The Lost World


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Primarily, however, the tale ceases to interest the reader as soon as he is allowed access to Manzoor Husain's mind and learns of the incident that the character is never able to share with his friends. It is a complication resolved and therefore demystified, demeaned. The sense of loss it carried in remaining unarticulated is mitigated at once, its air of mystery, and hence its capacity to captivate, shattered. And, since Manzoor Husain recovers the memory of the lost experience in its entirety, in all its minute details, his excuse later that it has slipped from his mind does not ring true. Perhaps he too has become aware that it has a special personal significance which others might not be able to share with him, or which he may be unable to communicate in his recounting. That would have made sense if the tale ended there. But he returns to Mirza Sahab's house some time after the meeting has broken up, resolved to tell his story. Now there is no one there, for the Mirza and his companions have gone for their isha'a prayers. By this time, Manzoor Husain's predicament has come to have only a subsidiary interest for the reader, who already knows his tale, and cannot share with him fully his sense of unease at being unable to narrate it. He may also be wondering if the experience is worth sharing in the final analysis.

The matter, however, of the tale that never gets told, treated also in "Neend" (Sleep) and "Lambba Qissa" (Long Story), or the fear that it may be garbled in its telling or lose its significance, is of considerable importance to the world of man. In his "Kahani ki Kahani", Intizar attempts to deflect attention from it and accord centrality to the idea of travel, its various modes and the disruptive implications that new means of travel, like the railway train, have brought with them. This also is touched upon in "Katta Huwa Dabba", but without being treated as more than a foreground conversational topic of the moment, beyond which the internal journey of Manzoor Husain, and his failure or inability to talk about it, occurs and acquires for the reader a more compelling interest. "Katta Huwa Dabba" may be a fable after all, but it has to succeed at the level of narration before it may assume that status, and then we may discover that its fabulous allegories are less a matter of intended suggestion than the reader's caprice. The revealed intent damns the tale with its bias and it does not help that this strain is only of peripheral import in the structure of the narrative. But it does highlight the somewhat disorganized way in which miscellaneous items of narration are brought into one tale, diffusing rather than concentrating its effect. The fault is more obvious in his retelling of jatakas and ancient legends, where the passing from one to the other on the frail thread of a stray association creates a cobwebby collocation of stories that, precisely because of the random connections, has the effect of blurring the theme, or themes, rather than allowing them to emerge with clarity.

One after the other images race before the reader's eye, and as long as he allows himself to be ruled by the narrator's logic, they appear to be moving towards some point of emphasis, a denouement of a kind. When no resolving perception or disturbing shift of appreciation occurs by the end, he goes back to see if the telling itself was the signification of the tale. That is where he is disenchanted of the narrator's logic, for he discovers its slight and wandering character. The true value of narrated episodes is often bartered to score a point that will lead to the recounting of the next episode, and all the narrative units now appear to be strung together without that urgency that must be present to bind them into an artistic whole. "Kachhuey", "Pattey" and "Kashtee" may be cited as examples of this kind of failure. It is a debasement of that process of telling a story within a story which, at a much larger scale, has been used so well in works like The Thousand Nights and One Night. But it is perhaps here that we may find an answer to the problem Intizar may have run into. In work of a larger scale, gradual development of theme and character is possible with space to gain the reader's confidence and sympathy. The intermingled tales no longer appear to be brought together just anyhow, but provide multi-layered reverberations through the entire enterprise. In a shorter work, structured to tell many tales, the evolutionary process, and therefore the sense of conviction, is cut out. The echoing reflexes become so many jarring images and sound patterns squabbling for attention.

This is glaringly evident in a tale like "Kachhuey"25, where stories from the Buddha's former lives are strung together on a moral, or instructional string, and which does not appear to find its theme till we reach its last part. The jatakas--stories of the various births and re-births of the Buddha each making a moral point--on which it is based, take us through a miscellaneous series of the Buddha's past incarnations--as parrot, myna, monkey, tree, offspring of a witch and Brahmin, and Raja's minister. It is not until we reach the last incarnation that the metaphor of the title is picked up and developed. True, it has implications for the other narrated jatakas, but only in an indirect way. The attempt to make it the central metaphor of the entire tale comprising of crawling episodes and sub-episodes, themes and sub-themes, a floating debris of information and folklore, even of man's state in the world, is a familiar Intizar Husain device to dupe the reader into believing that a simple solution exists or is possible. It fences in the world of the narrative in a feeble way and is successful only in highlighting the chaos and confusion of the mass that is being forced into circumscription. If, the idea is to underscore the point that life, or experience, is such a jumble that it can be only understood in a partial manner by taking one shared strain at a time and letting the other implications hang about like so many threads come apart, it discloses an unfortunate lack of aesthetic judgment about the effect of such untidiness on the work itself.

The metaphor of the tortoise forms part of the jataka where Lord Buddha is born in the house of a courtier and grows up to be a minister of the king. The king is extremely talkative and the Bodhisattva resolves to remedy this by making him realize the evil of many words. He gets his opportunity when it is reported one day that a flying tortoise has crashed into a courtyard of the palace. When the king asks him how the marvelous event came about, he answers that it is the result of talking too much and narrates the story of that poor chelonian. He tells the king that the tortoise lived in a pond by the Himalayas and there he became friendly with two geese. When the water in the pool dried up, the geese decided to fly away to their home in the hills and invited the tortoise to join them. Since he could not fly, a method was devised to carry him. He was advised by his two friends to hold a rod by the middle in his mouth, while they held the ends in their beaks and would be thus able to convey him to their home. But he was warned not to try and speak for then he would obviously fall and there would be no way to save him. As they flew over a city the children below beheld the spectacle and shouted at him. The unfortunate tortoise could not contain himself for anger, but the moment he opened his mouth, down he fell and landed in the palace courtyard. Viddayasaagar, who recounts the jataka to Gopal, ends it with a moral: "Dear friend, we bhikshus (beggars) are tortoise and yet far from our journey's end. He who speaks unseasonably is bound to fall. You saw how badly Sunder Samdar fell so that he could never rise again."26

There are a number of elements (unexamined questions) in the tale, though only one is related to the moral. But I wonder if the adduced wisdom could possibly find pertinence in respect of the other jatakas contained in "Kacchuey". It could, probably, be applied to the stories of the two parrots and of the myna, in one of which the parrot, and in the other the myna, suffers because of inopportune remarks, but it may have no relevance at all to the jatakas of the monkeys, the Tarwar (Cassia auriculata) tree, and the witch and the Brahmin, where the themes are quite extrinsic to the idea of excessive or unseasonable speaking. It will be noticed also that the jatakas of the parrots and the myna emphasize dissimulation, or diplomatic evasion of direct comment, as a survival strategy rather than stress silence for its own virtues. The Bodhisattva who takes up the Raja's service in the witch and Brahmin jataka is, on the other hand, far more loquacious than anyone else in the tale and ends up in the ruler's place! That tale itself is loosely constructed and it is not clear what the narrator is attempting to say through it.

Then there are sub-tales of Sunder Samdar and Gopal too in "Kachhuey". Sunder Samdar is smitten by the lady Sawad (Savour) and abandons, ultimately, his bhikshu friends for her. Gopal lasts a little longer, so that he can hear the story of the tortoise and the condemnation of Sunder Samdar. But when an old childhood friend brings him news of his father's death and tells him that his mother, his wife and the throne await his return, he too is unsettled. And he contemplates a flower, and in it the mutability of the world. As he sees a fresh bud unfold in the morning where only the day before another had withered and died, he too is on his way. Viddayasaagar is left all alone.

Not really, though. He has his memories, jogged to life by the miracle of nature in efflorescence, responding perhaps also to the subliminal suggestion in the falling away of his companions. He comes across a tamarind tree and is amazed he didn't notice it before wandering through the vast jungle all these years. And it reminds him of his own land, and the huge, thick-leaved tamarind of his youth, its fruit, the long lines of parrots that alighted there and fluttered and chattered on its limbs. Slowly, the lost world comes back to him, the racing chariots, squirrels peeping through the leaves, a chameleon—

...from some hole, a tongue like twin needles in a red mouth, darting into sight suddenly and vanishing, and in his body a wave of fright rustling. And yes, Kaushambi. Under this tree, in the half-light of evening she met him as a stream meets the ocean...Recalling it, he felt a sweetness melting into him. Consider, he had tasted the sap of the moon-plant. 'Vastu Giyan' (Wisdom of the material), he murmured in his heart and was immersed in a deep sense of Peace. ("Kacchuey", 102)

One wonders if this is Intizar Husain recalling his past or Viddayasaagar--the parallels to earlier, partly-autobiographical, tales of the writer are so obvious. The world for him has changed for ever. He is looking for the highest wisdom (Uttam Giyan) and wanders far and wide in his search in the forest of Urdblu, remorseful at having allowed his senses to take pleasure in the beauties of nature, making himself see the world again as a great fire pit, just as Tathagata had made them see it, burning, burning all the time, slowly consuming everything. He sits in meditation now under the pipal now the bunyan, crying "Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!" all the time. And there under the bunyan he feels as if a tiny floweret were budding in his heart; he sees in his mind's eye the same tamarind tree of old. He believes he has at last found the truth: "This, that there is a forest and a tree for every man and woman which is their own. Nothing is to be gained by him who wanders in another forest even if there is a bodhi tree there. Whatever is to be found will be found under the shade of one's own tree." ("Kacchuey", p. 103)

But Viddayasaagar is caught in doubt once more. Is this truth or illusion? He wonders whether "the rod is still between his teeth or has slipped away. In this uncertainty he had one foot in the forest of Urdblu and the other lifted towards his own tree. And in the vast fire pit flames raged all around." ("Kacchuey", 103) So the end of the tale curls back on itself struggling to resurrect the metaphor of the tortoise and the fire pit.


It is the writer's eagerness to put all and everything in the tale that ultimately destroys it. The rather loose relationship between the various narratives, the unheeded thematic significations, the random logic, are all conspicuous and detract attention from the well-written and potentially powerful parts. But Viddayasaagar's momentary apprehension of a personal truth appears to be in accord with Intizar's own view about the autochothonous treasure hoard of tales from which a writer borrows, as he expresses it by recounting a story from The Thousand Nights and One Night in his introduction to Qissa Kahanian.27 A man in Cairo is directed in a dream to go to Isphahan where it is promised he will acquire enormous riches. Owing to an accident on the way he is arrested and brought before the Qazi in Isphahan. When he cites his dream as a defense, the Qazi recounts a similar dream of his own, but this time the directions are to go to Cairo. The man returns to his own city and suddenly realizes that the signs the Qazi described actually point to his own backyard. He digs under the tree indicated by the clues in the dream and comes upon the promised treasure. The moral, of course, is that we may travel anywhere in search of wealth and riches but we are likely to find them only in our own home or homeland. This is Viddayasaagar's achieved insight too, but the fable of the tortoise subverts it, and perhaps in his slipping back into uncertainty we may have a hint of Intizar's own reservations about the moral of the two stories. This further scrambles the reading of "Kachhuey", but if it is true that Intizar has come to question the personal perceptions of the man from Cairo and Viddayasaagar, he may not be, as far as the argument of the tale is concerned, quite justified in doing so.

There is fine irony here. The problems of "Kachhuey" are reflected in "Pattey", in "Brahmin Bakra" and "Poora Giyan" and in "Kashtee". Intizar's forays into myth and legend--I think he may still be struggling with the question, "which is home?"--without finding a centre in his own immediate experience, or concentrating in examining and investigating his themes with the single-mindedness of an artist, lead him to display artificiality as art, and confuse superficial treatment with creative transformation. We must remember that these are re-tellings of old tales. Intizar appears to have run out of material, and directions. And except for what he remembers and recreates from his childhood, he appears to lack experience and understanding of character as well. The re-telling of jatakas, myths and legends may be only a device to conceal this deficiency. Although, in his interview with Asif Farrukhi, Intizar notes his coming into contact with Hindu rites and customs early in his childhood,28--it is uncertain if he has absorbed this material sufficiently to deal with it independently without becoming self-conscious or strained. The facility and control he displays in dealing with experiences, beliefs and superstitions of his childhood and early youth, accentuate difficulties that become evident when he attempts to step beyond that world.

This is not to say that none of his experiments with ancient lore are successful. Tales which concentrate on exploring a particular theme work far more effectively. Where multiple strains are brought together, the limitation of the genre and, perhaps, the writer's complaisance fail to do justice to them. Of metamorphic tales, all re-tellings, "Kaya Kalp", "Aakhri Aadmi" and "Daswan Qadam" (Tenth Step) are realized artistic and moral experiences; "Nar Nari" (Man, Woman) is a failure, and it is poor handling that destroys an otherwise provocatively disturbing tale. All four tales mentioned deal, in one way or the other, with the problem of identity, its loss, its discovery, its transformation. "Daswan Qadam" and "Nar Nari" offer two rare instances in Intizar of a happily ending story. All four employ the method of fable and allegory.

In "Kaya Kalp", Prince Azad Bakht, who enters the white genie's fortress to rescue the Princess, vacillates, once he is there, succumbing to the illusion of temporary comfort and security and pays the penalty by losing his identity. Intizar charts the process with great skill as day by day Azad Bakht retails his freedom and velour without realizing that it is irretrievable until it is already too late. Initially, it is the Princess who, blowing upon him the breath of her magic words, changes him into an ordinary house fly to protect him from the genie returning home in the evening. He protests briefly against this, but the Princess' tears soften his heart and he falls for her charms. Thereafter, there is no hope of escape. The Princess turns him into a fly every evening and brings him back to human form each morning after the genie has left. Gradually, the form and nature of the fly take over completely and the Prince, incapable of resolve, loses his human identity altogether. One implication is that once a decision is taken, its repercussions follow with inevitable certainty. In this it carries the quiescent and fatalistic streak of Intizar's early fiction without change or revision. But the writer's ability to tell a story and build up dramatic tension remains unimpaired. One may read the tale as an allegory of the white man's imperialistic domination of India, but I wonder if that will enhance its value in any way. And the allegory actually doesn't work out convincingly in its details.

A similar transformation occurs in "Aakhri Aadmi" in which Intizar takes us back to the Biblical times to re-enact for us the first defiance of the Sabbath. The entire city population is converted into monkeys as a punishment and it is the gradual metamorphosis of the protagonist, Al-Yassaf, the one who had devised the trick to circumvent the Sabbath, that the tale dramatizes. Both tales succeed because of the discipline Intizar imposes upon himself in leaving out unrelated details from his narration and concentrating on the story itself. Neither of them is burdened by too much learning or wisdom.

This control is evident in "Daswan Qadam" as well, though that is a more difficult story to handle considering the number of episodes Intizar is bringing together in it. It occurs in his last collection of short stories, Khemey sey Door, published in 1981, and affirms Intizar's continued interest in the re-telling of ancient tales. In its structure, as also in some of its episodes, it is indebted to portions of the Mahabharata, where attending rishis and priests comfort and console the exiled king, Yuddhishtra, in his adversity by recounting to him uplifting tales of heroism and velour which deal with misfortunes and calamities similar, in many cases worse, than his own. This is the setting of "Daswan Qadam" and Rishi Birahdas is the comforting raconteur, who narrates to Yuddhishtra, sequence after sequence, the tale of Raja Nal, interspersed with the exiled Pandava's questions, his reservations and comparisons, and draws parallels with the stages of the exiled king's despair and sorrow. The setting and the tale supplement each other and it is, even for Intizar, inescapable that the story that Birahdas tells must be an uplifting one. Thus, even though a double perspective involving a binary narrative is present throughout, the shared purpose holds the story together.

"Nar Nari" is an enigmatic tale. Though Gopi Chand Narang makes much of it in his otherwise thoughtful article, "Naya Afsana: Allamat, Tamseel aur Kahani ka Johar"29 (The New Story: The Art of Symbolism, Parable and Narration)--and perhaps he has the original story in mind rather than Intizar's rendering of it--it is worth recalling more for its faults than for its strengths. The story itself is lifted from Beitaal Pacheesi, where it is one in a sequence of twenty-five and is told, like most others in the series, in its bare elements and poses a problem at the end to be answered or solved by Raja Vikramadittya to whom the tales are narrated.30

The original story may be summarized as follows: A washerman's son falls in love with a girl he sees near the temple of the Devi and vows, that if he succeeds in making her his wife, he would present his head as a thank offering to the goddess. He sues for her hand in marriage through his father and a close friend and his suit is accepted. The marriage takes place and the couple live in peace and happiness for a time. Then one day, the girl's brother arrives with an invitation to a ceremony in her ancestral village. Husband, wife and brother set off for the village, but on the way, the husband espies the Devi's temple and remembers his vow. Bidding his companions to wait for him while he offered a brief prayer at Devi's altar, he takes leave of them and enters the temple. Once inside, he salutes the Devi and fulfils his vow as with his sword he knocks off his head from his body. When his wife's brother comes looking for him and finds him in this state, he fears that he might be taken as the murderer of his brother-in-law, and to quell all doubts he too takes up the sword and slices off his own head from his trunk. Now two headless bodies lie before the Devi's altar.

It is this gory scene that confronts the wife when, vexed with being left unattended, she follows her brother and husband to the temple. Apprehensive of slanderous accusations and beside herself with shock and grief, she picks up the still freshly stained sword and is about to kill herself when the Devi steps down from her altar, praises her for her fidelity and offers to fulfill one wish of hers. The girl asks for the life of the two men and the Devi grants her the wish bidding her to put head to body in each case. Still traumatized by the sight of the dead bodies, the girl is flung now to the other extreme of feeling. In her consternation and excitement she mismatches the heads and the trunks. Before she realizes what has happened they rise before her, whole and healed. And now begins their quarrel, for each claims the girl as his wife. To whom does she belong? asks Beitaal the narrator. To the body with the head of her husband, answers Vikramadittya, for, he argues, things are recognized by that which is superior in them, and in limbs and organs it is the head which is the most significant.31

This is the version, generally recognized to be the original one, that appears in Buitenen's Tales of Ancient India. In Mazhar Ali Khan Villa's rendering of it in Urdu, produced for Fort William College, Calcutta, in 1804, the couple are accompanied by the husband's friend and not by the wife's brother. It is probably Villa's tale that has been developed by Thomas Mann in his nouvelle The Transposed Heads.32 Mann, however, does not only give it extended treatment, but also follows the difficulties the protagonists run into after the transposition has been effected. Pursuing the idea that now it is no longer possible for any one of the characters to live in isolation from the others he rounds off the story in a way that appears artistically as well as morally right--the male characters, at the end of his nouvelle, kill each other with mutual consent so that Sita, the wife, can perform Sati on their pyre and the three combine into one essence. The rounding off itself may have arrested the continually unfolding suggestiveness of the story, but it is a rather well knit work and apparently there are no loose ends showing.

Intizar uses the Buitenen rendition--retaining even its names--and so perhaps the older version as it appears in one of the several editions of Katha Surt Saagar. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize the potential of the suggestions that are present in the story as it is told there. The presence of the brother in that version opens up a number of powerful, disturbing and difficult areas for exploration. Intizar doesn't seem to be inspired by the possibilities in this direction. Although, like Mann, he too is interested in the predicament of the protagonists after the shuffling of heads has taken place, but by curtailing the focus of his narrative to two characters only, he forfeits the opportunity of creating out of an ancient tale a new and memorable one. At the very beginning, soon after the two men have come back to life with their heads transposed, he packs off Gopi, the girl's brother, and never gives a thought to the struggle he might be going through to come to terms with his new and unfamiliar trunk. His interest centers on the difficulty that the wife, Madan Sundri, and her husband, Dhawal, are facing in making love to each other because of a half-articulated fear of incest that has grown between them from the moment they realize that a mismatching of heads has occurred. And he finds for them a straightforward solution. "Fool!" says the rishi they consult to Dhawal, "What is this doubt in your mind? One thing alone you must remember: You are man, she woman. Go and do your work."33

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