The literature of the early years of Independence reflects a knee-jerk reaction to immediate events. The work of Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and Hayatullah Ansari used shock as a strategy to allow their readers to deal with and go beyond the paralysing effects of what was a tragedy of massive proportions.
It would be several years before some semblance of reflection, introspection and evaluation could emerge. A preoccupation with pain and sorrow, in a sense, blinded the early crop of writers – blinded them, that is, to the moral, political and intellectual contradictions that only a crisis of an unprecedented scale can precipitate.
Those who began their literary careers after the horrors had abated somewhat were in a better position to analyse the political and social fault lines revealed by the Partition. It was only with the gradual passage of time that the Urdu writer could seize the events of 1947 and view them as catastrophic even apocalyptic events that carried within them the seeds of renewal.
The possibilities of Partition
Nothing demonstrates this better than the literary career of Intizar Husain who seems to have spent a lifetime ruing the possibilities that the Partition presented but were lost or frittered away. In story after story, he talks of how, suddenly, almost by accident, Partition allowed writers like him to “regain” a great experience – namely hijrat or migration that has a unique place in the history of the Muslims. Yet, as he said in an interview to the literary journal Shabkhun: “And the great expectation we had of making something out of it at a creative level and of exploiting it in developing a new consciousness and sensibility – that bright expectation has now faded and gone.”
In his Partition trilogy comprising Basti (Habitation), Aagey Samandar Hai (The Sea Lies Ahead), and Naya Ghar (The New House), Intizar Husain’s enormous contribution as a story teller, especially in the genre of Partition narratives, is amply evident. If Manto laid bare the ugliness of 1947 and its immediate, brutish aftermath with the urgency of a field surgeon, Intizar Husain probed those wounds ever so gingerly, peeling away layers from old memories to reveal wounds that were still fresh and may never heal, at least not in his life time – at least not when fresh wounds are repeatedly inflicted on skin that is still sore and tender.
Basti written in 1979, translated by Frances W Pritchett in 1995, introduced English readers to the soiling of dreams and the sapping of vim and vigour that had led to the creation of a new nation – themes seldom articulated by Pakistani ideas.
Intrigued by the open-ended finale of Basti, I embarked upon translating Aagey Samandar Hai, published as The Sea Lies Ahead in 2015. It takes up the story from where Basti ended but because all of Intizar sahab’s work is cyclical there are no clearly defined beginnings and ends and even the middles have a great deal of overlap.
We must revisit the past, he seems to be saying in story after story, in order to learn from it. And this revisiting does not happen in any particular order. Zakir is replaced by Jawad: burdened with memories of the past when he was Munnan and his closest friend and comrade was his cousin Maimuna – to whom he was betrothed in childhood – he can never quite fit in. A short-lived marriage to a fellow muhajir who dies all too soon, a son who has gone away to make a new life in America, a job as a bank manager that leaves him listless with ennui, Jawad’s life “here” can never be the sum total of its parts because a vital part of his being will forever be “there”.
A “new house”
Not everyone in Pakistan however, shared Intizar Husain’s mournful longing for a syncretic past or yearned for its sights, sounds, smells and seasons. As he himself is perfectly aware that there were many among the Urdu-speaking muhajir who were aspirational, upwardly-mobile and keen to shed the baggage of the past. Tausif and Baji Akhtari who, as wagging tongues inform us, were low-caste Kamboh in the past but have successfully refashioned themselves as high-born Saiyads and remodelled their lives by taking part fully in the nation-building project such as it is, are exemplars of a new world order. Seamlessly and without the slightest crease or tension in his gently flowing narrative, Intizar sahib is not merely outlining the decay that set in and the apathy and disinterest of his fellow countrymen and women in stemming the rot, he also seems to be suggesting that perhaps decay and decline is inevitable, and that cities are settled simply in order to be laid waste.
Because the story of the creation of a new nation and the setting up of a new home is still not complete, there is the need to write yet another novel. Naya Ghar, the third in the trilogy teases the contours of this new home/country. Still in the nature of a “work in progress”, I find myself covering familiar ground: memories of lives and places left behind, dearly beloved family members that are sleeping the eternal sleep in a land across the border, images of father and grandfather and assorted relatives now long dead who appear in his dreams because dreams and memories don’t need visas to cross borders. Jawad has been replaced with Mushtaq Ali who is troubled by the portent hidden in his dream: “One night, I saw my father Abba jani in a dream; he seemed troubled by the pages of life scattered in front of him. In a deeply pained voice he was saying that our elders had always stood by their duty; alas we could not do so.”
Haunted by memories of Chiragh Haveli, the house his grandfather built and his father lived and died in, the house he perforce left behind, he strives to build a new home in his new country. After many mishaps and long years of living in rented or abandoned houses, houses abandoned by the Hindus who fled to India whose houses were then ‘allotted’ to new owner, he finally builds a home and a life for himself. He marries Zubeida, a muhajir like himself, and embarks upon a plan of buying a plot through a housing scheme but first there is the question of raising sufficient money:
Then started a series of loans: loans from my office, from the Housing Finance Corporation, from banks (first from one, then another, and after a great deal of juggling a third one too), ending with the turn of friends and acquaintances. First there were the big loans; then, I settled for whatever I could get. Eventually, I was reduced to taking loans of 100 or 200 rupees. I took whatever I could from whoever I could find – it takes many a drop to fill a pond, I told myself. But if only the pond were to fill!
But building a house, Mushtaq Ali discovers, is not merely an exercise in raising finances, buying a plot, digging foundations, raising walls and a roof. The metaphor of the “new house” contains within it an existential dilemma: will the new house bring blessings, or will it be an ill omen? Will it give shelter to its inhabitants for generations, or will it be abandoned in the years to come?
In translating The New House, I am continuing an experiment I started in The Sea Lies Ahead. I have steadfastly resisted the temptation to read the entire novel. I read exactly as much as I translate on any given day: it can be a paragraph, a page or several pages, sometimes just a few lines. I refuse to succumb to the temptation of jumping ahead and reading more. When I read – and simultaneously translated – the last few lines of The Sea Lies Ahead, I had goose bumps. I want to experience that sensation again. I don’t know what lies ahead for the inhabitants of the new house in the new land but I am waiting to find out.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has published over 25 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture. She was awarded the Kaifi Azmi Award for her contribution to Urdu and the First Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-Hindi Translation.