By Zehra Kazmi
In a remarkable moment in Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (1995), translated into English by the noted critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil, the narrator Jawad meets an old, frail man called Khairul Bhai, whom he had known before the Partition as a student and fiery supporter of the Pakistan Movement. Despite his avowed espousal for the movement, after 1947, Khairul Bhai decided to remain in his crumbling, solitary family home in Meerut, North India, with only his cat for company. When Jawad probes him about his decision to stay behind despite the pro-Pakistan activism of his youth, he replies: “…But at that time, it was not a country; it was a dream…A dream contains the promise of a morning till it remains a dream, but…”(156). The sentence is left unfinished.
Intizar Husain (1923-2016) is widely recognised as one of Pakistan’s greatest writers. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Husain narrated the story of Partition and its discontents like few others. His non-linear novels use myth, memory and illusory prose, and dextrously sweep through time and space to investigate ‘the wounds of Partition’ (Jalil)[i]. Born in the village of Dibai in Bulandshahr district of the former United Provinces, British India in 1925, Husain migrated to Lahore in 1947 to edit Nizam, the official magazine of the Progressive Writers’ Movement.[ii]Before his death at the age of 92 in 2016, Husain published six novels, a memoir and several essays and short stories.
My particular interest in Husain’s work lies in his use of nostalgia as a subversive tool to articulate lost histories and possibilities of the subcontinent. Nostalgia has a vexed relationship with the politics of the present, often viewed with suspicion as an attempt to impose or aestheticise oppressive values of a bygone era. As we witness the rise of right-wing populist political leaders who seek to make their nations “great again”, nostalgia is used to rewrite histories, engender hierarchies and counter strides made by sexual, ethnic or gendered minorities. Nostalgia, not always undeservedly, gets a bad rep. However, this uniformly hegemonic perception of nostalgia does not take into account its creative and progressive possibilities. Carrie Hamilton writes in her essay “Happy Memories”:
“The recounting of happy memories need not involve a denial of oppression… or ‘letting go’ of the past…Rather than disabling change, such memories may act as an ingredient in formulating alternative futures. Far from being the prerogative of the privileged, happy memories may be especially important in sustaining political projects of the oppressed” (2007,67).
Many recent scholars like Boym, Bonnet, Walder and Raychaudhuri have influentially theorised about the creative, subversive and progressive forms that nostalgia takes on in different contexts, especially with regards to providing alternative maps towards the future or reaffirming the politics of oppressed identities. Husain’s meditations on memory are suffused with unabashed nostalgic longing, which give a specific pathos-ridded quality to his writing. However, far from simply reproducing trite sentimentality, the deployment of critical nostalgia in his writing creates a unique aesthetic sensibility that informs a deeply subversive politics. The nostalgia of Husain’s writing works on two levels, it is a pastoral elegy for the death of an older, syncretic Indic civilisation and an affective register for articulating the global and local histories of Muslims as a people. Much before recent scholars of nostalgia were viewing nostalgia as a radical, temporally multi-directional force, signalling towards the future as well as the past, Husain distinguished himself as one of the earliest South Asian intellectuals who intuitively recognised the critical potential of nostalgia as a discursive and creative lens.
Within the Indo-Muslim literary tradition, nostalgia and mourning have a particularly rich and complex history as affective modes. From majlis, marsiya, shahr ashob, ghazal or nauha—these are different poetic forms that exist in the cultural lexicon of Muslim South Asia. Husain draws from that legacy to expand it to prose. Amina Yaqin observes that in keeping with Franco Moretti’s ‘law of literary evolution’, the modern Urdu novel arises as triangular whole which is made up of ‘foreign form, local material – and local form’ (Moretti qtd. in Yaqin 380), corresponding to the western novel form, Indic socio-cultural concerns and the incorporation of Urdu lyric/storytelling traditions. M. Asaduddin points out that while the novel is a distinctly Western import mediated by English-educated intelligentsia into the subcontinent’s cultural sphere, the readership familiar with local forms of storytelling like the qissa or dastaan took to it “quite naturally, without any great sense of shock or novelty” (84). However, while novels have conventionally aspired to verisimilitude, dastaans ignored all “laws of probability” to eschew reality “as hermetically as possible” (Asaduddin 78). With the rise of the periodical press of colonial India, these hybrid experimentations in prose “acquired sophistication and realism became a virtue’’ leading to the standardization of the Urdu novel as a genre (84).
What distinguished Husain from other Urdu novelists before him was his (post) modern rejection of linear temporality in storytelling. For Husain, the straightforward realist mode of Urdu novels of yore could not fully articulate the stakes and trauma of the wounds of colonisation, Partition and migration on the Indo-Muslim psyche. Aamer Husain writes, “Subtly and over several decades he drew readers and writers away from the hegemony of foreign influences…into an examination of the subcontinental modes of oral and written storytelling, which had been despised and discounted by many of his predecessors who, indoctrinated by colonial and postcolonial policies of education, lauded and claimed only western influences’’. Ironically enough, Husain’s BBC obituary stated that he “was part of a powerful literary movement that emerged in India in the 1930s, and that transformed the old moralist and romantic traditions of Indian and Persian-Arabic literature into Western realism’’, mistakenly conflating him with the Progressive Writers and also, perhaps even more egregiously, claiming that Husain was invested in transforming Indo-Persian storytelling narratives into Western realism when, in fact, Husain’s novels are examples of a rejection of Western realism and a re-insertion of the more affective and fantastical elements of traditional Urdu literary culture into the novel. Although, it is worth noting that Husain was admittedly influenced by writers like Franz Kafka and perhaps aware of the frequent comparisons made between him and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These transcultural influences on Husain’s work led him to become the emblematic creator of the Indo-Muslim modernist fiction.
Husain’s nostalgic vision relies heavily on spatial metaphors allowing us to ‘revisit time like space’ (Boym xv). Recurring spatial motifs in Intizar Husain’s fiction are pastoral idylls, ruins and lost cities. A typical example of Husain’s pastoral idyll is Rupnagar, described in shimmering detail in the opening chapters of his most famous novel Basti (1979) translated into English by Frances Pritchett in 2012. The village of Rupnagar, with a Black Temple and a local Karbala, is presented as an idyllic site of harmonious coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. The narrator, Zakir (whose name literally translates to ‘‘he who remembers’’) vividly recollects the rain-soaked Janamashtami nights and the hum of folk songs about Krishna reverberating through them. This idyllic village, however, now only exists in Zakir’s memory. While Zakir never physically returns to Rupnagar after Partition, his memories simultaneously trap him there; the deferral of return is psychologically compensated for with an imaginative return. In a moment that illustrates Husain’s remarkable knack for combining fragmented, dreamlike imagery with potent symbolism, Zakir’s mother informs him that she still has the key to the store-room of their family home in India, where she locked up family heirlooms. Zakir then imagines the family home now being turned into an overgrown ruin–a forest of memories. As she worries about termites eating away at the blessed shroud brought by Zakir’s grandfather from a pilgrimage to Karbala, Zakir remarkably wonders if “time (is) a termite, or is a termite time?” (117). Husain often dwells on abandoned spaces—what remains as ruins and what is lost. It is in these remnants of memory that Husain explores spectral possibilities of belonging. As Zakir remarks “Houses never stay empty. When those who live in them go away, the time lives on in these houses.” (189). If any relatives or loved ones stay on, they exist in narrative memory as not really functionally distinct from the long-lost, leftover objects that might be gathering dust in an abandoned house. The material particularities of space may get lost or bleed into other memories, but the fact of inheritance, of legacy, is preserved via memorialization.
Similarly, Husain’s fascination for lost cities is also a key identifying feature of his engagement with nostalgia and memory. A casual turn in a Lahore street-corner transforms into the home that Zakir left behind or the trigger to excavate generational, inherited memory of places. In Basti, as Lahore remains still in the silence of a government-imposed curfew during the Bangladesh War of 1971, Zakir finds himself transported to the “ruined city” of Delhi after the Revolt of 1857, quoting from Ghalib’s letters to say that — “a river of blood is flowing”, which, in the course of that paragraph, transforms into the destroyed city of Jerusalem (162). Cities with associations to Islamic empires like Cordoba, Granada and Delhi have been spectral presences weighing on Muslim writing across history, be it Iqbal or Hali. Husain, however, distinguishes himself from them by fusing Islamic history with stories from the Mahabharata to invoke stories of mythical cities like Hastinapur and Dwarka. The story of expulsion and return, one that is oft repeated in both Shia and Hindu traditions, and bears strong resonance with Partition narratives, is invoked in Husain’s fiction. The eclectic references to both the sweep of global Islam juxtaposed against local Hindu and Buddhist mythology draw attention to the specificity of Indo-Islamic identity.
In keeping with Husain’s historicizing lens of narrativising the story of exile and loss for the diasporic Muslim, ‘home’ expands cartographies, collapsing distinctions of border, nation and ethnicity in this process. In his intergenerational homecoming, where the home is not always a singular point on a map or some sort of promised land for a community but instead a shared history that is spread across time and geographies. Husain’s historicization of Indo-Muslim identity goes beyond the immediate bloodbath of the Partition, even though it is irrevocably shaped by it, evoking also the roots of Islam and its arrival into South Asia from different parts of the world. His vision is also cognizant of cross-cartographic Muslim legacies, bringing to mind the unique status of South Asian Muslims when it comes to questions of indigeneity, where they are enmeshed into the local topography but have mythic roots westwards. This western, foreign tag that follows Indian Muslims especially until today, as people who came from somewhere else is a pernicious and recurring trope in Indian politics. This is largely ahistorical, as most Indian Muslims are converts to Islam — the ajlaf (middle caste Hindus who converted to Islam) or arzal (previously ‘untouchable’ caste of Hindus who converted into Islam). Caste hierarchies have sustained, so have divisions between ashraf (upper caste Muslims of foreign ancestry) and ajlaf/arzal Muslims. Hence, the obsession with this ‘foreign’ origin of Muslims is an unsubstantiated myth, utilized both by orthodox Hindus and Muslims for different ends. However, the import of the faith from cultures beyond the subcontinent is a factor in how South Asian Islam is practiced and historicized. Husain’s conception of Indo-Muslim identity fervently rejects the binary between the ‘foreign’ and the ‘indigenous’, emphasizing how mutually interdependent the constructed nature of both tags is. Thus, what Aamir Mufti writes of Maulana Azad in another context applies perfectly to Husain’s vision of Indo-Muslim identity as “a reconfiguration of the relationship of the alien to the indigenous, of past to present, and of tradition to modernity” (155).
Husain’s works then offer a consciously syncretic reflection of Indo-Muslim identity as inseparable from Hindu traditions . Can this history be revitalized and mobilised for presenting us with an alternative to the sectarian, puritanical understanding of Hindu and Muslim identity in modern South Asia? Husain’s critical, self-aware nostalgia propagates a certain humility in the face of history’s constant march, mocking the perverse hubris of seeing the nation as a uniform symbol of everlasting glory. A lamentation for the past wherein extinction takes on a life of its own can be a symbol of time’s irreversibility. This irreversibility resists the temptation of perfect restoration and yet eulogizes the values of the past to have a contemporary political function which does not always have to be ‘backward’ in the usual sense. Critically alert nostalgia for a period of history, with a fidelity and commitment to some of its values, can be the foundation for the vision of a new beginning. As Nauman Naqvi writes about melancholia, nostalgia too “ exerts a claim beyond the grave, even as closed options become the condition of possibility of a new imperative and imagination” (210). Critical nostalgia, then, must be aware of the processes of history. By allowing for the powerful hold of nostalgia to be informed by a careful reading of history, Husain gives us the chance to reimagine a culture built on those very best parts of its past.
[i] Jalil, Rakhshanda. ‘Translator’s note’ in The Sea Lies Ahead
[ii] Husain eventually distanced himself from the Progressive Writers’ Movement, largely due to his differences over the extent to which Marxist ideology should define his literature.
Zehra Kazmi is a second year PhD candidate at the School of English, University of St Andrews. Her research looks at historical memory and nostalgia in 20th century South Asian Muslim writing, in the context of the rise of religious nationalism in South Asia and the “long Partition”. She holds an MPhil in English Studies: Criticism and Culture from the University of Cambridge and has previously worked as a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University. She is also a co-founder of the Tasavvur Collective, a consortium of ECRs interested in contemporary Muslim South Asia.
Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta
Featured Image: Cover of the english translation of Intizar Husain’s Urdu novel ‘The Sea Lies Ahead’. (From the author’s personal collection).