In review - Review essay

Everybody loves Intizar Husain

Published Oct 21, 2016 01:47pm

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Intizar Husain during a talk at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2014 | Tariq Mahmood, White Star
Intizar Husain during a talk at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2014 | Tariq Mahmood, White Star

There is nothing left to say about Intizar Husain that has not already been said. At least that was what I thought until I heard someone make a rather surprising comment in a private conversation. The most remarkable thing about Intizar Sahab, that person said, is that he was universally liked and respected until the end of his life.

It is an unusual compliment for a writer, particularly one of Intizar Husain’s stature. Did that person not like his writing? Did he not agree with his politics? Or was he genuinely so enamoured by his personality that he thought it transcended the significance of his writing? Whatever the case may be, writers – especially great writers – would want to be known more for their writing than for their affability. Intizar Husain – with multiple volumes of short stories and novels to his credit, decades of writing for stage, television and newspapers behind him, and literary honours at home and abroad under his belt – would have been no different.

But perhaps that person’s observation is not so much a comment on Intizar Husain’s personality, politics or craft as it is a critique of the milieu in which he lived and wrote. Perhaps it was an acknowledgement of a fact we already know but do not necessarily articulate: that he survived in a literary culture as divided and political as ours, with his dignity intact even when he wrote regularly for at least six decades on all types of controversial literary, social, cultural and political subjects.

One would be hard-pressed to identify any well-known Urdu writers or poets who did not amass their share of battle scars in the post-Partition era, especially in Pakistan. Faiz Ahmed Faiz — jailed and forced into exile. Habib Jalib — jailed multiple times, beaten up by police and routinely hated by the governments of his time. Ismat Chughtai was permanently associated with the scandal that her short story Lihaaf aroused. Qurratulain Hyder became so tired of having to fend off detractors and controversies that she eventually left Pakistan and migrated to India. Saadat Hasan Manto was famously taken to court on obscenity charges and consequently became known mainly for the stories that led to his prosecution — to the detriment of his much wider body of work.

His writings indicate that the one thing he absolutely could not reconcile with was that he had to let go of his birthplace. His stories are almost all about home.

Pakistan, due to an inherited colonial legacy of repression and censorship and due also to its own ideological confusions and political troubles, has not been kind to those who have written openly and freely in Urdu. Many who weathered the storm did so because they remained apolitical or else compromised with the state and came to be known as mouthpieces of the political establishment.

But then there was Intizar Husain. He bobbed along those same choppy waters like a gravity-defying buoy, often being pulled under but always re-emerging enigmatically and continuing on his way with little apparent damage. As a writer and a person, at least part of his resilience stemmed from the fact that he defied easy categorisation — although this did not stop his detractors from trying to label him. He was a modernist writer who had a penchant for ancient myths and legends; he was steeped in Muslim cultural traditions but had a secular approach towards social and political issues; he had a cosmopolitan sensibility though that was intimately tied to his small-town past; he was a progressive who refused to commit his writing to the political agenda of the Progressive Writers Association. Consequently, he was a regular source of frustration for the literary establishment, always proving impossible to pin down. No camp could claim him; he belonged to none.

This certainly did not mean that he was apathetic towards politics or was reticent in expressing his views. In fact, unlike many other writers and poets of his age, he was not one to compromise. He wrote widely and honestly because he cared deeply — about Partition, about migration, about Karachi, about corruption and about religious fanaticism. But the scope of his commitment was clearly defined: he would not allow himself to be fashioned as anything other than a writer. His falling out with the Progressive Writers Association was essentially triggered by his stubborn refusal to take on the mantle of a political activist or social reformer.

The rift within the Pakistani literati that his stance inevitably caused went on to underscore the aesthetic fault lines in Pakistani writing. While one group stood for literature for literature, the other became the standard-bearer of literature for life. In the 1960s, he was a key player in the bifurcation of Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq – Pakistan’s premier literary organisation at the time – along these lines. He stood against the proposition that the Halqa style itself as an openly left-leaning entity. As a result, he was accused of being reactionary and was frequently pulverised by peers and critics of pandering to nostalgia in his writing. Not one to be cowed down, he was quick to point out when his detractors did the same.

Intizar Husain signs a copy of his book at the Karachi Literature Festival | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Intizar Husain signs a copy of his book at the Karachi Literature Festival | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Intizar Husain’s disagreements with other writers of his time, however, were more like duels over matters of principle than mean-spirited attempts to cut each other down. At a Jashn-e-Rekhta event in India in March 2015, he quipped that he had made enemies very early in his career but it was a writer’s good fortune to make enemies of a certain standard, as he had done. The gallantry in this comment gives one a glimpse of his personality and a hint of why he was better able to survive in a divided literary atmosphere than many of his contemporaries.

Though Intizar Husain’s politics and writing remain a matter of vigorous debate, he still amassed a large reader base, received admiration from many of his peers and earned the grudging respect of his detractors. Noticeably, none of the many obituaries and tributes that have appeared in the press after his death remembered him as an activist or a reformer. All of them did remember him as a great writer, however.

For all these reasons, Intizar Husain’s name carries a sense of enigma. After his passing away in February of this year, the Oxford University Press, Pakistan, released Story is a Vagabond, a selection of his translated stories, essays and dramas, originally published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2015. A valiant attempt to look at his personal evolution and the journey of his political and literary ideas, the volume reads like a perfect microcosm to his much bigger literary macrocosm — a well-placed window into his universe that helps to make sense of the man and the writer he was.

A subject that makes a strong showing in the collection – and that preoccupied Intizar Husain all his life – is Partition and the ensuing hijrat or migration. (Partition, in fact, was such a major theme in his prose that Qurratulain Hyder once noted drily that he had practically started a migration racket.) In an old interview that The Wire, an Indian news website, reproduced after his death, he explained his fascination with Partition and migration: “A question that was most vigorously debated in Pakistan during the decades following independence was the question of [the country’s] history. It was inevitable that such questions should arise. Now we had a new nation state, a new country. But then where did its history begin? Where and what were our roots? Where were the roots of those who had migrated from India? So there was an interesting controversy.”

Intizar Husain looked for literary answers to these questions. “The perspectives of today’s historians – the analysts, poets, and fiction writers – are all afflicted by an emotional trauma. It has been more than a half-century since the traumatic events [of Partition], but the effects have not vanished,” he notes in his essay The Blind Age — also featured in Story is a Vagabond. Later in the same essay, he gives the example of Russian writer Ivan Bunin: “Like us, he was never reconciled with moving away from his homeland.” It is an innocuous sentence and yet it marks a rare admission of vulnerability by a writer who would routinely speak up for others but did not like to talk about his own travails.

There is a vivid sense of displacement and lack of direction in many of his short stories, included in the early part of Story is a Vagabond. Characters are often running from some kind of a catastrophe — sometimes man-made, sometimes natural. A common theme is that of forgetting: the further they get from their place of origin, the more confused they become about where they are from and where they are headed.

He was a regular source of frustration for the literary establishment, always proving impossible to pin down. No camp could claim him; he belonged to none.

In a short story titled Comrades, for instance, the protagonist has boarded the wrong bus. He finds himself moving away from his intended destination in the company of people he does not recognise to a location where the people he used to know do not live anymore. Tellingly, he is unable to get off the bus. Stop after stop passes and the man stays glued to his seat due to an inexplicable inertia.

The horrors and implications of this inertia are also the subject of Intizar Husain’s 1995 novel Aagay Samandar Hai — the third in a trilogy tracing important points in Pakistan’s short life as a state. The first novel in the series, Basti, published in 1980, has the separation of East Pakistan as the backdrop of its narrative. It tells a nostalgic tale of camaraderie among the followers of different religious and cultural traditions and of harmony between human beings and their natural environment. The second one, Tazkirah, published in 1987, narrates the woes of someone trying to build a home in Pakistan while his ancestral abodes in India are facing an irreversible decline.

Aagay Samandar Hai is the story of urban violence in contemporary Karachi. It is also the heartfelt lament of a man who believes that a possible future for Pakistan, premised on religious and cultural tolerance, has been betrayed thanks to an increasingly radical religious and social agenda. The novel places the concerns and sensibilities of the migrants from India, the Muhajirs, at the centre of its narrative. It was an unpopular idea at the time of the book’s publication since the violent politics of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement – that later became Muttahida Qaumi Movement – was at its peak in Karachi at the time and a military operation was being carried out in the city against target killers and terrorists allegedly linked to the party. Intizar Husain was, unsurprisingly, accused of being partial to the Muhajir political cause.

Ultimately, the criticism could not hold. Firstly, the writer managed to place himself above reproach by highlighting the Muhajir community’s own political ineffectualness and ideological impotence. Secondly, the alarm that he raised about the emergence of extremist religious forces turned out to be correct. It became clear in the years that followed the publication of the novel that Karachi had become a hub for religiously motivated terrorism.

Intizar Husain speaks at a literature festival | Tanveer Shehzad, White Star
Intizar Husain speaks at a literature festival | Tanveer Shehzad, White Star

Intizar Husain’s suspicion of radical, conservative religion was, indeed, strong. He went so far as to say once that his stories were a struggle against religious fundamentalism — specifically “mullahism”. In The Wire interview quoted earlier – originally conducted in 1993 by Indian theatre scholar, Javed Malick – he talked about how once an Islamist party, Jamaat-e Islami, denounced his writings as “un-Islamic” for dealing with the concept of transmigration of souls. Thankfully, that criticism never resulted in any action against him and the matter gradually died down.

In his essay Reason and Purpose of the Jataka Stories, Intizar Husain expounds that wisdom and spiritual experiences are not the monopoly of any single religious tradition. “Collectively, these stories transcend themselves and create a higher meaning,” he says of the classic tales based on Gautama Buddha’s many incarnations.

It is possible that Story is a Vagabond does the same for Intizar Husain’s fiction — creating a higher meaning by putting together his selected works in a particular order. For this, one must give credit to the editors. The short stories that are part of the collection are all interconnected. The migration stories especially seem to be following a loose plot arc when read together. References or images can be seen repeated throughout the book, like an echo.

In Intizar Husain’s 1999 story Morenama (A Chronicle of the Peacocks), for instance, Manuji’s mythical fish has the capacity to fill up any water body it is put in. The author confidently uses it in two other pieces of writing, both of which are included in this collection, even when the fish is more allegorical than real.

Once this idea of a consciously created meta-structure and pattern that transcends individual stories takes root, Intizar Husain’s fiction takes on a different significance. Something lurks beneath the unassuming, simple prose — in equal parts, sad and menacing.

His essays seem to offer more personal information about him than the latter. Yet, just when one gets comfortable with this assumption, it starts becoming apparent that his stories, in fact, are the real lens into his mind.

The rift within the Pakistani literati that his stance inevitably caused went on to underscore the aesthetic fault lines in Pakistani writing.

At several points, though, the stories and the essays overlap, making the dividing line between fiction and reality disappear. It is surreal to read an entire story on Qayyuma the milkman’s shop and then, several pages later, to find a casual reference to him in an essay on the writer’s birthplace Dibai, in Uttar Pradesh, India. Similarly, The Last Candle is the story of a woman struggling to maintain the tradition of Muharram mourning in her neighbourhood in the changed post-Partition atmosphere. Later in the volume, we learn of a similar person in Dibai, from whose double-storey house the mourning procession would begin. It is as if there is a deliberate stringing together of stories like pearls on the thread of human experience.

This easy cross-pollination of fact and fiction is continuous and is a common theme in almost all of Intizar Husain’s works — including in his novels and his autobiography, Charaghon Ka Dhuan. He was, to a significant degree, mapping his life through both fiction and non-fiction.

His writings indicate that the one thing he absolutely could not reconcile with was that he had to let go of his birthplace. His stories are almost all about home. They all raise, in different ways, the same question: why must we give up the place where we came from?

It is a pertinent question given the times we live in, as tens of thousands of refugees in Europe and the Middle East are asking it in their own different ways. Why must we leave home? Why can’t we have a home? Why can’t we be accepted elsewhere?

Intizar Husain’s personal experience of migration, however, was not particularly tragic. He experienced no violent encounters during Partition. And he did, in fact, manage to visit his hometown of Dibai several decades later. Yet his pain of displacement was as severe as it was unrelenting.

Intizar Husain at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2013 | Azhar Jafri, White Star
Intizar Husain at the Lahore Literary Festival, 2013 | Azhar Jafri, White Star

He talks about it in an essay he wrote on his visit to Dibai. The experience was bittersweet for him. He renders that feeling beautifully with the help of small anecdotes from his past and experiences he has while walking through the streets of his hometown and trying to find familiar landmarks. A cigarette vendor refuses to take money from him when he hears that the visitor from Pakistan is a local. He also recalls going back to a temple that was an abandoned place in his childhood and that served as a resting place for him and his friends during their children’s games. He is unable to experience the old magic of the place — the temple has become a thriving place of worship, with none of the dilapidated mystery it used to have. Its head priest approaches Intizar Husain suspiciously, asking why he has come to visit. “Panditji, this is something I can’t explain to you,” ” the writer responds. “Even if I try, you’ll not understand.”

The spirit of Dibai infuses many of the pages in Story is a Vagabond. Sometimes it appears in the form of locations and geographical markers, as is the case with Qayyuma’s shop. Sometimes it appears as an emotion — longing, regret, loss of familiarity. At times Dibai becomes a moral value: it appears as a metaphor for goodness of heart and a symbol of resistance against whatever threatens that goodness. One sees this particularly in the story titled An Unwritten Epic. Its protagonist, Pichwa, the wrestler, leads a valiant battle to protect his hometown of Qadirpur – one of the many fictional names for Dibai in Intizar Husain’s works – from an army of Hindu Jats in the wake of Partition. The neem tree, in the same way, becomes a motif for moral courage in his stories and essays. The inspiration for this motif is a real tree that grew in the courtyard of Intizar Husain’s childhood home.

Alok Bhalla, one of the editors of Story is a Vagabond, writes in the introduction to the book as to why goodness of heart has been so important for Intizar Husain. Rejecting a familiar criticism of the author’s work, that he constantly gives in to nostalgia, Bhalla says his frequent forays into the past are actually an exercise in generating hope — regularly invoking the goodness that once characterised personal and communal relations between people of different faiths living together. Dissatisfied with the present, Intizar Husain goes back to history, seeking inspiration for a future that looks more like yesterday than today — an alternative reality of sorts.

This seems like a comforting idea – at least on paper – but it does not address many important questions. Firstly, is it really possible to generate hope using the past as a source without being nostalgic or at the very least reductive in describing the past? Secondly, did Intizar Husain really write to generate hope?

Intizar Husain's suspicion of radical, conservative religion was, indeed, strong. He went so far to say once that his stories were a struggle against religous fundamentalism.

In reality, his fiction betrays a distinct lack of hope (something he was asked about quite frequently). In An Unwritten Epic, for instance, we know that Pichwa’s stand is noble and his cause is good but it is a lost cause, nonetheless. Nothing conveys this more pessimistically than the preparations villagers are making as the Jats advance. They grab whatever they can as weapons. One man smashes his cot to extract the side bar as a club. There is no hope here and, more importantly, no justice. It is precisely because Intizar Husain has been so preoccupied with seeking ‘the goodness’ that he so often returns empty-handed.

The final essay in Story is a Vagabond is Vikram, the Vampire, and the Story and it conveys this very poignantly: “Why do I persist in writing my stories? Perhaps because a neem tree was once outside me, and a neem tree is still inside me. Whatever may have happened to the outer tree, let the inner one not wither. My commitment is to my neem tree, with its bitter fruit. ‘Cling to the tree’, to the neem tree and to the story, without any ‘hope of spring’.”

But the message that trumps the lack of hope is one of resilience, of dogged commitment to principles. What his stories tell us is that he cared about what is good and what is just. We know that he was an empathetic person; he considered it his duty to have “a relationship ... with the pigeon and the ant” as much as with human beings. We also realise that he could not reconcile himself with the way Partition fractured so many people’s faith in the idea of home and belonging. That perhaps is enough in itself — as far as Intizar Husain the writer is concerned.

Intizar Husain seen with Ataul Haq Qasmi at a panel discussion held at the National Book Day Festival in Islamabad in 2015 | Ishaque Chaudry, White Star
Intizar Husain seen with Ataul Haq Qasmi at a panel discussion held at the National Book Day Festival in Islamabad in 2015 | Ishaque Chaudry, White Star

Intizar Husain as a person is in a different category altogether. In one of the most fascinating stories in Story is a Vagabond, he revisits the legendary tales of One Thousand and One Nights to tell the readers about their origin. Shahrazad, their narrator, spun tale after tale not due to some creative urge but under the threat of execution, he says. This description gives a shot of realism straight into the arm of a ridiculously romanticised story. (As he reminds us elsewhere, “fear of violence by other humans is humiliating …”)

Not just that. He goes further than just exposing the raison d’etré of those tales of romance, intrigue and mystery. He goes on to explore what happens to Shahrazad later in her life and comes up with the shocking revelation that her ability to tell stories dries up once the executioner’s axe is not hanging over her head anymore.

By underscoring why it matters to know what becomes of Shahrazad, Intizar Husain makes us face the grim reality that her existence, or her relevance, depends on her function as a story teller. By doing that, he resurrects her as a human being and restores her rightful worth as more than just a creator of fictional tales. It is a powerful statement on the relationship between an author and his work — that the former is always bigger than the sum total of the latter.

That is why people mourn the death of Intizar Husain the way they do. And that is why he wrote on controversial themes in a controversial way but was never struck down by those controversies. That is why he never made any real enemies. No matter what happened, he obstinately clung to what was good and what was human. He did it as a matter of principle, not due to animosity to an individual or an institution. He knew no other way – he, indeed, refused to know any other way – to live and write.


This article was originally published in the Herald's October 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is editor of Papercuts magazine and a co-founder of Desi Writers' Lounge.