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In memoriam: Writers like Intizar Husain never die, they live on in their words and ideas

In celebrating his pluralistic literary roots, Intizar Husain was a truly contemporary writer

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Intizar Husain, the last of great Urdu writers, passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

He’d been hospitalized for some time in Lahore. His ardent followers had been worried that the worst was likely to happen. But the truth is that writers of Husain’s stature never die. They live in their words and the corpus of ideas that they bequeath to future generations.

Husain was definitely one such figure. He leaves behind some of the finest specimens of fiction, journalism, travel writing and critical essays. The sheer volume of Husain’s literary output is mind boggling as it indicates a life that was lived in a deep love of letters; engaged in an eternal search for meaning.

Intizar Sahib spent his early years at his birthplace Dibai in the Bulandshahr district of Uttar Pradesh (UP), India. In one of his interviews, he said that the partition of India in 1947 made him a fiction writer. Nothing could be truer as the shadow of his migration to a new country became perennial. For much of his life, this event and the sense of displacement informed his creative musings.

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Intizar Husain was a sought after presence at literary festivals, where his vast body of work was discussed

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Abdullah Hussein: alive in his vision

The great Pakistani writer Abdullah Hussein is no more. Perhaps, he has been relieved of the agony that he underwent as a cancer patient, suffering in his last years all by himself. To say that he was a towering literary figure would be an understatement. Hussein was a trendsetter and a chronicler of our weary generations. Written in 1963, his tour de force, Udaas Naslain, remains the most memorable, grand novel, second only in its expanse to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya. Both Hyder and Hussein were torchbearers of the modern, non-conformist sensibilities in contemporary Urdu literature. Hyder weaved the 5,000-year story of the Indian subcontinent and for her depiction of 1947 as just another moment in the grand continuum of history, was rebuked in Pakistan and soon left the country.

Hussein’s characters in Udaas Naslain recount the upheavals that Indians had to engage with since 1857. The novel’s formidable brush depicts the early 20th century milieu of Punjab as its protagonist experiences the rapidly changing political events. Hussein presents a panoramic, existentialist view of the First World War and how that impacted the ‘natives’ in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The most moving parts of the novel concern the Partition of 1947. Towards the end, the book’s main character, Naim Baig, grapples with a new reality along with immense emotional and historical baggage.

Not unlike Hussein, his almost anti-hero, Naim Beg, is an idealist, but is swept away by larger historical forces. It is Naim’s persona that struck a chord with the post-independence generation, for it was as unfulfilled as him. As Pakistan’s chequered history evolved, the incoming generations have also found a voice for themselves. The novel has an innate absurdist streak, which fits in well with the society that we have created in the preceding decades. Fifty years later, Udaas Naslain remains in print with dozens of editions keeping it accessible. Its everyday language enriched the scope of Urdu fiction. Some found its language obscene and before the morality brigade could strike, the state awarded it the Adamjee Award.

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Manto’s women

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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Citizen of the world

He wanted variety and could not confine himself to a uni-dimensional career or vocation. Other than being a rare blend of East and West, Patras exemplified the modern man – searching for new meanings in life and experimenting with experiences

Patras

This December witnessed a literary landmark of post-internet Pakistan.A dedicated website – www.patrasbokhari.com– on Patras Bokhari, a towering literary figure, was launched at the Government College University, Lahore. It is well-known that the GC produced world-famous personalities while it was the leading educational institution in this part of the subcontinent, but its stature as a hub of education, culture and literary regeneration declined over the years. Some observers hold, however, that the recently increased autonomy and elevation of GC to the status of a university will reverse the decline. It was the glorious tradition of this institution that produced giants such as Patras, Faiz and Iqbal, amongst many others.

Prof Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari (1898-1958) is most famous through his penname “Patras” Bokhari. While he was a first-rate educationist, broadcaster and diplomat, perhaps his lasting fame is the result of his stature as an inimitable essayist and humourist – a rare trait amongst the mourning and elegy-prone South Asian creed. Patras Ke Mazameen , immortal as they are, set the standard for high quality, incisive satire and humour. Unlike the medieval mores of literature being the preserve of the courts and its courtiers, these essays reach out to everyone, encompassing a modern sensibility that makes them pertinent and attractive even today. There is a distinct universality in these writings that perhaps had to do with the humane and cosmopolitan side of Patras himself. The compelling evidence of this aspect was his huge success as a diplomat when he served as Pakistan’s permanent envoy at the United Nations in the early 1950s, enabling him to be titled ‘a citizen of the world.’

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Meena Kumari, the poet

After my earlier article on the life of Meena Kumari, I explored the iconic actor’s prowess in an entirely different area of personal expression – poetry

Meena KumariMeena Kumari

My heart wonders incessantly
If this is life, what is it that they call death?
Love was a dream?
Ask not about the fate of this dream?
Ask not about the punishment
I received for the crime of loyalty.
(This is Life)

 

Meena Kumari, the iconic actor, will perhaps be better remembered by posterity as a poet of unique sensibility. For three decades she ruled Indian cinema – now referred to as Bollywood; and even after her tragic death due to alcoholism in 1972 her film Pakeezah continued to fascinate cinegoers. In a relatively short life, Meena achieved a place on the silver screen that few can match. Unlike the current trend of actors staying in business beyond their welcome, Meena died at her peak when she was barely thirty nine years old.

A few months ago I had reviewed Vinod Mehta’s biography of Meena Kumari authored in the 1970s (Meena Kumari: The Classic Biography) and wondered why her poetry had not been widely published. Within a few weeks, I was delighted to receive a copy of Meena Kumari the Poet: A Life Beyond Cinema – a collection of her poems translated by Noorul Hasan, a competent translator and a former Professor of English. The book has a thought provoking introduction by Philip Bounds and Daisy Hasan and a few other gems that have been rescued from the anonymity of film journalism.

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Meena Kumari’s lasting friendship with the poet Gulzar is well known. In fact, Gulzar was even present in the hospital when Meena struggled for her life and finally gave up. It was Gulzar who published her poems after her death. In Pakistan, pirated copies of this orginal publication were available everywhere during my childhood. At railway junctions with small bookstalls, on the pavements where old books were sold and all other places where popular literature was bought and sold. However, this collection gradually faded into oblivion and today the English readers in India and Pakistan may not even know about the poetry of Meena Kumari, which by all standards is formidable. Hasan, the translator tells us in the preface: […]

In An Antique Land

Another review on my book “Delhi By Heart” appeared in Outlook Magazine India.

By Venky Vembu

In his novel The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of the imagined cartographic lines that divide people in the Indian subcontinent […]

March 28th, 2014|books, Delhi By Heart, South Asian Literature, Travel|0 Comments

Conversation with Mushir ul Hasan on my book

Last year, my book was released in Delhi. The video and transcript of the discussion have been uploaded now.

Mushir ul Hasan: I’m delighted to be associated with the launch of this book; however, I believe that […]