Photograph by Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi

by Kristen Zipperer

by Intizar Husain, translated by Frances W. Pritchett,
New York: New York Review Books Classics, 248 pp.

In 1947, in response to India’s recent independence and partition, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote the following lament:

yeh daagh daagh ujaala yeh shab barzeeda seher
voh intizar tha jis ka yeh voh seher toh nahin

(this stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn
that dawn for which we were waiting, this is not that dawn).

The couplet is part of a longer poem that captured the shivering forlornness of the times, the disenchantment with the quixotic dreams of a lost, unbroken country. Despite this, Faiz finishes the twenty-five-line poem with a suggestion of hope:

chaley chalo ke voh manzil abhi nahin aaii

(Come on, let’s go, our destination is yet to come).

Faiz’s poem is interesting because beyond the melancholy, it reveals the shyly hopeful zeitgeist of post-Partition Pakistan. The pandemonium incited by Partition as more than two million people migrated across new borders was unprecedented in India’s history. And yet, even with all the horrors, there was a feeling that many Pakistanis harbored was that their new country had brighter, even glorious days ahead. The idea of Pakistan had its roots in the religious and political thought of the pre-independence years, which argued that Islam and Muslims were experiencing a decline. Among other things, this decline was chalked up to the Ottoman Empire’s deterioration after World War One, as well as the fact that domestically, Muslims were employed less and less for high-ranking government positions. Pakistan, which literally means “land of the pure,” was meant to be a new homeland for Muslims where they could restore their lost splendor. Many equated Partition’s migration, or hijrat, as analogousto the ProphetMuhammad’s hijrat from Mecca to Medina that prompted a new age for the religion. Many migrants, or muhajirs as they were known in Pakistan, believed that Partition’s hijrat also had the potential to open up a creative era for Muslims and for Pakistan.

In the years following Partition, however, Pakistanis continued to wait in vain for their dawn. During this time, the country faced the suppression of democracy, the annulment of civilian government and the inauguration of a military dictatorship. And then, in 1971, the country was thrown into even deeper turmoil: East Pakistan started to agitate for independence from West Pakistan. India soon became involved on the side of East Pakistan, and the Indo-Pakistan War followed. Pakistan suffered a humiliating defeat to India, and East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. The creation of Bangladesh meant that idea of Pakistan, and what it was meant to be, had officially failed. There was no new dawn coming.

There are very few Urdu writers who have written about these despondent days in Pakistan’s history, with perhaps one notable exception. Intizar Husain is a novelist and short story writer whose work takes an unrelenting look at man’s attempt and ultimate failure to keep his humanity during the post-Partition period. His most famous novel, Basti — originally published in 1979 and translated by Frances Pritchett — was published in the United States for the first time in 2012 as a New York Review of Books Classics Original, and short-listed for the 2013 International Man Booker Prize. Husain is also a muhajir who, like Faiz, had optimism for what Pakistan could be.

Basti is set in Lahore during the days leading up to the outbreak of the 1971 war. It follows Zakir, a professor of history, as he witnesses the country on the brink of conflict. Nearly all of the novel’s action takes place elsewhere; Zakir, along with many of the city’s other residents, understands what is happening mainly through disjointed scraps of information he receives in cafés, on the streets and from family members. His days are invaded by dreams, memories and anxieties, so much that he often cannot escape his own inner universe.

In those early days of Pakistan, Zakir recalls, the new land did seem pure – “a fresh earth under a fresh sky, suffused with happiness.” And yet, as is the nature of existence, if things are ever truly pure, they cannot stay that way for long. In Husain’s Lahore, light tries to hold out against darkness, but the battle is a losing one. As war becomes imminent, the metaphorical and the real darkness become all-consuming. The city’s inhabitants have to keep all lights off so that they do not become a target during Indian air raids, and Zakir’s days become unending nights. Unmoored, the country becomes a ship lost at sea with no stars to guide it home.

This failure to beat back the darkness is Basti’spulse, and because of this, the novel is covered in a veneer of somberness. Interspersed throughout the text are stories and myths, Buddhist and Hindu ones that belong to the past, when the subcontinent was not yet cut up and divided. Husain’s characters use them to illustrate their point or to make sense of the present, grappling for an identity and history that is theirs, but according to the Pakistani state, is one they are expected to leave behind. It is at this stage that Basti challenges the reader to doubt history – the history of Partition, and the history of dreams, claims and convictions. East Pakistan’s independence directly challenged every certainty regarding the conceptualization of Pakistan, even the darkest one: Should Partition have happened at all? Its independence effectively partitioned Pakistan again, and another necessary question had to arise: Where should Partition stop? These questions force a hollow ringing in the reader’s chest.

When Lahore’s eternal night becomes too excruciating, Zakir escapes the claustrophobic confines of his family’s apartment and begins to wander the deserted streets of the city. His father, the novel’s only real religious figure, has recently died, and Zakir has the vague intention of visiting his grave at the cemetery. On the streets he comes upon a nightmarish scene, a “turbulent ocean of heads.” “But where are the heads?” he asks himself. “I looked closely – no one had a head.” He comes upon a large fire, once an object of light that has now become an object of darkness: the fire was destroying everything. He makes it to the cemetery, but the world has changed. East Pakistan has become independent.

Husain’s work stands out among Urdu literature in part because of its abstract, modernist style. Urdu is a language that has strong roots in an abstract poetic tradition, yet its novels and short stories, both comparatively new literary forms for Urdu, have historically tended towards realism. In the pre-Partition years, many Urdu writers wrote with a particular leftist, anti-imperialist stance aimed at correcting society’s social injustices and backwardness. These writers were part of what was called the Progressive Writer’s Movement, and produced “art for society’s sake.” This writing was radical and revolutionary, but at times also reductive and doctrinaire. Husain did not like the Progressives, and went so far as to label the movement as “ideological barbarism.” He took his cues instead from Western writers such as Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Ivan Turgenev, André Gide, Thomas Mann, and perhaps most of all, Franz Kafka. In Basti, the traditional elements of a Victorian novel – characters, plot, climax – are notably absent. Instead, Basti is impressionistic in nature, with rough character sketches, a non-linear and often dream-like plot that is driven by dialogue rather than events, and a narrator that jumps between the first and the third person. According to Husain, these techniques are rooted not only in Western modernism, but also in old Eastern texts such as the Quran, Arabian Nights, and ancient Indian fiction, which also make use of stream of consciousness, free association, circular plot structures, and stories within stories.

On a more intimate level, Basti considers what we do when faced with the modern predicament – the loss of meaning, and loss of self. For Husain, a central part of this condition seems to be the memory of an idyllic past – one that contains hope, dreams, love – that is gone. Husain ruminates heavily on this past in Basti, which filters through the text like a hazy half-light. In his new home in Lahore, Zakir often sits with his nostalgia as it blows life into lost worlds and makes rise out of the dust of abandoned landscapes the bazaars, the smells of kitchens and the touch of old loves. He is left with a deep ache and sense of emptiness: People have depopulated one place and populated another, but things are not the same. The age of innocence has been lost.

Given this, there is the urge in the novel to break further what has been broken. Zakir relives the sense of loss again and again by recalling different traumatic events of past eras that have scarred the South Asian consciousness. In this is a curious realization: Zakir, as well as Husain himself, has experienced this suffering before as part of his collective history, and will continue to experience it as time pushes ever forward. In other words, it is fated that man will feel isolation, confusion, sadness – the experience of centuries does not lessen the experience of the present – and therefore he must embrace it if he hopes to carry on with existence. For Zakir and Husain, comprehension of this eternal loss may be triumph enough.

And yet, what is perhaps most interesting about Basti is that even with this comprehension of eternal loss, Husain seems to hold out a hope for Pakistan and the life to be made there. “Great art is born only through suffering,” one of his characters says towards the end of the novel. Although this thought is not exactly original, it does reveal a particular sentiment that underlines the work. This creative inclination, the desire to build something beautiful that so captured Husain’s imagination at Pakistan’s birth, appears to still simmer underneath the novel’s pervasive melancholy. Importantly, this creativeness for which Husain reaches hinges on the brokenness, loss of meaning, and rootlessness of the times. “I want to remember my sorrows,” Zakir says as he faces the possible destruction of Lahore and his memories. It is this brokenness that is the essence of Zakir as an individual, and Pakistan as a whole, and that is the very hope of creative life.

Pakistan’s predicament never really got much better since Husain wrote Basti forty some odd years ago. Husain wrote two novels after BastiTazkirah (Anthology), about the years of conservative president Zia al-Haq, and Age samundar hai (Ahead Lies the Ocean), about the violence in Karachi after Partition. He later said that he considers the three novels to be connected in a way, as each takes a look at another aspect of national turmoil. In Basti, Husain turns back to look at his memories in the midst of turmoil, his “constellation of illuminated days,” as his character Zakir says at one point. The stars shine the brightest on the darkest nights. In Basti, he still has a hope that they can lead home. Come, let’s go, Husain seems to say, our destination is yet to come.

About the Author:

Kristen Zipperer is a writer and editor living in Kathmandu, Nepal who has studied Urdu language and literature in India and the United States.