, must proceed from a healthy self-doubt.

The last four short stories, along with 'Hindustan se ek Khat' (A Letter from India) and 'Kachhve' (The Turtles) and the novel Basti (Town), make up Husain's fiction corpus that could be said to have been inspired by the events of 1971. There is nothing, however, in the stories themselves to pin them down decisively to 1971. Husain's basic impulse is moral. He is not after historiography, but the reality of man in history.



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