For Urdu novelist Intizar Husain (1925 – 2016), Islamic culture was not monolithic. “What a purely Islamic culture would be, I don’t have any idea”, he remarked in an interview, “It is this Indian Muslim culture of which I am a product and which has shaped the history of which I am a part”. Born in the former United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh), Husain studied Urdu literature at Meerut College and moved to Lahore in 1947 to edit Nizam, the official publication of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (a literary organisation founded in the mid-1930s). Husain’s decision to migrate to Pakistan was not conscious; rather, it was an impulsive act borne out of a need for work and a desire to be part of Lahore’s flourishing literary culture. At the time, he was unaware that a return to his hometown would be impossible.
Husain’s sequence of novels – he insisted they were not a trilogy – deal with various periods of turmoil in the history of Pakistan. The first novel, Basti (1979), is a portrayal of post-Partition reality against the backdrop of the 1971 War of Independence; The Chronicle (1987) is set during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule between 1978 and 1988; the third novel, The Sea Lies Ahead (1995), deals with the situation of muhajirs (Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan after Partition) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period characterised by increased ethnic conflict and religious extremism.
Though perhaps not as widely-read as Urdu writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Husain’s relationship to Partition makes his writing on the event distinct. While most Progressive Writers viewed the creation of Pakistan as a tragedy, Husain saw it as an opportunity for Southasian Muslims to explore their wider Islamic heritage.
While Basti was translated into English in 1995 and The Sea Lies Ahead in 2015, The Chronicle only appeared in English translation in November 2019. The Chronicle – like the other two in the ‘series’ – is written in Husain’s characteristically non-linear style. Weaving together the past and present, he intermixes the protagonist Ikhlaq’s postcolonial Lahore with his grandfather Mushtaq Ali’s undivided India. In the original Urdu title, Naya Ghar: Tazkirah (The New House: The Chronicle), the word tazkirah – a genre of writing found in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic literature that involves literary record in the form of a commentary or biographical notes – refers to Ikhlaq’s family tradition of writing a chronicle.
Indeed, the novel opens with Mushtaq Ali’s chronicle and demonstrates Husain’s interest in periods of political uncertainty. The Ottoman Empire has ended, the Khilafat movement – a short-lived political campaign launched in India in support of the caliphate – has collapsed, and sectarian divisions have increased (“They were the signs of the end of times”). A character named Mamdoo sees what he thinks is the Beast of the Earth, a sign in Islamic eschatology portending that the Day of Judgment is near; Mushtaq Ali is relieved to find that people do not have a mark on their foreheads. For his friend, Pandit Ganga Dutt, this is the Kali Yuga, a period of destruction. When Mushtaq Ali wonders why family members in the Mahabharata fight one another, the Pandit cites a character in the epic: “there are times when the wise turn to fools, and then there’s no stopping anything” – foretelling the communal violence that would ensue after Partition.
As an immigrant to a new country, Husain was acutely aware of the need to establish a relationship with the land.
Though perhaps not as widely-read as Urdu writers like Saadat Hasan Manto and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Husain’s relationship to Partition makes his writing on the event distinct. While most Progressive Writers viewed the creation of Pakistan as a tragedy, Husain saw it as an opportunity for Southasian Muslims to explore their wider Islamic heritage. In the early days following Partition, a sense of idealism – which would later disappear in the wake of civil unrest – led Husain to reframe the migration of Muslims to Pakistan as hijrat, evoking the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina. His writings draw on broad Islamic mythology and reference places outside Southasia, such as Karbala and al-Andalus, that are significant in Islamic history. At the same time, Husain was aware of his syncretic Southasian heritage: “I realised that my Islamic past in India did not exist in isolation from the history of the other communities that lived there, that it could not be separated from the history of the rest of the land.” Mushtaq Ali’s chronicle, after all, is a meditation on the pluralistic culture of pre-independence India, featuring stories from Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic mythology. It is also evident in Husain’s other short stories, novellas, and novels that tend to feature a composite narrative style that fuses together Buddhist, Hindu, and Islamic mythology.
Husain’s fictionalisation of loss often draws from his personal experiences. During Ikhlaq’s early days in Lahore, he and his mother Bujan – newly arrived refugees from India – live in an annexe of an allotment property. Bujan is miserable and lost to her memories of Chiragh Haveli, their ancestral home in India (“Ikhlaq, my boy, what wasteland have you brought us to?”) However, Ikhlaq grows attached to the peepal and medlar trees in the yard surrounding the house. Husain, like Ikhlaq, was also attached to trees. Deeply concerned about the fate of trees in rapidly changing societies, he once dedicated a newspaper column to a tree that had been cut down outside Punjab University in Lahore, writing “Trees are like our collective mind; they retain memories as if it’s a sacred duty. But it seems memories matter little in an industrialised society”. As if a reflection of what Husain himself might have done, Ikhlaq decides to move out when his landlord orders that the trees be cut down to develop the area for commercial purposes. Ikhlaq and his mother move from house to house in search of a place that will fill the void left by Chiragh Haveli; the neighbourhoods they live in get surrounded by shops, their existence choked by postcolonial developments.
At some level, this novel can be read as a portrayal of the deracinated post-Partition self in a new country.
As an immigrant to a new country, Husain was acutely aware of the need to establish a relationship with the land. When a previous owner visits Bujan’s allotment house (a Hindu woman who has migrated to India after Partition), Bujan confronts both the history of homes left behind and her relationship to that history. Realising she doesn’t want to take “pleasure in the distress of others” she asks Ikhlaq to build them a new family home. Ikhlaq, however, is unsure whether he will be able to have the same relationship with the proposed house that his grandfather had with Chiragh Haveli. After generations of displacement and exile, Mushtaq Ali’s grandfather had established his family in Chiragh Haveli and Mushtaq Ali had been unable to leave his home during Partition, saying “This land won’t let me go.” This reluctance to leave home is a recurring theme in Urdu Partition literature: in Ismat Chughtai’s short story ‘Roots’ Amma, the grandmother, also refuses to leave her family home.
After his new house is built, Ikhlaq is filled with hope, but this idyll is short-lived: cracks appear, both literally and figuratively, as violence spreads through the city. At first, Ikhlaq remains oblivious, but the city is simmering with political tensions, threatening to explode. Although Bujan consults a diviner to ensure their plot is not cursed, there is a public hanging nearby. Pushed further into his memories of the past, Ikhlaq cannot help but contrast the modest scale of his new house to that of Chiragh Haveli’s imposing structure with its tall turrets, high walls,and parapets. When he questions his friend, an architect, about the design of the house, his friend’s scathing response (“What really gets under my skin is all these immigrants who say they used to live in a castle”) brings Ikhlaq back to the present.
At some level, this novel can be read as a portrayal of the deracinated post-Partition self in a new country. Ikhlaq’s happiness at building a new house – analogous to early idealism around the prospect of building a new country – disappears in the wake of the reality of loans and the growing realisation that this house would never be able to replace Chiragh Haveli. This is mirrored in Basti where protagonist Zakir’s sense of hopefulness in his early days in Pakistan dissolves into the disillusionment that follows post-Independence reality:
Those were good days, good and sincere. I ought to remember those days … And the days afterward? Them too, so I can know how the goodness and sincerity gradually died out from the days, how the days came to be filled with misfortune and nights with ill omen.
For Ikhlaq, Lahore has now changed even though the violence is mainly contained in areas of the city far away from them (“Sometimes a city changes so quickly that it’s hard to say just what has changed, and yet everything has changed.”) Husain is not explicit about the terror: it is an unnamed force that rushes through the city, only ever referred to obliquely. Like when Ikhlaq’s rickshaw driver talks about an unnamed person who visits the royal family in Saudi Arabia, hinting at the Zia regime’s Islamisation programme and its deepening ties with the Gulf country. Or when Ikhlaq wants to write a book about Pakistani culture but is unable to do so because of strict censorship rules under the martial law imposed during Zia’s reign.
In the ever-shifting landscapes of their life, the only constant Ikhlaq and Bujan have are their memories, which deepen and take hold of them. Although Bujan has been in Lahore for decades, her spirit still wanders through Chiragh Haveli; likewise, Ikhlaq’s identity too is tied to a place beyond the border. He is assailed by memories of his cousin Shaireen who he was to marry back in India. A chance encounter with her in Lahore draws Ikhlaq back to his childhood, where their romance played out in the courtyard of Chiragh Haveli. Together, they rebuild their ancestral home (“We took hold of its memory for ourselves: the building sprang vividly to life, and in the process, we discovered ourselves.”) Ikhlaq takes up the family tradition of writing a chronicle as a way to reconcile his past with his present, but his memories are tangled: violence in present-day Lahore blurs with the Partition violence in their hometown in India. Time collapses, his forefather’s exile from Persia melts into his own migration from India.
Husain’s early stories, written in response to Partition, are also concerned with the after-effects of displacement and the search for identity in a new land. In Husain’s short story ‘An Unwritten Epic’ (1952) the narrator is unable to write about his new country: “I can’t figure out what I should write about Pakistan nor how I should write it.” In works that followed, particularly in his novels, Husain explored these themes further to understand how Partition required Pakistani Muslims, especially muhajirs to redefine who they were. Husain explains: “For many … the question of identity could not be so easily imagined. They wondered about their relation with their past that had once defined them – a past which they had left behind in India.”
Ikhlaq takes up the family tradition of writing a chronicle as a way to reconcile his past with his present, but his memories are tangled: violence in present-day Lahore blurs with the Partition violence in their hometown in India.
Although Husain’s non-fiction writings support the idea of Partition – which he saw as both positive and a historical necessity – he also grappled with the uncertainty of what constituted a Pakistani identity. As he once said in an interview: “If we were a different nation [from India] then what was our national and cultural identity?” Given Husain’s nostalgia for undivided India, including cherished memories of his hometown, it is unsurprising that, in his fiction, he harks back to an almost utopian existence in undivided India. This portrayal of a Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (culture) is a motif that is revisited in Partition literature, such as in Rahi Masoom Reza’s A Village Divided where the idea of a separate Muslim state seems unnecessary to the Hindu and Muslim villagers, or in Kamleshwar’s Laute Hue Musafir (The Migrants Who Came Back) where Hindus and Muslims live together in peace before they are divided along sectarian lines.
In The Chronicle, Mushtaq Ali’s pre-Partition world preserves this coexistence: in his chronicle, he includes Pandit Ganga Dutt and his father Som Dutt’s writings that expound on Buddhist and Hindu mythology. The Pandit who is well-versed with the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran – equally familiar with shastras as he is with the hadith – opens his section with “In the name of Ram and Allah”. His pluralistic practice is reminiscent of Dauji, the Hindu shepherd in Ashfaq Ahmad’s short story ‘The Shepherd’ who is familiar with Sufi teachings and guides a young Muslim boy through his religious studies. The situation changes, however, when the Pandit’s son Kishan Lal takes over from his father in the years leading up to Partition; for him, Mushtaq Ali is now the ‘other’. Lal hands over his recently deceased father’s writings in Farsi – now a language associated primarily with Muslims – to Mushtaq Ali (“It’s in your writing. It’s for you people—you keep it”).
Husain explains: “For many … the question of identity could not be so easily imagined. They wondered about their relation with their past that had once defined them – a past which they had left behind in India.”
For Husain, Urdu was a language that could tap into European and Persian literary conventions while at the same time draw upon the traditions of the Subcontinent. In his fiction, he combines Indian narrative styles with the Persian dastan (which features sequences of linked stories of war, adventure, and romance with fabulous elements) to create a new mode of storytelling in Urdu. He was particularly interested in the Pali Jataka tales of previous incarnations of Gautam Buddha and in Sanskrit literature that employed the framed narrative technique – where interlinked stories are encased within the main narrative – such as in the Panchatantra and the Kathasaritsagara.
While Husain was convinced his work could be translated into Hindi – the language used in Hindi translations of his works remains close to the original – he was unsure if his style could be conveyed in English translation. In her translator’s note in Basti, Frances W Pritchett writes about the difficulty of translating the shifts in linguistic register and time – the transition between the past and present is not always explicit in the narrative. This translation, carried out by Matt Reeck, who has previously translated Manto, among other Urdu writers, is lucid and retains a certain Southasian sensibility in its English. The addition of a glossary – found in the other two novels in the ‘series’ – would have been welcome since there are specific Pakistani and northern Indian Hindu and Muslim cultural references that may be unfamiliar to the reader.
For Husain, Urdu was a language that could tap into European and Persian literary conventions while at the same time draw upon the traditions of the Subcontinent. In his fiction, he combines Indian narrative styles with the Persian dastan (which features sequences of linked stories of war, adventure, and romance with fabulous elements) to create a new mode of storytelling in Urdu.
Even though Partition was a historical reality for Husain, he could not extricate himself from his syncretic roots. He has been criticised for being fixated with the past – a perspective that is not always shared by the muhajir community – but this fixation is not without purpose. This was his way of making sense of his position as an Indian migrant in a new land; a way to bring together his past and present, much the same way Ikhlaq writes his chronicle to make sense of his new country. It was not as though Husain could escape his heritage either, especially since muhajirs are an ethnic community in Pakistan without a homeland; As he writes in Basti: “I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present…But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history.” Can his nostalgia then be seen as a quiet questioning of borders? In his fiction, the characters tend to transcend such lines – at least in their minds – an especially relevant tendency at a time when the ghosts of 1947 continue to haunt us, and the lines created then continue to take on new forms of division.