MEHRU JAFFER | 10 JUNE, 2018
Nitizar Husain Plays With His Past to Make Sense of the Present
Day and Dastan, Book review.
Whatever the partition of South Asia in 1947 may or may not have achieved for those who asked for it, the episode certainly made a writer out of Intizar Husain.
One of contemporary times greatest writers, Intizar chose hijrat and migrated to Pakistan in late 1947. He was about 24 years old and a graduate in Urdu Literature from Meerut College when partition took place.
Like all youngsters he was attracted to poetry and wrote in Urdu. However ugly incidents at the time perhaps murdered the romantic, and the poet in him. He heard a lot of things that made Intizar nervous. He witnessed communal violence, and the growing suspicion between Hindus and Muslims scared him. He recalls feeling anxious over matters that he often finds difficult to describe today. Some people he was close to at that time had already left for the newly created nation of Pakistan.
Intizar’s extended family was in his ancestral home in Dibai, a village in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh. He asked his elders whose ancestors had lived in the heartland of the countryside for generations, if he should go to Pakistan. Nobody in his family was able to answer that question for him.
Pakistan? The word was a question mark in the mind of most Muslims.
Since Intizar missed his friends, he told his family that he wanted to join them in Lahore. At that time he had no idea how difficult it would eventually become for people to travel back and forth between the two countries. For him, going to Lahore was like travelling to another city in South Asia. Of course he would be visiting Dibai soon, he thought.
Along with his suitcase everything that he knew about the Mahabharat and Ramayana, his memories of Hindu festivals, all his experience with Hindu friends and images of the red brick temple at the end of the lane lined with homes of Muslim families in Dibai also traveled with him to Pakistan.
Once in Lahore he was happy to be in the company of old friends, and he loved the new friends he made there. After he found a job, he felt quite settled in Lahore. The rest of his immediate family too joined him in Pakistan eventually. As time passed by pastoral visions of his ancestral village popped up in his mind now and then.
But soon his past took to playing like a never- ending movie in his head. He could not get away from memories of his childhood in Dibai. The recall did not pain him but it refused to go away.
Not knowing what to do with his thoughts, he began to write. He did not compose poetry anymore and turned to fiction, weaving stories also based on what he remembered about his past. After many short stories, his first novel was published in 1952. Day and Dastan is a twin novel that he wrote in Urdu in 1959. Nishat Zaidi and Alok Bhalla have translated the same into English, and it is a read most worthy.
Intizar does concern himself with matters like refugees, the partition of lands and wars but in the end he seems to write for the sake of writing. In the bargain if the world takes a tip or two from his writing, or changes for the good, fine.
There is no message to humanity and no pontification to be found in the writing of Intizar. What is there in plenty is the sheer joy of writing. He picks and chooses vocabulary with rare elan to tell ordinary stories in an extraordinary style.
His use of language is a real treat for all those in love with words.
Memories of family elders, anecdotes, stories of djinns and ghosts or some other tale, Tai Amma’s dastans never ended. When the night was wet with dew Zamir’s eyes, heavy with sleep, slowly closed, and when he woke up again, others were asleep; silence, darkness, snores, the sound of Mir Bu Ali’s groans seemed to come from the edge of dreams. Zamir’s heart pounded with fear and his teeth chattered in the cold; suddenly he discovered that he was not on his cot, but on Badi Apa’s cot; he slowly snuggled close to her warm, plump body; her loving bosom lulled him back to sleep.
I understood and yet did not understand my father’s words. But they reminded me of the star of dreams who was no longer in sight, but whose fragrance floated on the horizon of my dreams making it sparkle. Hundreds of times, I would step into the lane and walk towards her house; but turn back in confusion, and then, on the pretext of flying pigeons go up to the terrace and stare for hours at the terrace of her house and the staircase leading up to it. But the star of my fate did not rise. The stars in the sky fell as usual, and my revered father, leaning on his stick, continued to gaze at the sky night after night.
Like his favourite author Anton Chekhov, Intizar plays with his past only to make sense of his present. He is not trapped by what is no more. He is simply making sure it seems that he knows where he comes from so that he is headed in the right direction.
Much is made of Intizar’s hijrat from India to Pakistan in making him a great writer but migration is not a must for everyone who ponders poetically over the past on paper. The creation of Pakistan and the mass migration of many Muslims from here to there did coincide with the fall of feudalism and a certain way of life but what continues to traumatise minds on both sides of the border is the almost sudden collapse of an entire world order that still has no alternative as attractive as the agrarian way of life of the past.
The effect of this reality on a large section of society is also the concern of Indian novelists like Masoom Raza Rahi, and lately by senior journalist Saeed Naqvi in his book Being the Other: The Muslim in India.
But if hijrat or migration from Meerut to Lahore is what made Intizar, so be it. For the only concern of readers is that the writing be good whether it is due to migration, or otherwise.
Day and Dastan is published by Niyogi, 2018