The language of displacement

April 03, 2016


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Intizar Husain passed away recently, and with him an entire era in Urdu prose and fiction has come to a close. His short stories, columns, essays and novels are a gift to all of us, in them we find the thoughts, dreams, trepidations and pleasures of a generation that has been leaving us in the past decade. Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation of Aagey Samandar Hai — The Sea Lies Ahead — the last of Initizar sahib’s three novels is timely as it spreads his voice to a broader, non-Urdu reading audience in South Asia and beyond.

Any work of translation carries with it the risk of tampering with the original text. The philosopher Walter Benjamin argues that the task of the translator is not to turn Hindi, Greek or English into German, rather it is to allow the power of the foreign language to penetrate the translation. This is a call for a culturally situated, historically grounded and metaphorically sincere rendering of a language that has its roots in a different cultural landscape. Jalil performs her task brilliantly in this case, as she brings to life in English the nuances and subtleties of Intizar sahib’s idiomatic prose, the ganga jamni invocations peppered throughout the book with long-forgotten proverbs, riddles and literary allusions. She also has a command over the Hindu traditions that Intizar sahib’s writing detours into, whether from the Mahabharta or the Vedas, and is equally comfortable in helping us navigate the lost world of Al-Andalus that the writer occasionally makes readers traverse. In addition, the translator has footnotes and a glossary at the end of the book to guide the culturally novice reader to understand the significance of a certain idiom, a political reference, a social event or a religious figure.

Jalil’s introduction places the text initially as part of the longer tradition of Partition literature in Urdu on both sides of the border. Her review presents the case that there are divergent perspectives on the issue of the founding of the two nation states in the ensuing literary debates in India and Pakistan. However, she surprisingly broadens the discussion by stating that “there was hardly any Muslim family that had not lost a member (if not more) or whose lives had not been affected by the trauma in some way or the other”. This is a broad claim which perhaps can be sustained in the experience of north Indian Muslims from Punjab and those from the Hindi/Urdu belt. But such experiences cannot be generalised for Muslims from other parts of South Asia that became Pakistan or for those living in south India (many did not migrate). Jalil’s position may be reflective of her desire to make the book more accessible to a largely Indian audience which may not read Urdu or has a deeper understanding of Pakistani cultural and social life. It may also be a dilemma that is felt acutely by the Muslim ashraf of north India, who may constantly lament their depleted numbers due to the division of British India and frequently ask the existential question “what if”. Yet these experiences cannot be attributed to Baloch fishermen in Gwadar, or peasants in Tando Allah Yar, Sindh.

Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation of Intizar Husain’s Aagey Samandar Hai does complete justice to the original text, bringing it to a much wider readership

As the historian David Gilmartin argues, Pakistan’s creation was a partial resolution of the contradiction between the particularisms of Muslim identity linked to locality and place, and the larger construction of the Muslim community connected to a territorially bound nation-state. In Pakistan the diversity of people’s lives and particularistic cultural experiences remain in perpetual tension to this larger order. As a writer Intizar Hussain understood this tension well and in contrast to the all-encompassing history of Muslim nationalism sought to excavate local stories from, as most authors do, his own cultural background.

The composite political category of being a mohajir notwithstanding, Intizar sahib in this and other texts introduces his readers to differences within this group. Through the use of distinct dialects and idioms and through his discussion of literary rivalries, sights, smells, tastes, mannerisms and etiquette we are made to inhabit the company of people who created their own identity in opposition to those who may have lived only a few miles away in British India. So, we get an intimate understanding of what it means to be from Aligarh, or Bulandshahr, or Meerut, or Lucknow, or from a small qasbah in the Oudh region (but these can be stories from any part of South Asia as the underlying message is about how the emphasis on difference is intrinsic to the processes of identity formation).

Intizar sahib’s sojourns into the specifics of these experiences has raised questions about his own nostalgia for a lost past. This is a larger discussion that cannot be tackled in this space, but I will partially come back to it later. Indeed, Intizar sahib in this novel brings to the fore the nuances of living in a new space by a group that has left its ancestral land, with all its trials, tribulations and pleasures. For Intizar sahib it is clear that the catastrophic aspects of Partition with its destruction and dislocation also undermined normative values and loosened moral strictures. The violence of the mid-1940s in South Asia hence created opportunities for many to rethink past certainties and generate visions for a new future. Within this sense we see the protagonist of the book, Jawad, without social restrictions and the weight of traditions to bind him, taking the risk of falling in love with an office worker. The newness of the country hence meant a certain democratisation where age-old customs and taboos could be broken and social station could be contested.

“Where had we started from? I found myself in a dilemma. The fact is that once I get started on the subject of trees, all other subjects get left behind. So, in my opinion, we had started from the trees. But, surely, there must have been some talk before the talk of the trees which must have led to the topic of trees? On the other hand, if you look at it like this, no one can ever tell how any talk on any subject began in the first place. Because there is always some talk on some subject before the present subject. So let us say that the talk started with the subject of trees. Isn’t it strange where we start and where we end our talk? But does it ever end? That is the problem, though. If only it ended somewhere.” — Excerpt from the book

Yet in this new world there was also an attempt to hold on to past practices. Intizar sahib shows, through introducing us to different characters in the novel, how the arrogance of ashraf exceptionalism was sustained among some. Within this milieu, marriages, that institution par excellence of reproducing privilege, among this group, is one that Intizar sahib comments on through different plot lines. In many such families, marriages were limited to those within the larger kin and lineage. However, the new land made this distinction difficult to sustain and invariably some who were underprivileged and subordinate would surface as social equals and threaten the symbolic stature of ashraf exclusivity; the world had changed and the process produced acute anxiety in households, especially when daughters could be married to ‘others’ for financial security rather than social continuity (as suggested in the discussion on the Lucknow and the Meerut families).

Intizar sahib in his larger work, as is the case with this novel, also understood the plight of those left behind. In a short story of his, ‘Hindustan Se Aik Khat’ (A Letter From India), which predates this novel by many years, the protagonist who in the early 1970s is still in India, sends a heart-wrenching letter to his relatives now settled and enjoying the “good life” in Karachi. There is a lamentation in the letter about the family’s social decline and the unkempt nature of ancestral graves due to financial burdens. Through the portrayal of an aging couple (not unlike Jawad’s relatives in India in The Sea Lies Ahead) Intizar sahib also speaks to the implicit fear of being of under perpetual surveillance and the constant threat of real or imaginary violence that has become the reality for many Indian Muslims. Such trepidations are not part of this particular novel, yet the genteel poverty of his family members, the selling of property, the ruins of the old family home, the psychological and social isolation of Jawad’s cousin in Meerut, shows us the world of many Muslims on the other side.

Now let’s come to the city. The depictions are all too familiar, the waves of migration, the settling of uprooted people, the multiple dialects, the rise of random violence and religious bigotry, all point toward a multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan city … Karachi, a very different space from the Lahore of Husain’s earlier novel, Basti. Yet the novel is not about the localities that the elite created for itself, so aptly discussed in Qurratulain Hyder’s The Housing Society, but in areas (according to the descriptions in the book, as no neighbourhood is named) such as Dastagir, Ayesha Manzil, Nazimabad, Rizvia Colony, Firdaus Colony, Paposh Nagar, neighbourhoods where a middle class, salaried mohajir population settled in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This depiction of Karachi works well with Intizar sahib’s storyline of mushairas and violence co-existing in the same space (the impromptu mushairas that I myself attended in people’s homes in these areas or the annual Amroha Mushaira in Federal B area in the 1970s and ’80s), a nuanced yet important understanding of Karachi’s resilience and creativity in the face of adversities.

Further, this novel or Intizar sahib’s larger oeuvre cannot merely be read within the tropes of Partition literature or for that matter as a form of “nostalgia” (howsoever defined). Rather Initizar sahib’s writings have a more universal tone linked to the dilemmas of displacement, of a diasporic existence, of an experience of rootlessness and vagrancy that one inhabits, once one leaves ‘home’. These can be depicted in stories that are about a certain town or qasbah in UP, as in this text, or can be invoked by narrating the sights and smells of distant lands in Pakhtun baithaks in Shershah Colony. In this novel, this recalling is linked to a process of remembering; memory that fades away as time passes, but then rushes to confront you as in the case of Jawad when he visits India again or when he is lying semi-conscious in a hospital.

Hence, a crucial question that the book raises is about how we remember, for what purposes, who does the remembering, in what context and against what kinds of history this memory is counterpoised to. In doing this, the text takes us into the realm of individual memories that undermine the nationalistic narrative of cataclysmic events like Partition. It dwells on how we remember through the senses … sight, smell, voice … that trigger forgotten lands, events, times, pleasures and sorrows. In constructing this argument, Intizar sahib’s writing enters a much broader canvas that attempts to understand an individual’s travel through time and space. So the nightingale’s singing, the sight of a tree, snakes crossing paths or the smell of monsoon rain, all can trigger a past that one has lived and experienced. Nature, with all its diversity, matters to Initizar sahib in its intimate and intertwined relationship to humans.

Within this context, juxtaposing of memory with history, Initizar sahib hints at larger questions of who are we, where have we come from, what is our future. These queries of self-examination offer a critique of dominant history that fixes meanings through its own deterministic trajectories. Thus we need to read Intizar sahib beyond the narrow lens of “mohajir nostalgia” to understand how the particular histories of his characters lead us to more fundamental investigations on the various streams and perspectives within human history. For example, this is quite evident in his bringing in the history of Al-Andalus and also the stories from Mahabharta. Both invocations tell us about those who had to leave cities and their own past due to violence, but they remain also unsure of their own future in the cities they have come to inhabit, whether Dwarka or Granada. The novel through allegorical prose brings the issue of memory and cities together by on the one hand insisting that those who cannot forget their past are doomed to remain unhappy (whether it is the memory of the destroyed city of Mathura, of the lost cities Seville and Cordoba, or for that matter Vyaspur, the town in the novel). On the other hand, Intizar sahib also shows how the new ‘home’, the cities themselves, also go through their own growth and destruction. In following this narrative, we get a sense of time that is partly cyclical … with perhaps a gesture towards Ibn Khaldun ... and his characters while inhabiting the present, yet through affective and sensorial experiences are also part of the long human tradition of mobility and travel (the homage to dastan goi is of course present, but also the use of the modernist literary tropes of time travel, a whiff of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).

In the novel we see that a return to India does not remain an option for Jawad; there is no going back for millions who made the journey and, as the title suggests, The Sea Lies Ahead. Interestingly, Intizar sahib with a sense of irony and playfulness undermines the implications of his own title by putting forward a notion of time that helps us imagine a solution to this conundrum. A master storyteller, Intizar Husain in this book (and others) introduces us to the apocalyptic and destructive aspects of our present condition (the violence in Karachi used as an allegory in this case), yet his stories from various traditions that make up the Muslim experience in South Asia also offer a different sense of history with its own regenerative power. He may be saying to us that perhaps in another time and in another place people may again come together and build a different (and perhaps a better) future, those separated may well someday reunite. It is this vision of rejuvenation and rebuilding that links the past, present and future in a continuum of human practice and experience that makes Intizar sahib’s writings so essential for us who feel stranded at our social and cultural crossroads. This notion of cyclical time and rebirth (of hope) also helps this reviewer envision a future moment in which we will again be gifted with Intizar sahib’s company and he will continue to mesmerise us with his stories.

The reviewer teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

The Sea Lies Ahead
By Intizar Husain
Translated from Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil
Harper Perennial, India
ISBN 978-9351772804