Intizar Husain was recently described as the ‘best fiction writer in the language since Qurratulain Hyder.’ I have much to quarrel against this somewhat simplistic (if not patronising) assessment. Or I could simply laugh it off as one of the usual comfortably ignorant observations about contemporary literature that many of us are much prone to make nowadays.
But I am not quarrelling, because Intizar Husain never quarrelled with anyone. And I am not laughing, because I am mourning for Intizar Husain. I am mourning for both the writer and the friend. It is almost half a century since we became friends.
Ghalib once wrote that in his day and age it was hard to find an enemy of fifty years’ standing, not to speak of a friendship going back five decades. If it was difficult in Ghalib’s age, how much more difficult it is in our time when friendships are as delicate and brittle as the thinnest glass and when enmities are forged in the smithy of the meanest self-interest?
I don’t quite remember what first attracted me to Intizar Husain. Was it his prose, scintillating, deceptively pellucid, smoothly flowing, never pausing to search for the most suitable word or phrase? Or was it his studious refusal to permit literature to be used as a weapon in the so-called battle for social or political change, or in whichever battle was flavour of the month at that time? Or was it his evocation of loss and pain, not on a local or national level, but loss as a universal reality?
It must have been all this, and much else besides, I am sure. But my immediate fascination was for the man who wrote as if he had brought back the magical pen of Muhammad Husain Azad with him when he came into the human world. The wry humour (but not the malice), the astonishing insight into people and things, the narrative gift, the beautiful prose, all this made me wonder if such a person could really exist. And since exist he did, what made him tick? I am speaking of the 1970s, we hadn’t met each other in person, but I wrote to him often, asking for a story or some other contribution for Shabkhoon.
Those were the days before the tv, before even direct international dialing, when our best means of getting to know something of the person was Radio Pakistan, Lahore. Lahore radio’s Indian transmissions were on the medium wave and were notoriously difficult to hear in Allahabad or Lucknow, the cities that I used to live in at that time. And I wasn’t much given to tuning in to the radio anyway.
Naiyar Masud was a more avid listener and it was due to him that I got to hear Intizar’s voice for the first time. It was some discussion, but the subject and the names of the other discussants slip my mind. I remember being disappointed, not with Intizar’s words, but his voice; it came through somewhat reedy, somewhat hesitant. It seemed that he wasn’t much into the art of conversation. But there was no reason that he should be. It was just my romantic fancy that a person who wrote with authority and in such perfectly crafted prose should have an authoritative, if not actually booming voice.
We first met in 1980, when I and Jamila went to Pakistan for the first time and stayed in Lahore for many days. Intizar threw a large party for us, besides being an active presence in all meetings and social occasions where we were invited. His wife, Aliya, came from Banaras, and since that city, being the one where my mother came from, was more like a home to me than my own place of origin, I promptly adopted Aliya as a sister and I am happy to say that all four of us — Aliya, Intizar, Jamila and I — enjoyed and respected and cherished that relationship through our lives.
Intizar lost Aliya before I lost Jamila, but not having had the ravaging experience of the loss of a beloved spouse, I mourned for Aliya as a brother, not fully appreciating the helpless loneliness that must have invaded Intizar’s life after Aliya’s passing. I came to understand it better in 2007 when Jamila died. But while I occasionally would blurt out to Intizar how unhappy and unloved I felt after Jamila’s going, Intizar himself never spoke of his pain to me. And this was a person whose traditions and background celebrated pain as a living part of life, and whose own writings are so saturated with pain and suffering.
Intizar did so much to enrich not only Urdu literature but also the literature of the subcontinent that it will take time before a realistic assessment of his achievement could even begin. And he did this without courting controversy, without arousing rancour, without ever jockeying for position, money or recognition.
During the 1960s and the 70s, he was often blamed in certain circles for ‘nostalgia’. He is too much in the past, it was said; he has given away his heart and soul in nostalgia. This reminded me of the criticism against Boris Pasternak from much the same quarters for being much given to ‘mysticism’. As if a ‘mystic’ bent of mind (whatever that may be) could vitiate the literary or artistic value of a text. Intizar never answered the charge of being slave to nostalgia. And it never came up as a subject between us in our numerous conversations.
I certainly wrote once that Intizar’s consciousness was much anchored in the past, but what exactly constitutes ‘past’, or what is the ‘pastness’ in that past is rather indeterminate. But Intizar seemed to have no interest in taking me up on this.
Of one thing I am quite certain: There can be no present without a past and our cultural and intellectual tragedy over the past two centuries or so is that we have been indoctrinated in the concept that we have no past that we need to look back to; our path into the future is best negotiated by keeping our back turned firmly on our cultural and intellectual past. Intizar tried to tell us that the past enriches us, gives stability and base, and is valuable in itself not merely because of our ‘achievements’ but also because of myriad little cultural and linguistic treasures which are always at risk due to waste, neglect, or plain ignorance.
Intizar was only doing his duty in emphasising this fact which is obvious to any people who don’t have a colonial past.
I am not sure that Intizar Husain opened his inner life to anyone. Not even Muhammad Hasan Askari, his beloved and revered mentor could have been allowed to have a peek. He talked vigorously and well about things that entered his consciousness as a writer. I always marvelled at the width and expanse of his empathies. He was also a very brave man. Although he was a writer and cultural icon of international standing, he never hesitated to take unpopular positions and even to say things which he could be sure would arouse hostility.
Many years ago, when I reviewed Alamaton ka Zaval, his first collection of essays, I declared that this collection would establish Intizar Husain as a major critic. Over the years, and on publication of his other collections, Nazarye se Age and Apni Danist Men, I could see that while his critical sense remained sharp as ever, his observations of a theoretical nature revealed an insight and breadth of vision which adds to his stature as a critic.
Intizar Husain as a playwright is among the many aspects of his literary achievement that hasn’t received sufficient attention. Novelist, short story writer, critic, columnist in Urdu and English, translator, explorer of the culture of the past, Intizar Husain was also a very learned man. The columns that he wrote in English are written in good English and reveal his usual astuteness as reader and critic. It’s a pity he couldn’t see the collection of his plays which came out the day he was hospitalised for the last time.
I hope that someone will take the trouble to also collect his English pieces and publish them in a volume or more. He was never pretentious about his learning, but evidence of his wide reading is scattered all over his writings and he deserves to be studied from that angle too.
Then there is the incomparable richness of the tapestry that he wove with strands from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Iran, the Middle East and the folklore of many traditions. It’s very difficult to hazard a guess what his writing would look like without these.
His prose is virtually untranslatable; its flavour and rhythm, its humour, its good sense, need to be savoured almost like a physical object.
“But I was telling you about the koel. She certainly perches in other trees too, but at that time I believed that it dwelt only upon the mango tree and though she can’t eat the mangoes, she certainly can fart on them. Some of those mangoes which have a black spot, you know? We used to call them koel-farted-mangoes and believed that the koel has certainly farted on them and they must be sweet though the koel herself can’t eat them. But why? Well, tradition tells that by the time the mangoes are ripe to eat, the two sides of the koel’s mouth become inflamed. Thus, the poor koel who had passed all these days calling koo koo and thus helped and supported the mangoes to ripen, remained deprived of their taste. It’s we who get to eat the fruit. It’s just like the proverb Little bibi dove should suffer all the distress and the crows should get to grab the eggs.”
(Justju Kya Hai, p. 47.)
So, let’s see if somebody, anybody can match this for limpidity, humour, closeness of observation and human-ness.