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The enigmatic storyteller

January 08, 2017


Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib.
Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib.

THE neem tree, whose every part — from bark to stems to leaves and fruit — are beneficial, was Intizar Husain’s favourite symbol of cultural knowledge. For me, Husain is Urdu’s neem tree. He was not only a fiction writer; his was a multifaceted talent that grew like the verdant neem tree, branched in many directions, and bore the fruit of wisdom.

Although Husain wrote not one but two memoirs, these are not autobiographies and there is no straightforward biography of him. We mostly know what he chose to share in his writings and interviews. He mentions Dibai in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh as his birthplace. In some accounts, Dec 21, 1925 is recorded as his birth date. This was the date in his passport. In another account, Dec 12, 1922 is mentioned. In an interview where Muhammad Umar Memon pressed him to recall his earliest memories so that a probable date could be determined, Husain responded with stories that skirted the issue.

His childhood in Dibai stretches long in his memory like a century. The culture of this village revolved around mango orchards and horse carts (ikkas). His father was Manzar Ali, grandfather was Amjad Ali. His mother was Sughra Begum. He was the only brother of five sisters; preceded by four sisters, he was born after a long wait. Perhaps that is why he was named Intizar. He was homeschooled and joined formal schooling from the eighth grade. This was when he read the news of Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s death. In 1944 he passed his Bachelors exams and in 1946 he got a Masters degree in Urdu from Meerut University.

In Oct 1947, Husain made the journey to Lahore at the invitation of his close friend, the famous littérateur Muhammad Hasan Askari. He made Lahore his home and it became his city. He lived in a modest house on Jail Road. Over the years, as much of the area around him changed, he, too, progressed from modest beginnings to reaching the heights of fame and renown. His literary journey had begun with a book of poems, but the experience of displacement made him turn to short fiction. His first story, Qayyuma ki Dukan, is a story of loss of location, exile. In the last phase of his life he reflected on civilisation, culture, and history, and its impact on the present state of humanity.

On reading Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana — Asif Farrukhi’s tribute to the late, great, Intizar Husain

Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana, Asif Farrukhi’s mammoth volume on Husain, provides the most comprehensive view available of the writer’s life and accomplishments. The book begins with Farrukhi examining Husain’s mystique. He is perceptive when he writes that Husain’s most complicated story is Husain himself. While so many critical studies about his work were published, hardly any sketches, or khake, were penned about his personality. Khake are popular in our literary culture; these personal sketches often provide rare insights into the personalities of well-known writers. Could this mean that Husain was a colourless, reserved, Sufi-like person who opened himself up only to close friends? According to Farrukhi, Husain called himself a bir bahuti (red velvet beetle), a creature that withdraws into itself at the slightest indication of an intrusive touch. To gain a bir bahuti’s confidence — that is, to watch it move — the captor-observer has to become still. In an early essay, ‘Jab tak dahan-i-zakhm na paida karay koi’, published in Mah-i-Nau in 1954, Husain used the bir bahuti as an example to understand the subtleties of nature and the self: “A wonderful aspect of the bir bahuti is that at the slightest touch it withdraws and immobilises; pretends to be dead … when she pretended I pretended, too. I would make my palm so still that it would not appear to be a living creature’s hand, but a piece of clay. Slowly, the bir bahuti would uncurl its limbs and start moving. Nature, too, is like the bir bahuti. By dissolving your own self, you can watch the bir bahuti for as long as you like. But the moment you impinge on her awareness she curls up again.”

Farrukhi’s reading of this excerpt is interesting. He intuits that Husain’s creative persona can be understood only if the writer permits — something like the tales of yore, when the prince gave the princess a single strand of his hair, asking her to hold it near fire if she needed to be rescued. But how many people can hold the single strand or find the fire? Shamim Hanafi refers to that elusiveness when he writes that Husain has a natural melancholy, a detachment from surroundings. He is like a man pursued by ghosts. He has a memory that is forbidding, but also holds a mirror of awareness.

A significant question that Farrukhi asks is: Why did it fall on him to write this book? He reports that it began years ago, when he was invited by Iftikhar Arif to write on Husain as a part of a series on eminent Pakistani littérateurs being published by the Academy Adabiyat-i-Pakistan. That book was published and got lost in the flurry of “sarkari” type books. But the manuscript that formed the core of the work remained with Farrukhi, and he continued to work on it, reshaping it over time until it reached its present form. The book was close to completion when Husain passed away in Feb 2016. He had looked at the proofs minutely, to the point of putting in missing nuqtas [dots].

Much of the book is neatly organised into nearly self-contained chapters defined by genres; chronological studies of short fiction, novels, dramas, translations, critical essays, travelogues, newspaper columns, and so on. Virtually nothing is left out from Husain’s prolific oeuvre. A useful, captivating addendum is the timeline, which places Husain in the flow of civilisational, literary, and cultural history. It is gratifying to find so much material in one volume; it almost reads like an encyclopaedia on Husain.

I was particularly interested in Farrukhi’s view of Husain’s critical essays because that is an aspect of Husain’s work relatively less focused on. In the chapter ‘Afsana nigar ba-taur-i-naqid’ [Fiction writer as critic] we get a pointer to Husain’s approach to what constitutes creative writing. Husain’s first collection of critical essays, Alamaton ka Zaval [The Decline of Symbols] was first published in 1983. The essays in this book are divided into two sections. The first engages specifically with fiction, drama, and literature; the second has a broader canvas in that the focus is on literature as a civilisational force. What is exemplary about these essays, apart from their extensive sweep, is the unconventional, conversational style in which they are written. An example is Husain’s reading of Mirza Ghalib’s letters — Husain’s bold suggestion is to read Ghalib’s letters describing Delhi and the events of 1857 as a novel.

A second book of essays, Nazariye se Aage [Beyond Ideologies] was published in 2004. A third volume, Apni Danist Mein [In My Knowledge] published in 2014, brings many threads of his thought together. By the time this volume was published, Husain was well-established as the grand old man of letters. His keynote speeches, lectures, and presidential addresses show the extent to which his message has reached audiences.

Two essays, ‘Ikkisvin sadi mein hamara adab’ [Our literature in the 21st century], and ‘Aaj ke ashob mein hamara adab’ [Our literature in the tumultuous present], bring wisdom culled from half a century of actively observing and commenting on literature. Because Farrukhi’s relationship with Husain was almost like that of a father and son, it is understandably difficult for Farrukhi to keep a critical distance from the book’s subject. However, he does offer occasional, but gentle, criticism on the self-deprecating manner Husain adopts when describing his own work and the way in which he lumps serious and superficial essays together. But Farrukhi falls back on Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s incisive review of Husain’s essays. Husain, according to Faruqi, offers us deep insights into civilisational continuities; he critiques the larger field of the art instead of a particular work. He relies more on intuition than methodology.

Throughout the volume, Farrukhi’s approach is expository, but limited by the nature of its subject. He admits to being a great admirer of Husain from his teenage years — this book grew out of the numerous pieces Farrukhi wrote about Husain over the decades, and it is difficult to write about your favourite author without biases. However, Farrukhi was the chosen one to write this book and no one could have done a better job.

Husain foretold the end to his own life story. In his seminal collection, Akhri Admi, he included an essay in which he talked about his characters and also about himself. He wrote: “I am not one of those whose heart stops beating and they die, or those who get crushed under the wheels of a motorcar. I am among those lingerers who consume poison and die over a long period.”

He wrote his own obituary, ‘Tere baad teri batiyan’ [About you, after you] and he spoke of death as an excuse to share stories. Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana is a glorious tribute to one of our greatest storytellers.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 8th, 2017