The Lost World


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The themes highlighted here are, yet again, those of migration and betrayal. Suspicion, uncertainty, a kind of holding back of total commitment dooms all efforts of escape from the very beginning. The courage to stand up to tyranny and proclaim the truth as one believes it seems to be lacking in the companions. Their peregrinations into futile argument reflect a disinclination for any positive act their desperate situation demands. They are, therefore, no less implicated in the crime of betrayal than those who make no effort to turn their backs on it. Not that there are no vocal objectors. Intizar mentions at least two, Abu Manzar and Qais bin Mashar, who are murdered for speaking out against the oppressors. But their protests are nullified by the silence of the majority. They are personal acts of integrity, perhaps even of heroism, but of no consequence in the collective sense. Intizar seems to be saying that a Kufa lies within as much as it lies outside us. We may migrate from the one that lies outside us, but can we escape the city within? His fiction attempts to explore ways and means to answer perhaps this very question.

The city here may be equated with the metaphor of betrayal. After all it is his own Kufa (Debai, Qadirpur) whose indelible impressions Intizar carries in his memories. In the context of the partition of India, it is the city that deserted him by forcing him out, by being left behind, while he migrated to the new land. Or did he indeed forsake it himself for some ignis fatuus of a land of peace? Now, like the wandering companions of "Khwab aur Taqdeer," he has no hope of finding rest in either one or the other. In the new land, where he has no roots, no ties to bind him, no memories except that of a recent desertion, the guilt of having abandoned his own city will poison his life. Cities flourish on the faith of their citizens and betray only when their inhabitants have become dissociated, alienated, that is, treacherous, themselves.


Intizar's search for some grain of wisdom behind the catastrophe of the division of the sub-continent and the migration that occurred in consequence, leads him to rummage through myth and legend, history, religious lore and recurring patterns of story-telling to uncover similar events in other eras, other ages, so that he may find solace in remembering and recounting archetypal parables of betrayal and metamorphosis, of faith and helplessness, of submission and recovery, of physical alienation, destruction and recuperation. In the process he makes a strange discovery—that he, as writer/narrator/individual, has lived through it all in flesh and blood, in his earlier existences, his former lives, through ages, millenniums and eons of migration and transmigration. It is all fated, and is to be suffered with quiet fortitude so that he may achieve the awareness of all-past in the all-present, and, perhaps, cease to be an individual merely, a compaction of personal desire and greed, and live and breathe in the heart of all creation as so many tales and stories, parables, fables, and riddles. He can say with confidence, "the tale I tell is ultimately a challenge to my own self"19 (“Naye Afsana Nigar ke Nam” in QK 182; see also 179), but this is not a perception lightly gained.

Exploring, recovering, the closed world of private myths and memories, he registers currents of popular belief and legend that are more widely shared and travel to him from the vast ocean of life heaving and rocking around him. He sets out to trace them to their source only to discover that they form part of his subconscious. The process of recovery thus is an enlargement of consciousness, an acknowledgement of the vast unknown of which an individual is a mere detail continually struggling to realize itself in identifiable forms, but each succeeding form forced by distinctive physical necessity to forget, push away from active memory, its earlier manifestations and live out its immediate destiny. Recovery of past selves would be indeed, in this sense, a threat to the apparent personality or self of the moment, a dispersal and distribution of it into its component shades and aspects, a sort of recognition of affinity with the individually undistinguished currents running through various parts of the ocean of unconsciousness, neither routinely perceived nor understood as such, yet impinging, impressing upon, sliding by, pushing against, sometimes even partially merging with the consciousness of location in particular time. Intizar Husain perceives individual lives, his in particular, thus, as journeys within the ceaselessly heaving ellipses of time past, present, and future, immanent and always imminent, without a linear beginning and so without a linear end.

In a published letter addressed to India's Balraj Menra, he writes:

In my distress I roam across lands and epochs. Long I wandered in Ayodhya and Kerbela to find out, that when decent people migrate from their settlements, what do they endure, and what befalls also their abandoned homes. Rambling in this way I drifted into the Jatakas of Mahatama Buddha and was struck dumb with awe. My God! What a world of phenomenon is this where man flourishes at the same time in innumerable forms and epochs without end! Within a shoreless all-time, in his many splendored garbs, the shoreless self of man (emphasis mine)...I have forgotten my past existences; only from here or there I remember sometimes an incident or two...20 (“Naye Afsana Nigar ke Nam” in QK 179)

He believes that there is "a great cemetery within us, where untold presences lie buried as yesterdays. I am ridden by a passion," he writes, "to blow upon them the magic breath of a tale and rouse them from their sleep to absorb them in this tiny, winking present of mine"21 (183).

This, however, also presents a problem: if the "untold presences" are merely retrieved en masse and thrown at the reader as so many episodes related to each other in some limited and accidental way in their narrative structure and theme, they are not thereby "rouse(d)...from their sleep" for the reader. Such connections may be registered at the level of conversation, but there is a mere anecdotal quality in this that chokes their potential for growth and sabotages the process of developing these tales, or episodes, into a story. In a way, they remain transient, and hence somewhat without depth, as only the spoken word of the moment can be—not by choice, or even potentially, but because of the limitation of the mode of address. The written word also may have its constraints and shortcomings, but it makes reflection, consequently, the process of evolution of thought, feeling, and action traceable and hence verifiable. Oral discourse may do this, if ever, in a very restricted way and, something that negates the idea of traceable evolution altogether, only in a sporadic and ephemeral manner. A certain randomness, a lack of conscious artistic editing and control in its use, is associated almost inevitably with the spoken word, unless it is rehearsed again and again over a period of time so that excess, imprecision and irrelevancies are combed out and only the most effective and efficient elements of discourse retained, or, alternately, every rendition becomes a new act, in a new setting, in a new temporal context each of which conduces to a variation of stress or emphasis, elision, circumvention, or addition to suit the occasion for political, social, or ideological reasons. Oral everyday conversation is not carried on normally with any thought to its preservation or retrieval for examination and review, and the variables of digression are too numerous to allow sustained foci of evolution through discussion on all speech acts and matters raised in the exchanges. Works of art, whether oral or written, seek to overcome this apparent unseemliness by giving language a more permanent form, an aesthetic, philosophic, or moral discipline, eliding out of it all that appears to be merely irrelevant to the artistic vision. Even digressions, pertinent and impertinent, annoyingly intrusive or exasperatingly disruptive, may be used as a tactic or an imaginative maneuver to create an experiential correlative, fragmentary and pluralistic in nature, or to draw attention to the disparate elements in the creative work and follow their variegated exfoliations.

But in a world consciousness where all times and events (or narratives) are present all at once, the developmental model of apprehension of the world and its reality may not work very well. In fact, even in a sequential spatio-temporal perception of the world, the dialectic of gradual, linear development is impossible to sustain without ignoring innumerable, individualized, currents and cross-currents, the stalling and regressions, which are so much a part of perceived reality but which may defy the organization of neat categories, systems, and resolutions. There may be other ways of understanding the world and its “history” than the “historical” in the sense of causal and sequential. The mundane, ephemeral, quality of the spoken word, its presence and meaning expiring as soon as it is uttered, may offer a more suggestive view of the world we inhabit than the binaries of logic, philosophy, and grammar within which we struggle to capture it. Writing, then, a text that replicates the lapses and the mundane quality of ordinary speech without attempting to subordinate it to an aesthetic design or an ideological framework may, paradoxically, be a more radical intervention in the discourse and practice of art than the pretension of operating out of high philosophical and theoretical ideals of received conventions and reasoning. But while Intizar appears to be implying all this implicitly, his tales are not quite affianced to this view as he advances in them often a linear view of history, and one that is in a state of perpetual decline having become unmoored from its past, particularly since the European colonization of India. While in some of his stories he suggests that this sense of rupture from the past may have dated from the time of the betrayal of Husain, the prophet Mohammad’s nephew, at Kerbala, in others he takes it back to the exile of Rama, ordered by his father Dasaratha, at the instigation of his stepmother, Kaikeyi, or, yet again, more radically, to a failure of “god” at the time of the first great flood that destroyed almost the entire life from the planet. So, the two temporalities of the world, the linear, causal, sequential on the one hand and the elliptical, durational, non-spatial that defies these categories on the other, are at times both present in the same story in Intizar’s writings. Here too, Intizar Husain may be bringing his readers to the heart of the paradox of existence, the illusion of living in a temporal and spatial reality in a transcendental no-time, no-space/all-time, all-space consciousness.

The differentiation between oral and written discourse, thus, is brought up not to privilege one over the other in the artistic or moral sense, but only to emphasize that the two, though they share certain qualities and features, belong to different orders of experience and approach, which in turn influence and determine their forms, aims, and effects. Bringing folkloric elements into writing may be seen as a strategy of hybridizing the forms and their effects on the audience/readers. Folklore is distinguished from common everyday conversation and exchange of news and stories in that it too represents a filtration (or distillation) of language and narrative through repeated oral “revisions” or retellings, the latest version carrying within it implicit and explicit markers of earlier redactions. Such retellings occur in written texts as well, though, questions of authorship and originality are more pertinent to written texts than to oral renditions. Further, the experience of an audience of a folktale is very different from that of a reader of written text. The first is an auditory and visual experience, for folktales are often also partly performed in the process of their telling, and there may be audience interaction with the storyteller/performer as well; the second is essentially a silent experience of reading words off the page, the narrative performed, if at all, in the head of the reader imaginatively, with the ability and freedom to pause, reflect, go back and re-read, or flip ahead several pages to find out how matters turn out in the course of the text or story. A writer who chooses to use elements of oral storytelling in his/her written work needs to keep in mind the latitudes and norms that condition the reading of written texts. In the final analysis, the use of folklore in Intizar often may not be justified by the structural framework within which it is imprisoned, but it may have its pertinence nonetheless. Those narratives of Intizar that deal with recovery of conglomerate anecdotal parables of the past ("Kashtee", "Kacchuey", "Pattey", "Daswan Qadam", "Doosra Gunah", "Poora Giyan", "Brahmin Bakra", "Zard Kutta", among others) sometimes fail to go beyond the level of ordinary educated oral discourse. There is a flitting from one anecdote to the other, or back and forth between them, that can be easily accepted at the level of oral verbal exchange but which falls short of constituting a sustained aesthetic experience, oral or written. What is missing?

For one, the discipline of art is absent. There is in them a randomness which, if it were a product of conscious design, could well be seen as an artistic device, but presented as it comes, accidentally, it robs the tale of sustained aesthetic interest. In "Kashtee," Ark, (QK 164-176), for instance, three tales of the flood from three different cultures are narrated consecutively in brief fragments with the loose ends hanging in a rather untidy manner. So Utnapishtim and Gilgamesh, Noah and his family, Manuji and Markande, are all knit in and out of the narrative, not always with relevance, for reference to some episodes disturbs attention from the theme to other areas not exactly appropriate to it. Gilgamesh's journey to find Utnapishtim, for example, is quite unrelated to the flood sequence, as also the recalling by Manuji of the time when Vishnu appeared on earth as a dwarf and claimed, on promise of three strides of land from an oppressive Raja, the entire universe, and yet Intizar records them for his readers. There is, additionally, a recounting of a brief tale about his own experience of travel by Hatim Tai at the end which has hardly anything to do with the rest of the stories. A suggestion that perhaps he is the narrator of the three legends is vaguely present no doubt, but it is not confirmed by the tenor of the rest of the narrative which veers from one point of view to another, from the first person to the third, with reckless abandon. In fact, the point of view is shifted too quickly and too frequently to support the conclusion of a singular and consistent narratorial voice. This multiplicity of narrative voices may be a deliberate ploy to disorient the reader, but the didactic tone of the story suggests a less disruptive intention. The multi-plot pluralism of the story, however, articulates into its own ramifications.

The end, in these circumstances, is bound to be forsaken in the middle of nowhere, and this is indeed what happens. There is no apparent way in which all three, or perhaps four, tales can be resolved into a satisfactory conclusion of sorts, nor is there an attempt to convey underlying implications or provocative suggestions beyond the surface adjacencies, overlaps, or intersections. Intizar terminates the narrative with a segment from the Manuji episode. The whole process of the compulsion to find ever-larger expanses of water had started with a plea from a fish the size of a little finger for protection. But this little fish had the propensity to outgrow within one night any container, pool, lake, river or ocean, where Manuji placed it, till of course there is Divine intimation of a flood and Manuji plays the role of a Noah or Utnapishtim from here onwards. But now, at the close of the tale, the fish that couldn't help growing bigger and bigger, is nowhere to be found. The tale concludes with the depiction of the uneasy mental state of the group of survivors riding the waves with Manuji when they fail to see any trace of the fish: "Worry surrounded them and doubt caught up with them. They thought of the remotest of things but the mystery could not be unraveled. To and fro the boat rocked and on all sides waters roared" ("Kashtee" 176).

This doesn't seem to help the readers very much to whom the writer, with all his windbag of voices for narrators and actors, appears to be in tangles as much as the narrative itself. Obviously, there is something supernatural about the fish from the start, and yes, it is a reincarnation of the god Vishnu, but why does it ask Manuji for protection anyway? And, when Majuji, has provided that “protection” and tries desperately to keep up his ministrations as the fish grows uncontrollably bigger and bigger before his eyes, why is he divinely warned of the flood? Why, then, at the end, does the fish/god-in-fish-form vanish? The tale occurs in several versions, the most prominent found in the Mahabarata and in the Matsya Purana, but in all available versions the fish reappears, as it has promised, during the flood and saves Manu, with the seven sages and the seeds he had been advised by the fish to bring along with him in the ark that he was also instructed to build in anticipation of the flood, to start the world anew. So Intizar misses out on a lot of details here which could have been highly evocative and suggestive had he included them in his story. But the failure of the fish to reappear is the one point he seems to be making for his readers, and this conveys a sense of abandonment of humankind by the god (Vishnu, in this case) as the flood rages and his assistance is most needed. It underscores the sense of bewilderment and betrayal of humankind at a critical juncture of its early history and collapses it with the current state of affairs in which too the world as known, united India, has come apart and the survivors are riding the waves of a terrible flood with no sign Divine assistance anywhere.

The predominant feeling is one of confusion, unless one discounts the existence of a written text and treats the narrative merely as oral discourse that is not meant or retrievable for examination. Such an illusion would be difficult to sustain, or justify, in the presence of recorded signs and frameworks that are before the reader and to the meanings and suggestions of which the reader is responding, to begin with, anyway. It is as if the writer has come to a stage where he does not know what to do with the material, how to make it work, or to convey something more than that it exists unexamined and unexplored.

Too much is being attempted in "Kashtee," and the problems that are described here are not peculiar to it but typical of all Intizar Husain stories, some of them already referred to above, where the burden of the past smothers the narrative to death. Somehow, that "magic breath of a tale" that Intizar talks about "blowing" upon the dead bodies of the past in order to resurrect them is not there. And this magic breath, what is it if not the imaginative treatment an artist gives to its creative enterprise—that reflective association with experience before it is transmuted into a work of literary art?

An ineffable atmosphere of this ruminative alchemy envelops and infuses a work of art, so that always it is both product and process, art and artistry, and, in their conjunctions, more than either. In Intizar Husain, the mental procedure that makes the connections and sets up the conclusions is very often too obvious when he attempts to bring to use tales of the past to emphasize parallels between them or their current pertinence. Narratives and narrative structures do not evolve out of each other, but rather one is trained to the other. Thought marks the stages of movement, but it seldom turns into reflection that can transform movement into the talisman or the epiphany of realized art. The laxity associated with the common spoken word is transferred to the written text and the effect is not benign. As seen earlier, it was not so in early Intizar. Only when he attempted to bring the rumbling weight of unexamined wisdom of the past to his tales did he lose his affinity with his narratives. Ironically, his excuse for bringing this baggage to them is quietly reversed by the actual effect. Instead of being subsumed by the experience of past epochs he asserts he is reliving, he stands in helpless isolation to it, a raconteur more than ever and seldom more than this. Perhaps that is the point—and he constructs his narratives out of this sense of disconnectedness, this isolation, always in his spirit, yearning for that union with the past that has ineluctably passed and is always in a state of perpetual regress. The implicit didacticism of his stories, however, does not appear to sustain this reading, but, even if it did, the narrative itself is unable to persuade us to this conclusion.

That takes us to a more fundamental difficulty—the inadequacy of the form of the short story as Intizar writes it, this being his major literary genre of creative expression, to contain the value or weight he attempts to assign to it. Failures at the level of treatment, process, and relevance pale before this most major of flaws. Tales like "Kachhuey", "Pattey", "Kashtee", "Poora Giyan", "Brahmin Bakra", are too heavily loaded with episode and unexplored thematic possibility for a short story. It is like attempting to write a history of the universe in one line, which could be done if the right technique is devised for it, but not in the manner of these later short stories where several versions of truncated legend and learning are flung at the reader in quick succession and the result is left to chance, hoping the volley would have had its impact anyway. In any case, the striving to present a cosmic moral drama, or an epochal progression of transmigrated selves, in a genre that is by nature restricted and restrictive in scope has a trivializing effect, as if a vast epic were being adapted television. The possibilities are obviously diminished, and unless a writer recognizes this, he may not be able to extend the parameters of the form or medium he is attempting to exploit.

Interestingly, while charting the process of composing an apparently less complicated, overtly realistic tale, "Katta Huwa Dabba" (The Disengaged Bogey), Intizar betrays his anxiety to pack an extravagant load of significance, not only in outwardly symbolic narratives, but in all his stories in general. He takes pains in this article, titled "Kahani ki Kahani" (The Story of a Story), to advertise the point that "Katta Huwa Dabba" is no ordinary tale. "...Its a kathha (fable)," he writes, quoting Nasir Kazmi the poet, and goes on to expound the fable in minute detail for his readers. If one were to accept this exegesis by the author, that would be the end of the story itself. All neatly explained with a Quod erat demonstrandum at the end, one would be justified in relegating it to some remote corner of memory for it can no longer be enjoyed as immediate experience. This is the hazard a writer runs in talking about his own work. The work itself may have much more to commend, or damn, it. By stifling it with the weight of a self-expounded version, Intizar goes a long way in killing it altogether. And, as if that were not enough, he attempts to condition or determine the reading of his whole work by confiding in us quite innocently, "I would have surely noted how beliefs and superstitions enter this story and what shapes they take, but I fear I would have to mention my other tales for, with me, this is a continuous process..."23

"Katta Huwa Dabba" has enough to offer without the prompting at the reader's shoulder by the shadow of the author. On the surface, it is the story of a person (Manzoor Husain) who, despite wanting to, is unable to relate to his friends an incident from his past which he remembers and forgets and remembers again, even as he now resolves to recount it and is either prevented because of their interruptions from telling it or, when they finally get interested, does not know how to begin losing the thread altogether in the process. When he finally brings himself to the decisive moment of narrating it, he finds that his friends are no longer there to hear him. The tale never gets told as far as the characters in the story are concerned, but fragments of it, comprising ultimately the whole incident, are disclosed to the reader by interspersing the ongoing dialogue between the friends with a mapping of Manzoor Husain's recovery of it as immediate experience in his consciousness. Inevitably, a shifting, two voiced narrative is needed to carry the tale across and Intizar manages it with considerable success for the most part, except that the point of view poses some minor difficulties,24--unless we accept the idea of a third person omniscient narrator who may enter into any consciousness and take whatever shape it likes at any time. But the narrative pattern suggests that Intizar may not have intended this, for the narration more or less faithfully proceeds from Manzoor Husain's point of view. There are a couple of lapses if we accept that view, but that may be too many in a story that is hardly twelve pages long!

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