Book review

Two novellas reacquaint us with the finest Urdu writer of our time, Intizar Husain

With ‘Day’ and ‘Dastan’ Intizar Husain rewrites the Partition without violence, gauging its impact on people.

Intizar Husain is known as one of the finest Urdu writers of his times. Much of his work is informed by the Partition of India, and his own experience of migration to Pakistan.

Readers who are discovering Husain’s work decades after it was published, and in a different language, must contend with inevitable mutations of idiom and style, and a cultural context that has vanished leaving few traces. However, what they will absorb, and reflect, is a timeless mourning, a sense of bewildered grief, and relentless displacement.

In a new translation of two novellas, Day and Dastan, the author’s slippery sense of time and place is chainlinked with a precise rendering of time and place.

Of families and roots

Day (Din) is a story that unfolds over one pitiless summer against the backdrop of an ancestral haveli mired in debt and court cases. The young protagonist, Zamir, has barely graduated when his parents return to the haveli and their farmland. With an intensity that matches the shimmering heat of the plains, he recalls his friendship with his cousin, Tahsina. The innocent almost-sibling relationship is bound to flower into attraction.

The distance the novella traverses is short, and yet, it is also as vast as a cloudless sky. It is not just the story of one impending drought or one tentative romance. It is the story of families with deep roots in the land, about petty anxieties about status within families, and everyday cruelties inflicted especially upon young girls. Tahsina, for instance, is expected to walk with her shoulders drooping forward, in order to hide the fact of her bosom. Unmarried girls are not expected to wear flowers or any adornment that may bring them attention, even within their own homes. They are expected to all the housework, especially when times are hard and money runs thin.

Husain’s work also serves as a repository of cultural memory and everyday delights in a small town. The landscape too is a protagonist in its own right. Day is particularly focussed on nature, its power and its grace: neem tree blossoms, wells, the heat and dust storms. Children amuse themselves by chasing chameleons, or catching butterflies and setting them free with messages for Allah. Young girls dye melon seeds red and greed. Farm workers wait to sing the Alha during the rainy season.

Many of the author’s stories are about people wandering in search of unspecific, unnameable things. Zamir, for instance, is often wandering about. Large public monuments tend also not to fill the author’s imagination. He seems to be mentally mapping the same, familiar area over and over. His landmarks are ordinary and homely – a little red temple, the vegetable seller’s street, the butcher’s street, the local school.

Of fear and uprootings

Despite his reputation as a Partition narrator, Husain’s interest seems to lie not so much in bloody events. He examines the uneven, immeasurable tragedies that unfold as a result of separation, from the land, the landscape, and beloved people. These little tragedies may unfold from an inability to take firm, clear-sighted decisions, or from a restrictive culture or a household that leaves you nowhere to hide.

Day involves an uprooting, although violence is not yet on the horizon. Dastan, on the other hand, is dotted with uprootings. There are mythical trees and beasts, princesses, and battles, but above all, there is exile. The author uses the style and structure of the traditional dastans. The narrator, Hakim Ali, tells his friends stories he’s heard from someone else, and often, this narrative too contains other, smaller narratives, some of them referencing 1857 and the first war for Indian independence.

However, there is none of the comfort of the familiar narrative. The heroes are not heroic and the villains hard to spot. There is chaos and fear, and displacement. Over and over again, the protagonists of each of the dastans embedded within Dastan are displaced, wrenched from their homes and their beloveds by unseen enemies. People are mourning, because their leaders have gone away or been killed. But the scale of the tragedy or its precise historical moment is never clear.

The two novellas echo the themes and preoccupations that are apparent in Husain’s fiction. The Sea Lies Ahead, and The Death of Sheherzad and Other Stories have appeared in translation in recent years. These translations of Day and Dastan add to our understanding of the great loss that is displacement and exile – losses that can scarcely be quantified and can never quite be condoled.

Day and Dastan: Two Novellas, Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Nishat Zaidi and Alok Bhalla, Thornbird.day

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