The Lost World



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The narrator/protagonist, a mere boy, has never bothered to consider this difficulty. It is only when Munni enters the scene that his complacent, complete little world is challenged. And until she arrives he merely accepts what his Amma Jee tells him. Munni, who is a cousin he is meeting after a lapse of some time, is about the same age as he, but being a girl she appears taller, a little older, from his shy observatory behind his mother's shoulder. She also appears to make him conscious of his rather soiled clothes and unwashed face. But though she is a child herself, she is confident enough to cross the gulf created by a temporary break in social intercourse, a break that has bred in the boy an acute consciousness of unfamiliarity and shyness, without appearing awkward or self-conscious. She succeeds so well that, despite his initial timidity, the lad is soon showing her his collection of treasures--the red and blue pencil, his drawing colors, cowries. The pigeon and its nest she notices on her own, and is, of course, delighted with it. As the bird is startled into flight at Munni's exclamations of joy and surprise, she proposes immediately that they should try and capture it. "No...it is Syed Saab," mumbles the boy in alarm. Munni laughs, one of the very few of his characters Intizar allows to do so, and disabuses the lad of his misconception. She does not deny the possibility of transformation, but leads him into another world altogether, one of magic and fantasy: "Crazy Khan," she says, "how can a female pigeon be a Syed Saab? It is a fairy surely!"7

She reminds him of the tale of King Bahram, and here lies the key to the understanding of the main story as well. More significantly, it provides us with one of the metaphors by which Intizar seeks to explain, perhaps even to justify, his meanderings in various directions in his fiction. The tale itself recurs in several variations and approximations.

"There was a prince, wasn't there?" she says, "The white genie had given him the keys for the seven doors of the palace and cautioned him, ‘open whichever door you will except the seventh.’ And the prince unlocked each of the six doors every day, looked inside and locked them up again until, at last, he grew weary of them. One day he began to wonder why the white genie had forbidden him to open the seventh—he should at least see what mystery lay behind it. So what did he do? He opened the seventh door...and as he entered, he was amazed at what he saw—a wide pool of glittering water, and fair, lovely pigeons, fluttering, descending on it, diving in the water to be transformed into fairies...and there among them was a green fairy whose clothes the prince concealed while she bathed. And she stands in the pool naked, that green fairy with her long wet hair, begging him for her clothes, but the prince refuses." ("Satwan Dar", Janam Kahanian 339)

This is enough to jog the lad out of his ethereal illusion of a transformed Syed Saab and bewitch his sense into a different plane of consciousness. Now the story forks into two paths running side by side, each following its complications, but so necessary to each other that neither may be traversed without implicatory intimations of the other. As the children plan to catch the bird, they are already moving into forbidden territory. There is an undefined emotion that they are striving to experience, an unexplained complicity between them that they wish to capture and wrestle into understanding. All unknown to them, their innocence acquires at this stage a luminous, spiritual quality, highly desirable and highly elusive, but possible only when it comes unconsciously, without apparent need or desire. It can be experienced, then, only retrospectively, as a burning node of memory and no more. And it is these nodes that Intizar conjures up in his tales again and again and they have become for him the compulsive concern of his aesthetics.

So the door of the room is now closed, and with a tall bamboo stick swung and tapped against the wall, the bird is displaced from its nest till it falls down exhausted. The boy seizes it at once and at Munni's instance brings it in the light by the door. He becomes conscious of a strange sensation that carries him to the brink of an experience unknown to him before this: "A warm, throbbing thing lay in my hands—timid, bewildered, star-like eyes, the palpitating, fiery craw, soft, smooth feathers with a kind of electricity running through them. I don't know why my heart began to thump and pound and my grip relaxed. The bird fluttered out of my hands and at once took off. 'You let her go?' Munni looked at me in disdain" ("Satwan Dar," Janam Kahanian 341).

The bird is gone never to return. The high cornice in the room is cold and desolate the next morning. A partly slaked, and so greatly fueled, desire to capture and feel the bird in their hands now forces them to look for it all over the place—on the roof of their house and on adjoining roofs, on electricity poles and wires, in the leaves of the tamarind and the neem, on the tower of the distant, high temple. It is all futile. They become suddenly very quiet. Munni accuses him again of letting the bird go, and before they know it, they are scuffling and wrestling with each other. The narrative continues, "...all at once, I don't know why, my heart began suddenly to pound and a tingling sensation ran through my body. In my hand again, it seemed...the palpitating, fiery craw, soft, smooth feathers with a kind of electricity running through them...I lost my grip. She shrugged me off and moved away to one side..." ("Satwan Dar", Janam Kahanian 344).

Munni waits a bit, then calls him a "boor" and goes away. The lad, it seems, is stunned by the experience and makes no move whatever. In the end, he is left with a dreamlike vision of Munni's departure and the unsettling prospect of the cold, desolate nest of the pigeon that has flown away greeting him in the half light of dawn. The theme tale of sexual awakening here achieves a partial consummation with the surface narrative or frame tale about pigeons, but the incompleteness of the union is itself a sign of the failure of will, as much of the writer as of his two main characters, a feature that appears to pursue Intizar throughout his world of fiction. At the point the two tales touch, a brief, sharp insight strikes home. But there is withdrawal afterwards and the feeling is explored no further. The seventh door is just pushed open and suddenly shut tight again for fear the white genie may return and turn in wrath upon the transgressing prince, or perhaps because of a greater fear of the luring and forbidden unknown.

Here is a reserve not peculiar to this tale alone but inherent in the half-told folk story that provides the decoding formula for this and many other fictional narratives in Intizar. One may ask, for instance, what happens next after the prince refuses to return the clothes to the green fairy? It is an incomplete story ending at a tantalizing, but unsatisfactory (and unsatisfying) juncture. And the dissatisfaction is only marginally less in the theme tale where the two children awaken to the pleasure of physical sensation that heralds the loss of innocence (flying away of the white pigeon) forever, and is to take them into adulthood. These two experiences, or stories, providing the decoding formula and the theme respectively, are framed strangely by a negative one that is, as already noted, only partially pertinent to them. How, or why, the pigeons were disturbed and driven away initially, or why one remains behind till it too is frightened away by aggressively curious children is all irrelevant to the stories within. It may provide interesting reading, but the interest it excites is certainly digressive, and that too in a way that takes us far afield from the areas the narrator distinguishes by his emphasis as significant to his narration. But it does help in building up the atmosphere and prepares us, indirectly, for an appreciation of the wonder and magic that lies at the heart of the experience of crossing the boundary between the permitted and the forbidden. The initially released suggestions, dealing with the sacredness associated with pigeons, are skillfully transformed into a cluster of approximating responses to the first experience of the sensuous—thrilling, in that the suggestions are not fully explained or explainable, exciting, since the margin between the sacred and the profane, the permitted and the disallowed is not very clear.

The sexual awakening could very well be the consciousness gained by Adam and Eve in that first moment in which they become aware of their nakedness. And their transgression is the paradigm for all infractions of the circumference that law, morality, divine decree or personal discipline draw around human consciousness. In "Hissar" (Circumference), which appears in his 1985 collection Khemey sey Door (Beyond the Encampment), Intizar's narrator refers to the view that ascribes the failure of the ascetic exercises of his father and Bande Ali to their omission to draw a circle around themselves. There is a reference also to the "ancient Indian philosopher" who said that people of understanding should be like the tortoise—“[t]he tortoise", writes Intizar, "who has a circumscribing shell on its back which protects him from sorrow and pain." Ingrained in these stories and parables is the idea of betrayal, but the stepping beyond may open up for man the seventh door or lead him to the hell of personal or collective suffering in expiation. The disobedience of Eve and Adam led them, and mankind, to a new awareness about themselves and the worlds they were born into; the betrayal of the people of Kufa allowed Husain to achieve a memorable martyrdom (again a higher consciousness) in the cause of what he believed was just and right. But our first parents were thrown out of paradise for their transgression and the Muslim world mourns yearly the wrong done to Husain, the Shi'ite sect striving to atone for it by remembering it annually in majaalis of lamentation and processions of collective self-flagellation. There is, therefore, an ambivalence to such lapses which fascinates a mind uneasy about their causes and repercussions, and leads it to a journey of discovering recurring patterns in the known history and daily affairs of men and women and, through this process, some meaning in existence. Acquiring sexual consciousness is the most basic, the most compelling of these patterns. The idea of lapse leading to insight or knowledge is inherent to it as also the concept of migration from one self to another. With it is associated guilt as well, and fear of punishment or evil consequences. But other implications, like betrayal and treachery, are not entirely unrelated.

A problem arises, however, when an attempt is made to step back after the line is crossed, when the violation is a hesitant entry into unexplored, forbidden territory followed by a quick withdrawal to the safety of the circumscribed fold. With Intizar this is customary behavior. To understand this, it is important to recall the story of King Bahram, incomplete in "Satwan Dar", look at the variations of it in a much later tale, "Sooyyan" (Needles), appearing in Akhri Aadmi (Last human being), 1967, and recall the theme of unfulfillment that is an almost permanent feature of Intizar's fiction. "Sooyyan" offers not only a play on the theme of King Bahram, who is replaced in this re-telling by princess Gulshan-e-Khoobi (Garden of Virtue), but, by doubling the narrative to include both a male and a female in the genie’s recurring method of ensnaring, yet another version of a royal prisoner’s predicament.

By this time, Intizar had taken up the story-within-a-story manner as a regular stylistic device, but the subsidiary decoding narrative of "Satwan Dar" becomes in its re-casted form in "Sooyyan" the circumscribing tale itself. Now it is the princess Gulshan-e-Khoobi who is held in his castle of the seven chambers by a genie. Her complaint of loneliness touches the genie's heart and he hands over to her the bunch of keys to the seven rooms. Six of the rooms she may open and explore, but regarding the seventh he places upon her an interdiction. If she dares to open it she will bring only disaster upon herself. And the princess is happy enough with the six and the amazing sights they have to offer until the effect of the prohibition begins its subversive work upon her mind. Then she is restless beyond reason and can find no peace until she opens the seventh chamber. There she finds a man lying as if dead. But overcoming her fear she touches him and finds that needles are stuck in his body all over.

She has nothing much to do, and one diversion may be as good as another. Thus she begins the extremely delicate task of drawing needles out of the body one by one. The activity, that in the beginning seems to have no meaning, no purpose whatever, gradually acquires an interest all its own. The tips of her fingers are scratched and pricked in the effort, blood seeps from them, but she continues with the thought that the work gives her both pleasure and pain. She recognizes that the task is absurd and yet she goes on.

Here Intizar inserts the other variation on the theme. Wondering how the body had come to be in this unique state, Gulshan-e-Khoobi is reminded of the tale her nurse used to tell her about the prince who had been imprisoned by a genie. And he too was lonely. So the genie pitied him, and gave him a bow and arrow, and told him that the castle had four quarters, in three of which he could hunt and ride as he pleased, but not in the fourth. There he would ride only at his peril. The prince ignores the prohibition and comes across a deer that is "lovely like a woman." He follows it but loses his way and finds himself in a wilderness. A voice out of the vast nothingness beckons him and he rides on, but loses sense of the voice as well. In a wasteland he comes upon a river, and bending to slake his thirst he sees two bare white arms reaching out to him. He hesitates, and as he draws back, falls down in a faint. When he comes to, he is in the castle again and the genie is towering over him mad with fury. The genie then causes needles to be pierced into his skin all over his body and locks him up in a room.

Gulshan-e-Khoobi wishes to believe she has found the prince, but she is aware also that what she has heard was merely a tale. As she nears completion of the task she has set herself, she finds the body beginning to acquire the warmth of life. Her own body undergoes a simultaneous change and a glow spreads over her skin. It is as if she is drawing out her own numbing needles even as she pulls them out from the stranger's body. But in the end she too falters. When there is just one needle left, and that in the stranger's brain, she pauses, wondering whether she should go on. Suddenly apprehensive, she abandons her work. At this moment the genie returns and his wrath knows no bounds. He flogs her mercilessly and takes away the keys, never again to be moved by her tears or plaints.8

The paradigm of failure emerges once again. All the three stories from popular lore that Intizar has recouped falter at the very margin of unknown territory. The foot is raised to cross the threshold but the step is never taken. Gulshan-e-Khoobi loses courage when she is almost through with her task and the last needle is never drawn out. The prince of the castle of four quarters hesitates when those bare arms stretch out to him from the waters of the river in the wilderness. Bahram Khan's story is in any case never fully told, but the boy of "Satwan Dar" draws back too at the critical juncture and Munni is lost to him. Is this a parable of the real? An analogue of a psychological loss of nerve? A culturally-determined perception? An allegory of failure embedded in human destiny? However it is approached, this trope of a dream never fulfilled, or unfulfilled desire existing as an impossible dream of perpetual longing, is feature worth noting in Intizar’s fiction.

And there are scores of instances from Intizar's tales that may supplement these examples. It seems he is obsessed with defeat, but it appears to be a failure of the will that causes it and not any outside factor. His tales are repeated enactments of this debacle, and as time goes on, he loses the capacity to see what goes on around him but relies more and more on repeating parables from ancient lore to illustrate the state of modern man. In the event, the present moment is snuffed out by the weight of centuries just as all struggle or hope is strangulated by his despairing view of life. Intizar can travel into other ages and epochs but rarely in his own. Traveling, which may be a means to success and fame, may also, as he himself acknowledges,9 lead to disaster and destruction. The white genie of the past has him in his thrall, and though he has pushed open the seventh door now and then, he has refused to take the vital step that will release him from his captivity. They all falter in his tales, whether it is Pechhwa or the narrator himself in "Eik Bin Likhi Razmia", or Zamir and Tehsina in Din; whether it is Abu Qasim Khizri in "Zard Kutta" or Prince Azad Bakht of "Kaya Kalp" (Metamorphosis), or the narrator's father and Bande Ali in "Hissar." Like Og and Magog in "Raat" (Night) and "Woh jo Dewar na Chaat Sakey" (Those who Could Not Lick Away the Wall) his characters appear to be engaged in an absurd activity. But this is because of the failure at a personal level, not because it is prescribed by some outside force or imposed upon man as a condition of existence. Personal weakness or failure may itself be a condition of existence, but man often struggles against it and even finds ways to trounce over it. Intizar's perception demolishes the premise of existence by subverting the idea of struggle in showing that it is always futile. It is a desolate thought, and regressive in the extreme, as his own later fiction testifies, but it is a tendency, as we have seen, which appears very early in his writings, though at that stage, it must be said, there are factors which deflect attention from it by highlighting the human and dramatic interest of the tale.

That he chose to succumb to the depressive and retrogressive elements rather than take up the healthier and sturdier strains evident in his writings from the beginning, is partly, at least, an indication of his own weakness. He appears never to have come to know the world to which he migrated as intimately as the characters and landscapes of his early years. As a consequence, it would be futile to expect him to write about it in the same evocative way or with the same immediacy that he displays in his early stories in the realistic mode. But there are fair grounds for believing that he faltered at the threshold, that he never really made an effort to become, perhaps resisted becoming, intimate with his changed environment. Like Gulshan-e-Khoobi, even though his fingers bleed in drawing the needles from the numbed body of the stranger that is his new land, he hesitates when the last one is to be drawn and foregoes his chance, and his right, to be free.

These needles are related to the historical past of the land, but the memories of his childhood and youth are his own tormentors. They do not allow him the freedom to experience his new environment, and though there can be no creative work without drawing upon memory, it is never simply memory recovered. An imaginative treatment that reorganizes and relocates it in the sensibility of the present is equally essential to it. Intizar looks backwards to past ages and epochs in endeavoring to understand the great upheaval that led him to leave, like millions of others, the land of his birth. But he takes no step forward. His memories become the needles that are stuck in his body—when the last one is left waiting to be drawn out he relapses into doubt, becomes penitent as if the act of picking the needles of memory were a sacrilege of some kind, or fearful that the task completed he would have nothing more to do. It appears that he has become conditioned to his labor in the same way as Og and Magog, and though he tries to find diversion and escape occasionally, he neither can, nor indeed anymore wants to, get rid of it. When there is fear then that personal memories may end, he takes upon himself the burden of the collective consciousness of the human race. In the present too he sees a repetition of the injustices of the past and a fulfillment of past failures He makes as if the stories, myths and legends of the past are all in some way his personal experiences and begins to recount them for his readers.

The idea finds pertinent expression in "Raat" and "Woh jo Dewar na Chaat Sakey". For Og and Magog there is no way out. Much that they may want respite, or escape, they are doomed like Sisyphus to perform a task that is absurd and unending. In the final analysis, nothing can prevent them from striking out with their tongues at the wall—not tiredness, nor lack of sleep, nor indeed the painfulness of the task. Even their swollen and bleeding tongues hanker after it. And yet, though the wall may become wafer thin, they will never be able to breach it, for at the moment the possibility of breaking through it becomes imminent, they become complacent, sure of success, and lie back for a wink of sleep. By the time they regain consciousness the next night, they have slept through the whole day and the wall is as strong and thick as ever. Again and again the process repeats itself, and yet they are helpless before it. There is no way they can summon just that last act of will which may at once end their ordeal and bring down the wall as well. The affliction laid upon them—the arduous task, and the momentary diversion they allow themselves at the crucial juncture so that it becomes an unending cycle of meaningless activity, meaningless precisely because it is without end—has become a habit, a bending of expectation to the routine and its performance. Their prayer at the end of "Raat" may well be one which Intizar too is making through them: "O God! Enough is your unending and painful night for us. Protect us from the evil of the day and turn away from us the mischief of light"10 (“Raat” and “Woh jo Dewar na Chat Sakey” both in Qissa Kahanian 129, 355). But the difference may be an important one. The ordeal of Og and Magog is laid upon them by a force outside and above them; Intizar takes upon himself as his own punishment that which he alone has prescribed for himself. Indeed it is symptomatic of the deep injury partition and its displacements have caused him. He has shut tight his eyes to the present, "whoever advised opening a window in a windstorm," he argues, and feeds upon the darkness that has enveloped his past. Intizar’s absurdist existential position stems from a horror similar in nature and import to the one that produced in Europe Albert Camus’s Le Mythe de Sisyphe and Samuel Beckett’s bleak vision articulating the destitution of modern man in what came to be known, through Martin Esslin, as the Theatre of the Absurd.

III

The blurring of the boundary between dream and reality, the little understood mystery of sexual awakening in adolescence, and the labyrinth into the past which memory charts for the self striving to discover meaning and truth are psychologically related themes. In later Intizar they are subsumed in that vast process which continually relocates the self in epochs and ages long past, and in the tales (fictions) which constitute for us those lost times. Not to be ignored, also, is the affinity between motifs of recovery at the three identifiable stages—the immediate and fractured past, the first shiver of erotic stimulation and the lost worlds of earlier ages—all of which can be recalled only in that ambivalent area between the real and imaginary as approximations of the original happening. The writer, by being displaced from his physical environment, is set adrift from all three referents of his individual and collective identity, and is it not natural that in attempting to retrieve them, or their emotional register, he strives to discover also the causes of this dislocation?



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