The Lost World

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Writing fiction for Intizar is not just a dreaming back into existence the worlds of the past, but also a reliving of the sense of desertion that has taken place in each age and epoch, experiencing all over again the betrayal that has pursued man through various turns and stages of history, whether that betrayal or desertion occurs within or outside a person. Sometimes, it is an act suffered at the hands of a confidant or an associate, as in the tales about Kufa and Kerbela—"Khwab aur Taqdeer" (Dream and Destiny), "Murda Rakh" (Cold Ash), "Khemey sey Door" (Beyond the Encampment), among others—but it could be, often, the result of a personal failing, so evident in those tales about adolescent sexual experience, or in the Jataka kahanis "Pattey" (Leaves), and "Kacchuey" (Tortoise), as also in the recounting of ancient Hindu fables of "Brahmin Bakra" (Brahmin Goat) and "Poora Giyan" (Perfect Wisdom). It should be kept in mind that Intizar's early fiction prefigures the course it could, and does take later on, but it is doubtful whether the direction it took was indeed an imperative of the kind of aesthetic that he argued into existence along the way or merely an escape route for a writer who had come to an impasse in terms of subject, form, and language, and who perhaps allowed himself to follow the easier and well-rutted way rather than strike out on his own into unexplored territory.

A prose style that successfully captures the ease of native speakers of the language, their unselfconscious originality of expression, the discriminating modulations of their tones without giving an impression of excess, is the most striking achievement of the tales of his first phase which begins with Galli Koochey and ends with Din (1962). Linguistically, he has nothing new to offer thereafter. There is, in addition, in his better work, a pure, uncluttered, realism that distinguishes this period of his writing. Though they appear to be written in the associative style, popularly, and inexactly, known as the stream-of-consciousness, that is essentially digressive, the narrative structures comprising a tale are subjected to enough authorial control to produce the effect of a well crafted, occasionally a superb, piece of fiction. This balance between the illusion of digressive narration and the restraint of artistic necessity is the other major success of Intizar at this time. Later fiction will repeat this success perhaps occasionally, but will never be able to surpass it.

As noted earlier, the tales appearing in Kankari (1955) are already touched by the supernatural—and despair, failure. These features become increasingly insistent with the passage of time. Historical, religious and popular stories that lurk in the background as a subtle influence, or as interpretative paradigms attain centre space. Creativity and creative exploration loses out to repetition. The language loses the vigor of common speech and becomes literary, turgid, unconvincing. Intizar becomes a narrator of myths, the word used in the widest sense to include folklore and religious legend as well, a mythographer, somewhat like Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch writing the "Key to all Mythologies," a task arguably as futile and fruitless as in the context of that novel. The creative writer appears to give way to the social scientist, or that wise old man who has forgotten how to feel.

With the writing of Dastan (1960) occurs the first major departure from the real, the world of specific locale and demonstrable logic. Though the cities of Delhi and Bareli are mentioned in this mini romance-epic, and Calcutta and Peshawar among others, though the rivers Jamuna, Ganges and Narbadi too find mention and a number of other streams and streamlets, these are merely names and referred to in a generalized way. The descriptions could apply to almost any or no place in particular. The language becomes stilted, no longer faithful to the speech of identifiable people, nor are the themes those of direct experience but stylized renderings within a literary convention:

"Friends, Delhi discommoded us greatly. The highways from Bareli to Delhi bear witness to how like a tempest we rose from Bareli and like a windstorm sped towards Delhi. Forests were pummeled under the hooves of our horses, mountains pulverized. Our lashkar, pounding mountains and pathways, stamping under foot woods and orchards and meadows, rose like a squall over Delhi. But the roads to Delhi became like a beloved's tresses, long and raveled. The Mughals deceived my eminent master. Daily we girded ourselves expecting battle and each evening ungirded again. Defeat was writ on the forehead of this unhallowed city..."11 (Dastan in JK 528)

Samand Khan, the narrator within the frame narration of Hakim Jee in the first part, "Jal Garjay" (Waters Roar), takes us through a world where fantasy and fact are inseparably woven and neither can be known from the other. There are legends of past kings—the story of Sher Shah Suri's fantastic tower in the middle of a desert that once quaked like a heart, and was brought to peace when a spear thrown by the mighty Shah pierced through its shifting sandy centre; there is the dark and mysterious tale of the black river whose waters roar like thunder, causing brave warriors to lose heart and jump to their doom in them, and past this, the familiar devastated city (wasteland) of epic and romance, its streets deserted, its houses destroyed, its palaces desolate and in ruins.

No dastan would be complete without a pretty princess, and, sure enough, Samand Khan meets one—she, who by her very name, Gulshan-e-Khoobi (literally, the Garden of Virtue), can be identified with the convention of dastans, a conventional figure in a conventional setting. Like Tristan and Iseult, or perhaps unlike them at this stage, the two sleep with a naked sword in-between till the time comes when the love between them grows unbearable. But Gulshan-e-Khoobi is prevented from consummating this love in wedlock by a vow she made when her city and her palace were laid waste by invading forces. She had resolved then to join herself in matrimony only to the knight who would avenge the murder of her father and brother and liberate the city from the tyranny of the foreign enemy. No authentic champion could with honour ignore the challenge after this information is provided to him, in this case by none other than the lady of his desire. The night of the declaration is the last Samand Khan and Gulshan-e-Khoobi spend together. In their sorrow at the impending separation and in expectation of the days when they shall be at last reunited, they forget to place the naked sword between them. Such is the irony of the tale, such the small neglect they allow themselves. The symbol of chastity is no longer between them and, perhaps, Intizar is making a slight concession to the real at this point. Next morning, Samand Khan rides away to fulfill the condition (ironically, after the event) that is to win him the hand of Gulshan-e-Khoobi in marriage, and at this point ends the first part of Dastan.

As would have been noticed, Intizar has moved away from realism to the world of romance and epic, and his characters are theatrical figures who represent the larger part of the classical prose tradition in Urdu fiction. I am not sure if the imitation appears much more than an eccentric period piece, a patching together of episodes from various epics and romances, or whether it can at all sound, and appear, credible to a contemporary audience. But divested of a living context, the tale does read a bit thin in its no land, no place, or all lands and all places, perspective. Not to add that the stereotype of character itself remains uninteresting when it is treated with the earnestness of suspended discrimination. The narrative can acquire large gestures and ostentatious flourishes but, without wit, there is nothing that releases it from the blandness of mere ornamentation.

That is where this dastan lurches and staggers. Its narration is unrelieved by wit and humor. The generative impulses behind it have no loci, no identifiable locale—or one that is too generalized for a reader's or listener's emotional engagement with it—and so fail to provide the deep structure that could resonate the text to life. There is consequently little or no room for reflexivity within the various levels that a text may be able to activate. The generalizations make only the broad paradigms possible. There is the journey, and there is the hero undertaking the journey, and things happen to him on the way, and maybe he learns something from them and is the richer for the experience at the end. That last point is important. He may learn nothing, be no richer in the worldly sense, or taste disaster. Awe, amazement and surprise may be the essence of his experience of what he sees and endures during his journey. In the process the boundary between the marvelous and the mundane is erased, and there is a parable in every extraordinary happening, appropriately vague, and for this reason, attractive in a superficial way, but on closer reading crumbling in a mass of contradictions that destabilize the premises of the text.

The familiar adage,” Traveling leads to triumph and success," may be not literally true in Intizar Husain’s fiction, though a realization of a sense of loss may be itself a kind of success or victory, even if the idea comes dangerously close to moralistic sophistry. One fears in tales with a structure of this kind an "insidious intent," the writer, very quietly, slipping into the role of the great teacher who preaches nothing directly but talks in riddles and parables. Inevitably, a lesson of fortitude in the face of adversity, and stoic submission before what is by Divine Will fated, is integral to this paradigmatic structure. In this there is little room to laugh at the self or doubt the absolute verity of proffered significations. Life escapes as those little messages are fastened on and secured. The narrator, in short, becomes too gullible, too complacent about his characters, not letting them exist beyond the two-dimensional view he has of them. We need to consider if the sacrifice really is made toward a greater end.

By itself, Intizar's Dastan, comprising the two sections "Jal Garjay" and "Ghorray ki Nida" (The Horse’s Call), is hardly worth serious attention. But it manifests four clear strains that find fruition in Intizar's stories later on, and they may be identified at this stage. A concern for the past glory of Islamic history, and a sense of its ruination before the onslaught of an alien civilization, forms the basis of each of the two sections of this dastan. To withstand the threat is developed the legend of the wondrous horse that is gifted by a green-robed rider to king Haider Ali of Mysore in a dream. On waking up, Haider Ali finds the horse grazing in a nearby field and, calling out to Ali, the Prophet’s companion and son-in-law, for support, leaps upon the animal. He wins many a famous battle on its back, and on his deathbed, bequeaths it to his son Tipu Sultan warning him never ever to mount it without first calling out to Ali for help. And the horse proves as true of mettle for him as it did for his father. But, betrayed by his advisors, and roused suddenly from slumber one day by the imminence of battle, Tipu for once forgets the advice and loses his life as a result. The miraculous horse escapes. Around it grows another legend. Whoever will track down this horse and ride it to battle, will rid the land of alien forces.

An obsession with the idea of betrayal, whether related to the tragedy of Kerbela or surfacing at other periods of Muslim history, and the belief that the sacrifice of Husain and the martyrdom of Ali were not in vain, is another prominent strain in Dastan. The idea that the martyrs will lend their support across the gulf of centuries to the faithful, however, is treated with skepticism in some of Intizar's later stories.12

I have already suggested above two other themes, running just below the surface of the narration. In the choice of parable and fable as a mode of expression, one may discover the methodology of moral instruction. Intizar adopts this device in the tradition of saints and wise men of old, and his later writings show him assuming precisely that posture. Finally, the notion of submission to a pre-determined pattern harmonizes very well with his interest in and re-telling of the Buddhist Jatakas. Gautama Buddha's doctrine that all life is anguish and man, because of the lure of the physical world, is bound to suffer it generation after generation unless he can eliminate all greed, all desire and remain perfectly still at the centre of the moving wheel, for then only will he be able to break the cycle of recurring birth, death and re-birth, appears to synchronize with that quiescent chord in Intizar's thinking.

As early as 1959, Intizar Husain argued that the writers of a defeated civilization tend to cut themselves off from the present and live in the past, like those Japanese soldiers who concealed themselves in the jungles during World War II and, on being rescued a decade and a half later, were found still to believe that the war was not yet over. This is exactly what he is doing himself, though he would want others to live in the past without severing their connection with the present13 (“Ijtema’aey Tehzib aur Afsana” in Allamatoon ka Zawwal 21). Explaining himself further, he says, that he is not really a writer of tales but a foot-soldier from the lashkar that was routed in 1857:

I just live in the city in the guise of a writer. I know the war is over so I don't quarrel with the steam engine. But yes, some passengers were lost in the confusion and I go about looking for them. In short, what is this writing of tales but a search for the lost ones, an attempt to discover the fire of old? But if we come to this, then we cannot confine ourselves to 1857 alone. The seeker may go further back, to the plains of Kerbela, and beyond, to the battle of Badr for that was the first fervor and passion (fire) of our history—it is from there that all our fires are lighted. ("I T..." 21)

Intizar here very clearly associates himself with the historical experience of Islam alone. This was written at a time when Mohammad Hasan Askari was formulating for the creative writers of the newly created country his concepts of Islamic and Pakistani literature, and Intizar was a close friend and associate of his. Much that he may argue now that Askari had a broader and more eclectic view of the matter, or that his idea has fallen prey to the biased and narrow-minded attitudes that infect our life today14 (Harf-e-Man-o-Tu 88-89), the self-imposed, easily flaunted, limitation of point of view is evidently accepted without misgiving in the passage quoted above, which hardly suggests the possibility of recognizing an imaginative empathy with, let alone any influence from, cultures, civilizations and historical experiences other than Islamic.

From the very beginning of his career, Intizar Husain placed himself in opposition to the Progressive Writers Movement, which, with reference to one of its leading proponents, Safdar Mir, he describes as "ideological barbarism"15 (Harf-e-Man-o-Tu 87-88). No wonder, he attempts to construct an alternate contextual justification, but it goes to his credit that he recognized the inadequacy of this early formulation and moved on to a more ample, far more inclusive view of the influences that invade his creative consciousness. The seed which grew into this larger consciousness can be located in one of his very early tales, "Ayodhya", written in 1948 and published in his first collection of short stories in 1952. The protagonist there is unnamed but he could very well be the writer himself, for like him he too has left his native land and migrated to the newly carved out Muslim country. The trauma of separation from his birthplace is too recent for him to ignore it and any small event can trigger off a whole chain of memories. As it is, disappointment at not finding the sesame candy chips (re'orrian) of the right crispness and flavor is enough to lead him to reminisce about the Ramchandi variety he used to have in Meerut. This brings to his mind fragments of the life he has left behind and memories of Ramesh, his closest friend.

It is obvious that the theme of migration fascinated Intizar from the very beginning, and even at that stage his mind related it to the interplay and ambivalence of both faith and betrayal:

...and what is the relationship of faith to migration. The last word stuck in his throat. Who was he then—immigrant, fugitive, deserter, refugee? He really liked the light and ordinary word 'deserter' best...but stumbling across these contradictions his mind leaped to another idea—banbaas, banishment to the woods—this seemed to him very sweet. So he was a wood-dweller in banishment, the Raja Ramchandra of his times...this too is strange, this bond between brothers. It has always created conflict. He remembered the story of Joseph and his brothers and thought the whole conflict was caused by claims that Hindus and Muslims were brothers...16 (“Ayodhya” in JK 17).

Ramesh and he were like brothers, and now they were on opposing sides of the border. Initially both felt betrayed, and it was so because they loved each other, because each felt incomplete without the other. With the passing of time the accusations are probably directed inwards, at and within themselves, rather than against each other, or perhaps there is a numbing of the conscience and they are desensitized to the personal lapse in each that divides them. Like the followers who deserted Imam Husain in "Khemey sey Door" they do not remember their own act of desertion any more—the narrator no less than his friend across the border. It is the turning away of the other alone that is remembered. "A person's soul is his Ayodhya," says the narrator near the conclusion of the tale, "It's splendor and happiness depends on others, and the others never hold out to the end" (79-80).

At this stage there is no attempt to confine the frame of reference to the cultural and historical experience of Muslims alone. The banishment of Ramchandra, at the instance of his stepmother and, Intizar would have us believe, his stepbrother, provides a metaphor that is used to suggest the enforced exile of the narrator. The problem is that the migration of the narrator appears in the tale to be entirely volitional, so that one is not very sure how the proffered metaphor can retain its pertinence in these circumstances. However, if one were to look carefully at the remark quoted above, it would appear that, from Ramesh's point of view, he too has been banished from the Ayodhya that is the narrator's soul leaving it in a state of darkness and desolation. We may probably be expected to assume that Ramesh's soul is his own Ayodhya, and the narrator's absence has devastated it, but the narrative itself does not provide us with any clue to support or reject this view. The sentimentality of the tale notwithstanding, and the problems of working out the implications of the governing metaphor, it is significant in that it draws upon an essentially sub-continental legend to describe and depict the inner condition of a Muslim protagonist. There does not seem to be a reservation here about the kind of experiences or cultural metaphors a Muslim writer may justifiably use.

Some years later, however, Intizar appears to have been drawn towards a more central interest in Islamic history, the lore and legends surrounding it and, more particularly, the Shi'ite rites and rituals. Without giving up any of these interests, but without allowing himself also to be ruled entirely by them, he came in time to acknowledge the rich cultural influences, oriental and sub-continental, to the exclusion of the occidental, which determine his inner landscape, and strives to express them all in his tales. In his interview with Asif Farrukhi in 1984, Intizar Husain insists in calling himself an "Alif Laila Man", which for him does not represent any narrow view of religion or culture and is, in fact, the crowning achievement of the Muslim imagination. He notes that here the Muslims "appear to step out of Arabia and spread over the entire cosmos...(they) have presented in their fiction the idea that they wish to explore every bit of created space and experience, that they are striving to discover what it contains, the people who inhabit it, and the kinds of cultures and worlds they live in..."17 (Harf-e-Man-o-Tu 89).

The occidental represents for him the outsider who has invaded his land to destroy its peace and serenity, who pillages and robs the people of all they hold dear, their language, dress, customs, their metaphors, their images and beliefs. Jealously, he picks up the shattered fragments of this lost world and pieces them lovingly together, and since it is a recovery of ancient myths and lore in their originality, the farangee, the foreigner, does not appear in them. He is a physical calamity, and in the life of the mind or the spirit he can be erased without a trace—and so perhaps also the wound of partition and migration. In his anxiety to cancel the memory of the white man's influence upon this land, Intizar forgets that the Aryans, upon whose myths he extensively draws, the Greeks and the Muslims were no less alien to this country when they raided it than the Occidentals. Thus, a patch of prejudice remains which disfigures his aesthetics somewhat and lends his ideas a duplicitous air.

To continue, however, if the farangee represents the treacherous outsider, the Kufans are the archetypal traitors. Their betrayal of Imam Husain at Kerbela remains for them a perpetual reproach. In "Khwab aur Taqdeer" Intizar takes us to the days immediately following the betrayal. Kufa is in the thrall of the brutal son of Ziyad who arrives one day wearing a black head-dress, riding boldly his tall horse to the High Palace. His arrival marks an abrupt end to the Kufan's vigil for the Imam. A reign of terror is unleashed. No dissent is tolerated and those who protest are eliminated without mercy. As fear strikes the hearts of the Kufans, they become inevitably implicated in the crime and the tyranny.

The tale is told by Mansoor bin Nauman, one of the four companions (the others are Abu Tahir, Haroon-bin-Sohail, and Ja'afar Rabi'i) who have apparently succeeded in escaping from the city. They realize immediately that they can appreciate once again the cool fresh taste of the water they are carrying with them. Mansoor tells us that even the food in Kufa has lost its taste since the terror began. He takes us back to Ibn-e-Ziyad's arrival and describes the horror of the ensuing days. For a time the friends live as if they were deaf and dumb, until the oppressive atmosphere forces them to plan an escape.

Then the hold of the land becomes apparent. Ja'afar feels that he is born of the dust of Kufa and cannot bring himself to leave it; Haroon-bin-Sohail too finds the proposed separation painful, for though he is originally from Medina, he has spent his youth in the streets of Kufa. But Mansoor quotes a saying of the Prophet and decides the issue for them all: "when your land becomes narrow for you, travel forth from it." And indeed, their fears have made the land "as narrow as a mousetrap" for them.

Their escape does not solve their problem. Once outside the walls of Kufa, they cannot decide where to go. When Medina is proposed as a possible destination, Haroon-bin-Sohail muses, "And if Medina too has become Kufa?" Maybe all cities have become treacherous. What about Mecca? Mansoor suggests that is where they should go. But they are destined never to reach this city of peace. Perhaps it doesn't exist any more, or if it does, has itself fallen prey to the treachery of the times. Who knows? The next morning all four find themselves back at the gates of Kufa. There appears to be no other choice for them but to re-enter it18 (“Khwab aur Taqdeer” in QK 137-143).




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