Among the most acclaimed Urdu writers in the world today, Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, 91, is known for works such as Basti, Hindustan Se Aakhri Khat, Jataka Tales and Janam Kahanian. His rich repertoire of short stories draws from the oral traditions and myths of the subcontinent, the kathas and Ramlilas he witnessed during his childhood in India, and that he reimagines and reinterprets in his narratives. A frequent visitor to India, he was recently in New Delhi to attend the release of a translation of his short stories, The Death of Sheherzad (Harper Perennial).
Excerpts from the interview:
Partition pushed your family from Bulandshahr in India to Lahore in Pakistan. But, in your writings, there’s Roopnagar, the basti with ideal Hindu-Muslim ties. Does Roopnagar exist in real life?
Well, the idyll of the place I term Roopnagar did become a khwaab (dream) for me eventually — it was both so unreal and real. You cannot imagine those times. Hindustan ukhda hua tha (was in turmoil). The riots were fierce and intense, and everybody had to leave their homes and look for shelter, wondering where to take refuge. The riots broke out suddenly, but they were products of sustained political sloganeering. There were meetings and counter-meetings and rallies talking of polarisation — Panditji-Gandhiji versus Jinnah. We suddenly heard there would be no further talks. But the Congress versus Muslim League situation gradually got heated, and the riots grew, so Jinnah issued a call for a separate state. It seemed very odd then that India would get divided.
Like Rahi Masoom Raza’s Aadha Gaon?
It was exactly like that. The minute we heard that everybody had agreed to Partition, that even Gandhiji had to give in, who we were confident would hold resolute against it, we were stunned that the Partition formula went through. We weren’t ready emotionally to leave our basti. But the riots were so widespread that even those amongst us who did not want to go, had to move. So it is not as if everyone voluntarily went to Pakistan. Where there were no riots, the fear of a riot drove people away.
The basti I mention was completely tension-free. We lived on the edge of a Muslim mohalla. We were surrounded by Hindu mohallas, with small doors opening right into Hindu areas. We all lived comfortably. When we went on the roof to fly kites, we used to run uninhibitedly over Hindu roofs, with not a shred of worry.
What were the things you took to Lahore?
I had a mattress, some clothes and some books. There was an old Urdu edition of the Bible which I loved. It was in my father’s cupboard, which fascinated me as a child. From then on, I was fascinated by Bible and Sufi stories. I loved Russian fiction too — Chekov’s short stories — but the sense of loss after suddenly finding myself at a point of no-return in Lahore drew my mind back to the Ramlilas we would watch. So I read the Ramayana in Urdu and English. I also read summaries of the 18 volumes of the Mahabharata. The several stories woven into each other fascinated me no end. After that, the katha-kahaani tradition exerted an inexorable draw on my work.
Was it the same with Arabian Nights?
Yes, I read it as a child. It was a book readily found in all homes, though girls were not encouraged to read it as people thought it would impact their morality. But my girl cousins would hide and read it and so would my sisters. So I read it too.
The original conception of Pakistan, perhaps, did not visualise such a bad deal for its minorities. How did that change?
Earlier, they (Pakistanis) were themselves a minority in India. But now that the new country was founded, and they found themselves in majority, they became a majority to be feared. First Ahmadis and now Shias are being termed non-Muslims. Bahut jaldi kafir ban jaata hai aadmi wahan (People become infidels very quickly there).
What is the connection in such an environment between the literary world and journalism?
Literary writers are a little distanced from what is going on as they observe from afar, so they are less threatened. They can also resort to fiction to make a point. But an akhbar-nawees (journalist) has to go the spot and report from the ground, which is often risky. But as extremists do not read literature or our stories, we are safe.
Urdu has been Arabic-Persianised in Pakistan and ignored in India by officialdom, while Hindi has been Sanskritised in India. What do you think of the politics of languages?
Yes, that is a fact. But the common person’s Urdu in Pakistan, aam-bolchaal wali bhasha (everyday language) is not so. You think I am speaking in Hindi and I think you are speaking in Urdu. Both these languages, by syntax, grammar and usage and words, are very close. They have been politically kept apart. They are one, and at the same time, also rivals.
But Bangla on both sides of the eastern border does not have this problem…
No, because the communal battle was played out on the lines of Hindi vs Urdu. Both sides asserted that their language was the lingua franca of India. The truth is that both came together to form the lingua franca. In Pakistan, you must have heard that Urdu has strong Arabic and Persian influences. But there are some very interesting trends. One is the emergence of the doha as a form of expression in Urdu. This was the form used by Kabir, Tulsidas and other Hindi greats. But now, in Pakistan, after an enterprising Urdu poet Jamaluddin Aali started reciting them, it has become a legitimate form of Urdu poetry. So what was exclusively a Hindi form is now an Urdu form.
Have you gone back home to Dibai in Bulandshahr ?
Yes, after a long time, when I came to India in the 1970s for the Premchand centenary, I drove there and was surprised to see so much change. Some things were the same though, like the dharamshala and the local hospital. But on entering the gullies, I found it difficult to navigate to our old house. My friend, who was accompanying me, said I should ask someone, but I was resolute. I said, ‘Yeh meri dharti hai, mein yahan paida hua hoon. Main kisi aur se nahi poochhonga. Maine zara takkarein maareen lekin phir aakhir ghar pahunch hi gaya (This land is mine, I was born here. I won’t ask anyone. I went around in circles, but in the end, I found our home).’ On reaching, I realised that my house had changed a lot. I felt so strange that I returned to Lahore without going inside. I regretted it later, but the next time when I visited India, I hunted out my house with the help of a halwai (sweetshop owner).
Do you prefer the short story to other forms?
Yes, the tradition of the Progressives in the 1930s and 1940s made it easier to get short stories published. We could do it in literary magazines. Finding a publisher with a longer novel was usually very difficult, so while I have written many novels, the short story was the form I found very useful and turned to frequently.
Talking of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, why have you been critical of it?
I tried to get close to the Progressives but I found their regimentation hard to stomach. Especially in Pakistan, I felt they were excessively romantic in their ideas of a revolution in these parts and made some strategic mistakes. The regime in Pakistan succeeded in minimising their impact after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy (in 1951, in which Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz among others were tried for treason). But eventually, the Progressives never accepted me. They were irritated by the idea of nostalgia that dominated my work. They thought it was reactionary. They strongly felt we had to work towards making a better world instead of dwelling in the past.
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