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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.