It could well be a world of dinosaurs and behemoths, an age when jinnat and turnfeet roamed freely on this earth, when gods and goddesses went about unmolested across land and water or romped in the skies playfully determining the fates of mere mortals, a world of myth and magic, wizardy and enchantment. In the beginning it is none of these. Intizar Husain's early tales (Galli Koochey, 1952, Kankari, 1955) and the novella Din, 1960, are scrupulously realistic in presentation, theme and characterization. Yet he is evoking there a world lost, one that has become a tale merely, retrieving it bit by bit from the debris of its destruction, causing it to rise briefly, whole and healed again, its streets and lanes teeming with life, its main square and shops, its wrestling arenas, its roofs, its walls, its courtyards all peopled once more and bristling with rivalries, gossip, the arrogance of youth and the pride of a healthy body, disclosing at times the shared feeling of barely-suggested, almost articulated, love, at others, the impetuous friendship that brooks no insult, real or imagined, without repaying it in a celebrated and exemplary manner.
That age, that life of Intizar Husain's childhood and adolescence haunts him, pursues him across the border. In his adopted land he recreates around himself the life of the settlement he has left behind, and as time passes, he returns to it again as a pilgrim, physically, to discover that it survives spasmodically only and uncertainly, like a wounded creature which cannot express its pain and is doomed. Wounded himself, Intizar turns to record this misery and tries to discover some universal imperative, some operative logic out of his sense of bewilderment at this "tearing away of skin from the grain of wheat," or "the parting of flesh from nail"1 (“Doosra Gunah” 380).
In one of his most remarkable early tales, "Eik Bin-Likhi Razmia" (An Unwritten Epic), completed, according to the date given at its end, on June 1, 1950, the narrator/writer, before he has been drawn irretrievably to the cares of the world, writes at length about his idea of creative restoration. Since it seems pertinent to Intizar's own mode of writing at this stage, and perhaps later as well, the passage is quoted here in full:
I can't understand why living things should be written about. I write about corpses of things. The alive, the actually existing objects have a tangibility about them. How can you possibly write about them? There stir in them neither ambiguous shades nor suggestive shadows. They are fit for reportage or political verse, but not for poetry or fiction whose subject can never be the actual, tangible, living object. So I am distressed when I am confronted with these objects. It must have been a rather simple critic who suggested that a writer must always keep a window open while writing. Whoever advised opening a window in a windstorm? In fact, it puzzles me how people can write with their eyes open. My eyes are shut when I write. When the subject seeps into and fixes itself in my imagination, then it is that I am ready to write. As long as it is before me, it does not become for me a living idea. In Qadirpur I could never have imagined Pechhwa as a character in a story. Migration to Pakistan snapped my ties with Qadirpur and its land and people became but a tale for me. It never mattered to me whether Pechhwa was alive or dead--for me he was as good as dead anyway. Out of sight even a mountain ceases to exist. Believing him dead I began to write, but now he walks before my very eyes, a living creature of flesh and blood, and the character inhabiting my imagination has vanished like the proverbial horns from the ass's head. He has robbed me of my novel's main character.2 (in Janam Kahanian 158-159)
Though expressed in a strain quite distinct, the idea is not much different from Wordsworth's vision of poetry as "emotions recollected in tranquility." However, the view will find another extension in Intizar's later fiction where the experience "re-collected" may pertain to earlier lives and existences spanning centuries of transmigrated selves. Here, it is limited to the first and, possibly, the most intimate perceptions of a consciousness wrenched from its surroundings irrevocably to find nourishment in an alien soil. When sustenance is not forthcoming, or when there is a fear that the nutriment offered may stultify growth and perhaps render survival impossible, the instinct "to be" fends for itself. A creative artist looks inwards then for recovery and rejuvenation.
So the earliest stories are really sketches suggesting the tales that lie behind them, dependent for their superb rendering on immediately threatened memory, which evoke Qadirpur, Intizar's fictional simulacrum of his birthplace Debai in District Buland Shehar, U.P., with a sure touch for detail. In the recounting and recreation is evident an artistic handling of material—economy of expression, picking out of only the essential facets to highlight a point-of-view, a character or experience, an understanding of the dramatic moment and the use of understated emotion. The language, colloquial, natural, pruned with deft tact, already marks out Intizar as a prose stylist of rare distinction in our literary history. In the hands of a creative artist the language of ordinary men and women can acquire an exciting vibrancy. In Intizar's early tales, irony, color and urgency combine to unfetter the potential of a tongue not often used with the wit and competence, not to add intimacy, it deserves from its writers. On occasion Intizar falters. A notable example is the two-part Dastan, where he repeats the idiom of the classical romance writers and is cut off from both the socio-linguistic context of his earlier years, which he knew at first hand, and the experience of character it generated for him. Striving to exist in textual limbo he betrays himself and his vulnerability as well. It is a world, at least at that stage and in the manner he approached it then, beyond his ken.
"Eik Bin-Likhi Razmia" is a tale apart. In style and technique, it shows Intizar experimenting with innovative procedures. The narrator introduces us to Pechhwa, a celebrated exponent of the lathi, a bamboo stick, in village fights and the apparent protagonist of the tale, to others of his group, and members of the opposing band as well. Among them all Pechhwa stands out, the bravest and the cleverest. He is the most skillful in the use of the lathi, an article that acquires in his possession of it a personality of its own. He keeps it always well-oiled and shiny and with it has performed marvelous feats. This creature of legend throws his support passionately behind the movement for the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims of India—only to be disillusioned, to be shorn of his romantic and legendary aura, when his wish is turned into reality, quite unexpectedly for him. There is confusion, to begin with, whether his native village is part of the new country or not. He puzzles over how it is possible that despite all his efforts and campaigning, and the support of his friends, he finds himself suddenly besieged by hostility in his own land. One by one, the Muslims of the locality leave for Pakistan. Pechhwa continues to believe he can establish his own Pakistan in his native Qadirpur.
The narrative now takes the form of journal entries. It brings us into contact with the narrator who was one of the first to migrate to the new country from Qadirpur and is struggling to complete his novel about Pechhwa. We find in him a writer distracted from his creative project, self-consciously reflecting upon the imaginative process that has been interrupted. Meanwhile, he informs us that Pechhwa too has come to Pakistan. Pechhwa’s meeting with the narrator is a kind of wedge driven between him and the re-created world of the imagination. The narrator is prompted at this juncture to express his thoughts about the stalling of the creative process in the face of the physical presence of objects and persons (the passage quoted above). Divorced from his environment, Pechhwa is a reduced figure, a humiliating shadow of himself. As the narrator struggles to recover his creative powers and to keep the insistence of daily cares at bay, Pechhwa, wondering how he could make a living, flitting from one pathetic scheme to another, crumbles before him as a character. The new country is not kind to the migrant hero. Unhappy, uncertain, he is forced out of it by the hostility and hypocrisy of self-righteous authorities representing the government of the new land. He refuses to remain at their mercy and departs for his native land. Weeks later arrives news of his death. He has been strung to death from a limb of the papal tree where he had once raised the flag of the country that was still a dream at the time. The narrator meanwhile gives up the pretence of becoming a writer as he manages the allotment of a flourmill to his name and looks forward to a comfortable income from it.
A harrowing tale! And though Pechhwa could not become the hero of the "epic" that was never written, and the narrator had at one stage even mused that the poor fellow had been reduced to merely a pawn on a chessboard—"how can such a person become a hero of a novel?" he had asked—he still emerges as a stout-hearted and tragic figure in a life as truncated and incomplete as the one that gets narrated—while the other one, the one that the aspiring writer set out to write, was perhaps never much of a tale anyway, and in the end it is probably best that it never gets written. What we have is a story of man's weakness and failure before circumstances undetermined by him and, possibly, accidental entirely. It manifests, too, a parallel theme of gradual decline from an awareness of another's pain to a succumbing before the drab, desensitizing tyranny of one's ordinary needs and common cares. Compelling though it is in this, it is equally, if not more, impressive in the self-reflexive way in which the narrator deals with his material. It is as much a tale of human suffering as one about the making of such a tale. Its interest therefore extends beyond the overt theme to the underlying manipulation and handling of the strands that comprise that theme even to the employment of the literary trope of reality taking over the fictional tale.
Yet it maintains that human interest which is vital to the restorative work in which Intizar Husain is engaged. Qadirpur lives in the memory of a writer who himself has fallen prey to the ravages of the new locale. Between one waste and another he attempts to re-create imperfectly, intermittently, fully conscious of constraints and failings. Yet it is the artist alone who can give the illusion of perfection where none exists. For this, in order to preserve it, to give it immortality, he must destroy life even if it be his own. "Eik Bin-Likhi Razmia" then is an allegory of the story-teller. Before our very eyes the respectability of the narrator fritters away, his judgment loses credibility. In the first part of the tale we tend to put our trust in him, follow his characters and their traits with his eyes. With the beginning of the journal entries the whole criterion of judgment is upset for us. It sows in us the seeds of doubt. By the end of the tale it is the narrator who is demolished completely, while that one character he could not make a hero in the epic he never wrote is resurrected anew as a more emphatic presence than he ever was for us. This is the success of that crafty narrator/writer, who sacrifices himself and his credibility to give life to his character—not as a plain, two-dimensional construct seen through another’s eyes, but as a person present before us, complex and simple, vulnerable and courageous at the same time.
But once a succumbing to the imperatives of circumstances takes place, the tale seems to be saying, return to a prelapsarian state is no longer possible. Here one may begin to sense the strength of Intizar Husain, the artist, who always deprecates and underplays his artistry and pleads a pristine innocence in the telling of his tales. Is he not somewhat like the narrator of this tale? To use another vivid metaphor coined by him to illustrate the mystery of the creative process, is it the same golden wasp that entered its knobbly little house of dried clay that now comes out of it in such splendor? As Intizar writes: "A tale no doubt is the golden wasp's itsy-bitsy home, but if the insect coming out of it is not more beautiful than the one that made it, it is either not that golden insect's home at all, or no revelation whatsoever dawns upon this tiny creature"3 (“Anjanhari ki Gharyya” 226). By the time of the writing of "Eik Bin Likhi Razmia", characters have begun to take a life of their own. Intizar's experience of them is not merely translated or recorded for us in a sketch that faithfully depicts his impression of one person or the other. An imaginative treatment converts these individuals into characters who snap into a world that does not need validation from the creator's argument, but grows out of, and responds to, determinants that lie within its own frames of reference.
The culmination of this period of Intizar's writing is reached with the publication of the short novel Din (Day) in 1960. In an interview by Asif Farukhi, Intizar puzzles over why "Eik Bin-Likhi Razmia" has been accorded so much attention by certain writers, notably Mumtaz Shirin and Mohammad Umer Memon, while Din has been, in a way, ignored.4 There is no doubt that Din is a splendid tale, told with great restraint and skill. In many ways it marks the apogee of Intizar's art and it is arguable that he has never been able to reach that level again in his fiction. Though he has gone on in other directions, and been engaged in interests that appear far more impressive for the personal and the sub-textual philosophical justifications he advances to bolster them, there is no longer the charm of the well-told tale that draws the readers around him. Here it is evident in all its vibrancy—the simplicity of narration, the magical re-creation of the countryside and its life with just the barest, necessary details, the sustained focusing of attention on the story itself, no hectoring, no passing of judgments, a process that duplicates, as effortlessly as possible, the natural. The work that has gone into it does not obtrude upon the story where the slightest change of expression and modulation of tone is noted, but without any false note, without any digression, drawing attention to itself or offending a discriminating taste.
In all this, and the unhurried pace of his narrative, Intizar appears indebted to the western aesthetics rather than to the oriental. His descriptions, characterization, the texture of his tale, may remind one of Turgenev's Father and Sons or of Gogol's “Taras Bulba” and stories from Evenings in a Village near Dikanka—perhaps also of Flaubert's art of bare suggestion and understatement. Obvious parallels may also be found in Chekov. But there is probably nothing like it in Urdu literature prior to Intizar Husain. One could argue that in some stories by Wajida Tabassum or Ghulam Abbas a similar economy of expression and restraint is witnessed, but neither writer shows a comparable range of feeling and suggestion nor nearly the same level of accomplishment as Intizar does in Din.
There is great delicacy in the handling of material. The undercurrent of attraction between Zamir and Tehsina in an atmosphere of teeming suspicions and repressed emotions, an environment fraught with precious notions of right and wrong tested continually by practical and selfish considerations, an artificially exaggerated sense of one's social standing which, rather than the merits of a situation, determines the making of a decision—all this is treated with a cultured and controlled withdrawal of authorial and discursive interference in a way that the intensity of the unexpressed becomes almost unbearable. At the same time there is an acute sense of dislocation, the past gradually detaching itself from the present and floating away into the nothingness of empty space, crumbling into memory, a familiar concern with Intizar, as the ancestral haveli is abandoned and the families move to the new, fashionable house built by Zamir's father. Told strictly from Zamir's point-of-view, the story reaches its denouement against the backdrop of the civil suit brought by the creditors of the lad's deceased grandfather to recover their loans from the sale of the mortgaged haveli. The suit succeeds and the haveli is to pass into other hands, as also Tehsina, her momentary and innocent delight at finding a caring soul in Zamir snuffed swiftly and without sympathy by the boy's mother through a withering innuendo at finding her dopatta straying from her head. Soon she will be married off to a good-for-nothing cousin to whom she had been promised when still a child by her late father. Zamir too is to leave so that he may find a job to supplement the family income. It all ends on a doleful note: "The haveli, which was a fragrance from the past, began to vanish slowly from his mind like a dream. Now (the impending) journey occupied him."5
For all its virtues, the novella has serious problems. It reads like a story about dead people. Not only is it depressing in its total effect, there is a current of hopelessness running through it, a deep, unfathomable despair behind the observant and sensitive narration. As if that were not enough, the young and old all seem to acquiesce in submission to norms to which they have been born, however harsh they may be in their denial of expression to intimate feelings of affection or antipathy. They are all slaves to convention. The entire permissible range of their emotion is allowed expression only within set routines and practices. There are emotions, quite natural otherwise, whose existence is not admitted let alone tolerated at any level. And against this system of inhibitions and evasions there is no rebellion. An inner state of resignation infects almost all the characters of Din.
Perhaps one could make an exception of Barri Appa here. For a while she refuses to leave the haveli, and is opposed to the building of the new house all along. But hers is a helpless sort of resistance, and even though she is unwilling to the end, she has no option but to join the others when the actual shifting takes place. Zamir and Tehsina, on the other hand, though much younger, lack the spirit to express the least disagreement on any issue. As far as they are concerned it is unthinkable to demur on any matter the elders may have decided for them. Not so much their failure to secure in each other's company solace or love, but the total lack of effort on their part to try to deflect or thwart the hostility that surrounds them disconcerts the reader. They shrivel and wither into themselves with the first expression of displeasure at the happiness that they have only just begun to find in each other's company. Without a word they give up. This acceptance of the tyranny of the mundane is horrifying. A system that turns living human beings to mere flesh and blood robots, no matter what its virtues in terms of the protection it offers to those adhering to it, is to be shunned rather than celebrated.
In a note titled "About my characters," Intizar questions the whole idea of striving to break out of a received system with a desolating thought: "Had Tehsina wept what would she have got, or Zamir, what would he have achieved had he declared himself?" He goes on to add, "I did not advise them at all in the matter. Zamir's decision is quite his own. I had no say in the matter. I am not Zamir."6 Intizar appears to be working out of a deep sense of despair; the futility of existence, the absurdity of human endeavor, are the premises from which his tales spring. But he passes in this novella no judgment on the matter. As an artist he has no other choice. It salvages the tale and allows it to breathe freely. And one would do well not to compromise its superb simplicity by reading into it some pre-determined symbolic signification.
Despite strict adherence to the life-like in the early tales, despite the gradual maturity of technique and expression which achieves an unstrained narrative poise in Din, there are signs already that Intizar is finding the circumgyrations of reality disorienting, that he is beginning to sense presences beyond the physical margin of things, within them too, but distinct from their perceived shapes, informing them with a pertinence other than the ordinary and the familiar. Superstitions common among the people and floating fragments of folk and religious lore appear in his stories from the very beginning as necessary and natural to their surface and subliminal contexts. References to Ayodhya, Ramchandra's birthplace, from which he was exiled through the machinations of a hostile stepmother, the expectation of disinterring a cauldron containing hidden treasure buried below the foundations of a house or under a tree in the yard, superstitions regarding shadows trailing man in metamorphosed shapes, the evil or good influences emanating from trees, plants, birds and animals, the miraculous properties of the replica of Imam Husain's standard, the allam, form part of the weave of the tales lending them a mysterious, bewitching quality--as if one peering into the dark were at the threshold of some forbidden disclosure.
This strain, flickering in "Ayodhya" and "Rah Gaya Shauq-e-Manzil-e-Maqsood" (An unslaked longing for the destination), runs through "Satwan Dar" (Seventh Door) and "Patt Beejna" (Firefly), finding its most accomplished expression in the last three tales of this collection, "Jungle", "Maya" and "Kankari" (Pebble). It surfaces again in Shehr-e-Afsoos (City of Sorrow), 1962, in "Dehlez" (Threshold), "Seerrhiyan" (Stairs) and "Kana Dajal" (One-eyed Antichrist), but by this time Intizar is interested in these matters in a more central way.
"Satwan Dar" is the earliest among the tales that deal with the first, disturbed recognition of the erotic in an adolescent, and in it Intizar creates around this theme a nimbus of presences, flitting, rustling shades and lights, beyond the physical. It heightens the mystery of the narration, lending its final movement a nuance of expectation and astonishment. The tale begins with the uncoiling of a familiar sentiment associated with pigeons, and is told from the perspective of an adolescent whose mind registers, at this stage, all that he sees and feels as strange and miraculous, responding to the phenomenon of existence with a sense of awe, and has not yet learnt to dissect experience with the cold scalpel of logic and doubt. Pigeons, according to popular tradition, are pure and sacred, their presence a mark of blessing for the place where they gather and nest. Harming them in any way would result in bringing pain and sorrow upon the aggressor and his household in return. These are birds of peace and goodwill, to be found most often under the interstices of high roofs, in nooks, crannies, and on ledges out of the reach of predators of all kind, and most often perhaps around the sunlit domes of mosques and shrines, or under their cool, dark, silent cupolas, gurgling and muttering words of prayer in some unknown sacred tongue.
Out of this mingling of fact and sentiment is born the superstition that pigeons, or some of them at least, are not birds but wise and pious men who have, through their virtue, acquired the ability to transform themselves into this innocent shape. Intizar begins "Satwan Dar" with the assumption that his readers are familiar with these ideas. The first few pages of "Zard Kutta" (Yellow Dog), a much later tale, actually deal directly with a saintly person of this kind, Shiekh Usman Kabootar (pigeon) as he is called, and show him changing from one form to the other and back again. Out of her veneration for it then, Amman Jee refers to the lone white pigeon that is left on the high ledge of her room in "Satwan Dar" as Syed Sahab, and she believes, as good, god-fearing women of her time and age would, in the physical actuality of the transformation. A large flock of its companions took flight when one of their number was shot down by a chhota chachha in the family, but this one chose to stay on. The trouble is it is a female! And could it then have a male title?