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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Book review: This is Not That Dawn

Intizar Husain must be read to experience the cost of historical events on those forced to live through them.

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: February 6, 2016 12:57:41 am
Husain on his final visit to India Husain on his final visit to India


Title: The Sea Lies Ahead
Author: Intizar Husain
Translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jaleel
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 334
Price: Rs 599

The sea of this novel is not one that is an inviting expanse or a thing of hope — as it is, for instance, in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It is quite the opposite. It is centred on the anxieties of the hinterland muhajir — or the migrant — in Pakistan’s premier coastal city, Karachi. Transported there from landlocked bastis and bazaars, in search of a promised land, the migrant experienced a desolation which could not even be fully or openly articulated.

The translator Rakhshanda Jaleel lays out very valuable context about the title of this book. When told of the problems encountered by the muhajirs or UP/Bihar migrants in Pakistan, General Ayub Khan had warned them against voting for the combined Opposition’s candidate, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s sister, Fatima, with the terse and dark phrase: “aage samundar hai.” If they did not fall in line, there were few options other than jumping into the vast blue expanse, or so his remark was interpreted at the time. What followed apropos muhajirs in Karachi and the alienation they experienced at the hands of the Pakistani state is a painful and important part of the ferment and violence that was to haunt Pakistan in the years to come.

Aage Samundar Hai is the second of a trilogy of novels (the first being Basti, and the third Naya Ghar) by the renowned Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, who passed away last week. Its protagonist, Jawad, is separated from his fiancee in India, Maimuna, during the Partition. He ends up eventually questioning if Pakistan was the answer to problems that the Muslim community faced in India.

In an earlier interview, Intizar Husain, himself a migrant from Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan, had described how he returned only much later to India, after he was first forced to flee because of the riots leading up to the Partition in 1947. On his first trip back, he found himself on a street that suddenly looked unfamiliar, but he did not have the heart to ask anyone the way to his beloved house in Dibai, Bulandshahar. He got back without going home. The second time, he was more prepared. He spotted the neem tree and the mithai shop and was able to make his way home. This was more than three decades after Partition. But even in the interim, the land he had left behind bubbled constantly within this writer, providing him with inspiration, references and stories.

In 1947, he had carried with him a few clothes and a mattress to Pakistan, but also an Urdu translation of the Bible. Stories from the Bible and Hindu scriptures, as well as the Jataka tales inspired him throughout his life.

That flight to Pakistan, being torn away from one’s roots, and the conflicted awareness of a new country — all these are chanelled in the act of telling Jawad’s story. There is no closure in the novel. But if you want to experience the trauma and the displacement, as well as the sense of achievement that those arriving in Pakistan experienced, this book is a satisfying read.
There is a wealth of (growing) literature and bitter arguments about the origins of the idea of Pakistan. Was it intended to be an Islamic state in the sense of a homeland for Muslims like Israel, or a functional entity, rooted in the here and now of the subcontinent’s politics?

Without entering into all that, Husain draws on two important things: the divide between those who saw Partition as batwara or division and those who saw it as azaadi or freedom; second, he plays skilfully on the centrality of the idea of the hijrat or the migration in Islamic imagination. The flight of Prophet Muhammed from Mecca to Medina has been central to Islam and how it views persecution. That journey is the basis of the Islamic calendar, not the birth of Muhammed, who founded the faith. Husain refers to that journey and the other “flight” that happened in 1492 of the Moors from Spain. The novel starts with a reference to a date palm planted by Abd-ar-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordoba in the eighth century.

This must be one of the very few Urdu books published in Pakistan that manages to refer to fables of Manu, the law-giver revered in Hinduism, along with the tale of the deluge and the fish, as well as to the myth of Aazar, the sculptor, and father of Abraham, a central figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in almost the same breath.

Husain speaks of Dwarka, the disappearance of cities and the hope that creates new ones. But as circumstances wrench people away from their moorings and relocate them in new and often hostile surroundings, Intizar Husain must also be read to experience, almost first-hand, the cost of “historical events” on those forced to live through them.

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