Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Rakhshanda Jalil - Nothing but the sea ahead: Intizar Husain (December 21, 1925- February 2, 2016)

Intizar Husain (December 21, 1925- February 2, 2016) passed away in a Lahore hospital due to complications from pneumonia, high blood sugar and a heart attack. The news is fresh and raw still, but with time, his loss will prove to be irreplaceable — both to the world of Urdu literature and to the India-Pakistan relationship. There is no denying that Intizar sahab’s contribution as a storyteller is enormous, especially in the genre of Partition narratives.

If Saadat Hasan Manto laid bare the ugliness of 1947 and its immediate, brutish aftermath with the urgency of a field surgeon, Intizar Husain probed those wounds ever so gingerly, peeling away layers from old memories to reveal wounds that have still not healed and may never heal, at least not when fresh wounds are repeatedly inflicted on skin that is still sore and tender. And both countries — India and Pakistan — have lost a true friend, for Intizar sahab remained till his last breath, I suspect, a wellwisher of both the old homeland he never quite left and the new homeland he grappled to fully understand his entire adult life.

I remember meeting Intizar sahab in his own basti during a visit to Lahore many years ago and being struck by a singular fact: He looked as much a stranger in a strange land there, in what had been his home for over six decades, as he did on his frequent visits to India. Perhaps it was partly due to the bemused, somewhat perplexed look he wore most of the time, a bit like R.K. Laxman’s Common Man.

But it could well have been due to his ability to occupy the smallest corner of a frame, again like the Common Man, and never the centerstage. Not given to holding forth on any subject, least of all his own writings, his worldview or his compulsions as a writer, Intizar sahab preferred to be a quiet observer contributing little to the conversation that eddied and flowed about him, even when the conversation was about him or his craft as a storyteller. In fact, in my very first meeting when I went to interview him, he told me he envied the writer of yore who wrote her books and died and no pesky interviewers showed up asking her why she wrote something or what she meant by it.

Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Intizar sahab has written five novels, seven collections of short stories, as well as reportage, travelogues and prose essays and innumerable columns spanning a long career as a journalist. The one overriding concern throughout his literary career seems to be his near-compulsive need to revisit the past, a past that was more syncretic and pluralistic than his present. In story after story, he has chronicled the changes unspooling from a single cataclysmic event — Partition — and has chosen to view the greatest cross-border migration in recent human history as hijrat, the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina in search of safe haven. At the same time, his oeuvre presents a haunting sense of loss for a way of life that is irrevocably gone, coupled with an equally poignant sense of regret. He seems to rue the possibilities that Partition presented of building better lives, possibilities that were lost or frittered away.

In Basti, the first of his great Partition trilogy (the others being Aage Samandar Hai and Naya Ghar), he presents a Pakistan poised on the verge of breaking off from its eastern arm. While seemingly a rambling personal narrative, the novel makes several strong political statements, the strongest being its questioning of the two-nation theory. The “idea” of Pakistan, Intizar sahab seems to be telling us, was betrayed by Pakistanis themselves, and not by their eastern cousins. 

He is brutally honest in his recounting of those early days of innocence and goodness and large-heartedness of the new people in the new land united not so much by one religion but by a common loss and the feeling of homelessness. Soon, to his dismay, the days gradually grew soiled and dirty; the goodness and sincerity leached out and in its place there was greed, corruption and intolerance.

The story of disillusionment is taken up even more strongly in Aage Samandar Hai. Dipping between the past and present, moving seamlessly between an India of his imagination and the one he visits, he draws upon sources as diverse as the Panchtantra, Jataka Katha, Katha Sarit Sagara, Mahabharata and the Vedas, as well as the equally ancient traditions in Alif-Laila and the dastans. But everywhere — whether it is the hans-hansni winging their way to Kailash Mansarovar or the weeping cat of Cordoba — the idea of a home is paramount.

He seems to find a philosophical calm in the words of the Buddha who said: “O monks, there is no peace in any birth and no settlement remains settled forever and every home that is set up is set up to be abandoned.” As we struggle to cope with the loss of the greatest Urdu writer of our times, we can only hope that Intizar sahab has finally found his way home.