The sun is going down rapidly and I am in a hurry to get into the city. The sky is a foreboding red and there is a heavy stench in the air, giving rise to a strange fear and sorrow. The man with a nameless voice lingers to watch three apparitions moving across the dry riverbed in his direction. His relentless pursuit of the three men with their mysterious wrapped-up wagon becomes compelling when his efforts to peer inside deepen the mystery. He is told in no uncertain terms: “It is your turn now. You will see!” This is ‘Sawari’ (translated as The Wagon), one of the most remarkable short stories in Urdu literature and a defining moment for its author Khalida Asghar, who later used her married name Khalida Husain for her formidable body of work.
Bleak and almost prophetic as the story is, even more remarkable is its chilling perfection. The author was a young woman with only a handful of published stories, consistent and mature beyond her years. Meteor-like, she created a trail of light and then vanished from the literary scene as silently and mysteriously as she had appeared.
Many years later, Husain described it all to me like a story. “There is a second act as I received another chance,” she said. The writer disappeared, but her stories were not forgotten. A literary journal in Delhi reprinted a selection with a laudatory note by the critic Shamim Hanafi and it eventually reached her as she was raising her family. Husain picked up the pen and took to writing again, publishing her first collection of short stories, Pehchaan [Identity], in 1981 and the second, Darwaza [The Door], in 1982, both from Karachi. The floodgates of creativity were opened and there was no going back. With this watershed event, Urdu fiction stood transformed with stories such as ‘Sawari’ and ‘Hazaar Paya’ [Millipede].
Solitude, deep introspection and an existentialist sense of each passing moment set the accomplished author’s work apart right from the beginning. She passed away on January 11
Born in Lahore in 1937 where her father headed the Engineering College, Husain would often write about her memories of a happy, busy childhood with her brothers and sisters. She read passionately and started writing early, publishing her first story in 1956. She went on to complete her Masters in literature from the University of the Punjab. Soon her work started appearing in the reputable Adab-i-Latif and its editor Intizar Husain saw signs of a new trend in her work. Nasir Kazmi remarked that her story ‘Munni’ was the katha [story] of lonely souls. Solitude, deep introspection and an existentialist sense of each passing moment set Husain’s work apart right from the beginning and made her one of the most accomplished practitioners of this craft.
Husain chose teaching as her career and served in various colleges as she moved from to Lahore to Karachi and Islamabad. Her husband was associated with the Dawood College [now University] of Engineering and Technology and she lived for nearly 12 years in Karachi. I can recognise traces of this in stories such as ‘Aag’ [Fire], written when a petrol pump exploded in flames near her home. This is not a straightforward narration, but a complex rendition, in which external events trigger or reflect a deeper conflict. Great depth under a seemingly tranquil surface was the impression I had during our conversations. She was reclusive to the point of notoriety and some people would speculate about this. On the contrary, I found her affectionate and caring. She served at the PAF College on Sharea Faisal and whenever I went there to see her, I would find her in a corner of the staff room engrossed in a novel and she would immediately begin to speak about the book. Her conversation revolved around books. She kept herself away from literary events, so it was a matter of immense pride for me when she spoke at the launching ceremony of my first book of short stories. I always felt her encouraging hand on my back. Although she did not collect her essays in book form, she was an astute literary critic.
Among many memorable encounters with her, I remember our trip to Germany when, in 1997, we went as a group of six writers from Pakistan to engage in a dialogue with six Indian and six German writers on the meaning and nature of borders, partitions and possibilities of reconciliation. The Pakistani group included Intizar Husain, Fahmida Riaz, Ahmed Faraz and Attiya Dawood while the Indian side included Nirmal Verma, Dilip Chitre, Kedarnath Singh and Githa Hariharan. I have a memorable photograph of a river-boat ride in Berlin in which Husain looks in the other direction while Intizar sahib and Verma look in the opposite one. During the trip, as we went from one talk and one reading to the other, Husain seemed tense and edgy; later I read her haunting story of a middle-aged woman writer lost in perplexing train connections and, as she cannot communicate, is lost in transition. She seemed at once mysterious and mystical.
Consisting of multiple layers, her most sustained effort was the novel Kaghazi Ghaat [The Paper Jetty] published in 2002. It reflected a young girl’s journey of self-discovery and, when I reviewed it, it seemed to me like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man told from the point of view of a girl. But somehow it did not attract as wide attention as it deserved. The stories in her last period depict the travails of the elderly, suffering in isolation and neglect. A granddaughter in the poignant ‘Daadi Aaj Chhuti Par Hain’ [Grandmother is On Leave Today] is told not to let her granny recite fairy stories to her, and imagines her going to hell for her deeds. The mother in ‘Jaan-i-Man-o-Jaan-i-Shuma’ [My Life and Yours] suffers the friction between religious sects and is torn between two sons, one a military commando and the other wanting to turn into smithereens all unbelieving infidels. When Husain moved to Islamabad, our roles reversed and, as the editor of a literary periodical, I would ask her for her work. She contributed a number of stories, essays and translations, including her remarkable rendition of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. Husain would send each submission first to Shabnam Shakeel who would then post it to me and I would send letters and books to her indirectly.
Communication became scarce, but the depth of her feelings about religious bigotry, lack of tolerance and the hypocrisy which seemed to engulf the entire country were apparent in her subtle stories. I would follow the magazine publication of her work and exchange notes with her old friend Kishwar Naheed as to what each story represented. Intizar sahib would teasingly ask me, “How is your favourite writer doing?”
During this period, Husain moved even further away from literary circles. In 2017, I edited a volume of her selected short fiction and had wonderful discussions with her on which stories to pick. Her stories were difficult to choose from and I regret not including the soulful ‘A Dead Letter’. She agreed to have the volume launched at the Islamabad Literature Festival. Weak and chronically ill, she spoke eloquently but briefly and this may have been her last public appearance. She became more reclusive as she lost her husband and then her son. Her last book, Jeenay Ki Pabandi [The Constraint of Living], struck a tragic note.
In May 2017, I was in Islamabad and a spontaneous comment from Kishwar Naheed made a group of us, including Iftikhar Arif, Fateh Muhammad Malik and Hameed Shahid pay Husain a visit with cake and flowers. She was happy to receive us; she smiled and chatted, not forgetting to remind me to send her some books to read. She wanted to read as she could no longer write. We could see that the flame was all but gone. My last conversation with her was a month ago when I introduced her work to my university students. They could not contain their astonishment as to why they were not familiar with this accomplished writer and, in their enthusiasm, they called Husain on the telephone to express their admiration for her. She accepted their compliments gracefully, even thanked them for taking interest in her work. As the phone went silent, I could hear a voice whispering in my ear, “It’s your turn now. You will see!”
The writer is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 20th, 2019