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Remembering Intizar Husain

Aspects which contributed to his eminence

Remembering Intizar Husain

It was a long haul indeed, from a childhood and boyhood spent in a sleepy little town in western UP, a teenaged college life in Meerut, some scattershot formal education, and thereafter a shift to Lahore where he dropped anchor, so to say. It was the city he lived in for most of his life. Even when his fame spread and invitations to various cities and continents proliferated, in the end he always came home. In Lahore he died, after a busy and rewarding life, having done enough meritorious work to ensure a niche for himself in Urdu literature.

Even the act of settling in Lahore made sense. Somehow Intizar knew that once he had moved to a new country and to a city which was its cultural hub, he would have to formalise a new contract with what was hitherto unfamiliar. Diving in at the deep end. It is always wise to make sense of the place you choose to live in, of the people you move among. Shahid Ahmad Dehlavi and Muhammad Hasan Askari lacked this gumption and decided to proceed to Karachi or, in other words, preferred to flounder in a safer milieu. Intizar put a premium on his freedom, a stance which paid dividends.

But all this can be seen as plain pontification. Intizar’s achievement as a writer is what matters and it would be much more pertinent to point out those aspects which contributed to his eminence. The first factor obviously is his command of the language. To begin with, at least in the first half of his career, his prose had a classical chastity and vigour, brilliantly blending with his themes. Its poise complemented his fiction. Clearly he had read most of the classical Urdu poetry and prose not only attentively but also passionately. It helped him to fashion a style which stood up to scrutiny even in an age which had drifted far away from the ethos that shored up Urdu’s classical canon.

Paradoxically his prose seems both familiar and strange. Familiar in the sense that it reminds the readers of Mohammad Husain Azad, Ratan Nath Sarshar and Nazeer Ahmad whose masterly prose remains unmatched; and strange because it depicted life with a Chekhovian restraint, not at all common in modern Urdu fiction.

It is sad to note that Intizar’s prose lost much of its gloss eventually and the tone and diction became somewhat repetitive and predictable. Perhaps the themes he later on came to prefer, Indian and Buddhist myths and legends, were less demanding or did not call for elevated prose. It could be that writing newspaper columns, day in, day out, often dulls one’s response. But even if his prose show signs of slackness it is still a country miles ahead of most of his contemporaries.

His short stories and novelettes matter most. Two novelettes, Din and Dastan, stand out. It could be said that had he written nothing else but Din he would still deserve our plaudits. Manifestly, there are autobiographical elements at work here.

His short stories and novelettes matter most. Two novelettes, Din and Dastan, stand out. It could be said that had he written nothing else but Din he would still deserve our plaudits. Manifestly, there are autobiographical elements at work here. We see a small, quiet backwater where nothing seems to have changed for centuries. Everything, the old house, the rustic landscape and the various characters appear with photographic clarity, diverse images from a world on the brink of collapse. An ancient, middle-class family leads a sheltered life in an old house. There may have been something notable about the family in the past but as the narrative begins its best days are over. There is an air of decay about the place. If there was an aura of sanctity attached to it once, it is no longer there. An aged woman of the family pensilively remarks, “There is no one now with great spiritual power in our family. In the old days there always used to be someone saintly in every generation. A sequence has come to an end.”

The old are bedevilled with nostalgia, the young feel bored. Only the very young are carefree and happy. The central character, a boy, is in love with a girl his age but too naïve to comprehend his feelings. There is only a vague sense of something smouldering within which he can’t name.

Meanwhile the family, which has lost possession of its ancestral house in a lawsuit, begins to build a new house for itself. As it finally moves into its new home, a different phase of existence unfolds. There is relentless summer all around. The rains fail. Crops are ruined. Dust storms and searing winds assail the landscape. A dead end has been reached. The decline in a family’s fortune has not been recaptured with comparable flair by anyone else in Urdu fiction.

Dastans major flaw is that Intizar attempts to put a romantic veneer on a tragic and bloodstained chapter in Indian history. It deals with the uprising against the British rule in 1857. There was no lack of savagery on either side and, as the British triumphed in the end, they out-did their rivals in butchery. It was a very messy affair, not easy to write about, although easy to glorify tendentiously. The novelette should have been grounded in starkly historical realism, something certainly not Intizar’s forte. There are purple patches here and there but the excellence of prose alone cannot hold together a tottering narrative.

The critics in general have shown more partiality for his short stories and novels. However, the heightened sense of the possibilities inherent in his shorter fiction, whether steeped in an offbeat realism or redolent of paranoid existence in a shadowy metropolis or minatorily existential or attempts to explore the trauma of 1971 or forays to unearth contemporary meanings from old legends, is only faintly visible in his novels.

But there is much more in Intizar’s oeuvre that is worth reading — memoirs, travel books, translations, criticism and literary and cultural columns. He did not care to be a literary critic but when he took note in earnest of something of merit he could manage to look at it in a refreshingly new way, free of jargon.

M. Salim-ur-Rahman

M. Salim-ur-Rehman

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