BOOK EXCERPT

A dastangoi tells the story of the Pakistani author Intizar Husain

An unusual re-creation of the master writer’s life through a series of dialogues.

After Nizam folded up Intizar Husain moved to Imroz.

“It was a wonderful paper. The look was different, the quality was different, its payment schedule and grades were different...The Progressives regarded the paper as their own mouthpiece. They would drop in at the office with swagger but whenever they encountered the editor Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, he would ask them just one question, ‘Maulana, have you read the Tilism-e Hoshruba?’”

The Tilism-e Hoshruba is the most famous section in the 46-volume Dastan-e Amir Hamza. Hugely popular until the early parts of the twentieth century, it had been virtually forgotten by the time Intizar Husain IH reached Pakistan. Only people with very recondite tastes still kept up with it. Typically for someone who always went against the grain, Askari, who was a big fan of the Tilism-e Hoshruba, was preparing a selection from it those days.

The text is full of long lists of clothes, food, details of wrestling moves, names of weapons, ornaments, jewellery. This is the nature of the oral narrative: long elaborate lists. Askari and Hasrat got along very well. But one day Askari got annoyed with Hasrat because he couldn’t explain the meaning of a word that is in the text and then they never made up. But Hasrat picked up a fight with the owners over some trifle and all the staffers had to resign from their posts. He and his brood roamed the streets to raise funds for another paper but it was not to be. This was the time when IH did a lot of freelancing and finished a translation of the Russian writer Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons. It was then that he discovered the Tea House in full measure.

“Earlier I went to the Tea House for short visits. Now, when I began to accompany Nasir, the afternoons turned to evenings and evenings to nights. I received a letter from Karachi from Askari Sahib saying that, ‘Salim Ahmad says Nasir’s company is corrupting Intizar. This is a good opportunity, ask him to move to Karachi’... but being with Askari meant only being with Askari.... I thought I would rather stay with Nasir and with my own gang, which had now expanded to include Ahmed Mushtaq [one of the best Urdu poets in the world today], Muzaffar Ali Syed, Sheikh Salahuddin, Hanif Rame.”

At that time a businessman in Anarkali decided to publish a literary journal.

Muzaffar Ali Syed enthusiastically made all the plans although IH was to be the editor. Only two issues of this journal were published. It was called Khiyal in emulation of a magazine that Miraji once edited. What distinguished the magazine was the wide variety of issues and themes including Art that it touched upon. Shakir Ali’s paintings got a prominent outing, one of which was a reproduction of an Italian nude of Adam and Eve soon after their banishment from Paradise. It is not something that can be aired in Pakistan, or even in India, today. Hanif Rame drew the title page.

And then, suddenly Nasir got married. Just like that. It was the most unexpected and the most sudden shift in everybody’s life. Nasir now kept early hours because he had to get back home in time, at least by one or one thirty am. One more issue of Khiyal was to be published in that decade, under Nasir’s editorship. It was a special issue, brought out in 1957 commemorating the hundredth anniversary of 1857.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it in time for my book on 1857, but I did manage to find the Dastan that IH wrote for this special number. I have rehearsed it many times. It is a remarkable ode to the events of that bloody year. That is a great hallmark of IH’s writings: they can all be read aloud. They read as if someone is talking to you. His lifelong love for oral literature had a deep and telling impact on his own writing.

By then IH had moved to his own accommodation on Jail Road.

On his first morning there he decided to reconnoitre the area. Here are his observations of the morning,

“The next morning when I woke up I left my bed immediately thinking that I should step out and make my acquaintance with my neighbourhood, in order to see what kind of street is this, what color do the earth and the sky have here, what kind of people live here. When I stepped out of the gate I saw a beauty in the kothi opposite. I was startled. Is this a twin of the heroine Swarnlata? She was a true copy of the famous Swarnlata and I was struck with the mysterious ways of the Lord who had created two people in exact resemblance to each other. One ruled Bombay and the other had been sent to Lahore. Meanwhile another person appeared, a burly man, light brown of complexion. Arrey this is the actor Nazir? Then I realised that this couple has bidden goodbye to Bombay and has moved to Lahore...Not far from that kothi was the Pancholi studio, therefore there were a lot of film people residing in the neighbourhood...I crossed the road and moved towards the canal and I noticed a small chai shop on the left hand side. The signboard read: ‘Café De Phoos [The Café of Straws]’”

I was still looking at it when somebody came forward and said, ‘Intizar Sahib, what are you looking at, why don’t you come and have a cup of tea?’ I said, ‘I will have tea later, but pray tell me Café De Phoos used to be in Aligarh, has the Café also migrated to Pakistan?’ He said, ‘This is our Café De Phoos, all sorts of bigwigs come and plant themselves here. Manto Sahib always comes here when he passes by.’ I said, ‘How come Manto Sahib comes here?’ He said, ‘Right there in Muslim Town is the Pancholi studio, he comes and goes there. When he comes this side he always has chai here....’

There was also a barber shop there. I became friends with him....One morning when I went there he placed the newspaper Afaq in front of me. There was a report in it by some Shahid Hamid on some literary gathering. My picture was also there. He said with surprise, ‘Isn’t this your picture.’ I said ‘Yes, it is me’. Then he expressed more surprise and said, ‘How come your picture made it to the paper?’ I said, ‘It is a mere coincidence, nothing important.’ After a while he asked me, ‘How much did you have to pay for it?’ I said, ‘No money was needed. The picture was published on its own.’ He became even more surprised and said, ‘Wow this is wonderful, in that case I can send my own picture and have it published.’ I said ‘Try it.’ By god’s grace I then found myself working for Afaq a few days after this conversation but I refrained from telling my hairdresser that.”

Excerpted with permission from A Requiem for Pakistan: The World of Intizar Husain, Mahmood Farooqui, Yoda Press.

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