October 25

Basti–Intizar Husain


“I swear by Time, man is surely in loss.”

Just finished reading Intizar Husain’s Basti. The English translation is lovely, but I am definitely going to get a copy of the original Urdu one. There are so many things that one can sense would be much better in the original and at the end the translator Frances W. Pritchett admits as much. What struck me throughout the book is the presence of death. It is there in so many ways and as melancholic as the story is, it is also very uplifting in certain ways. There is a sense of time moving ahead and human beings adapting, changing, molding with it. Still, one cannot escape the sense of steady decline and the darkness and violence all around. The story is prescient given the state of affairs today in Pakistan with regards to Christians, Ahmedis and Shias in Pakistan.
There are numerous references to graves in the narrative. I chose a few that stood out.

“What is it?”

“ A grave.” He answered casually, without looking toward Sabirah.
“It’s a grave?” Sabirah asked in surprise.

She regarded the grave with wonder. Then she spoke with a kind of warmth in her tone. “Zakir, make me a grave too.”
“Make it yourself,” he answered shortly.

“A naked faqir, with a grey beard, long dirty tangled hair, and eyes like glowing coals, screamed wildly. “Get away, don’t you see that there are corpses here?”

“Corpses? What corpses? Where are they?” I cast a glance around.

Passing by Jama Masjid, I paused. I couldn’t move. A carpet of corpses had been spread. From the direction of Hare-bhare Shah’ Tomb a furious voice came: “Who told you to linger here? Go away!”

… “Yar, you Muslims are wonderful! You’re always looking towards the deserts of Arabia, but for your graves you prefer the shade of India. Seeing the old people who had stayed behind here, I realized what great power the grave has in Muslims’ culture” …

“Zakir’s mother! You don’t remember what was going on with the trains at the time. I myself wanted to have a last look around Rupnagar before leaving. I would have read the Fatihah one last time over my ancestors’ graves. Abba Jan paused, then said, “And at Zakir: “Son, there I had made all arrangements for my burial. The shroud was ready, and I’d chosen a place for my grave too. My family would only have had to take the trouble of cutting a few filbert branches and washing me, then lifting me to their shoulders and lowering me into the grave. But here, there’s no arrangement. You’ll have to arrange everything.”
What great power the grave has in Muslims’ culture. A phrase from Surendar’s letter came to his mind.
“Oh this is just the anxiety that eats at my heart, how will our deaths be!” Ammi said worriedly. “Our lives have passed somehow or other, but for death a hundred arrangements have to be made.”
So death requires more arrangements than life, he thought to himself. Just then there was a knock at the door.

P.S. During Q&A at the Literature Festival in Lahore this year, Intizar Husain spoke about his days in Lahore as a young man. After reading the book I was curious about what he was like as a young man, but unlike Manto, there are no images (atleast none I could find) online of Intizar Husain in his youth. If anyone has one, do share!