THE publication of Basti’s translation is an important literary milestone. The author, Intizar Husain, is perhaps the greatest living Urdu writer and his genius rightly deserves a wider audience than just readers of Urdu or Hindi fiction. Intizar Sahib’s stories have been translated earlier and they showcased his taut, lyrical, hauntingly evocative prose to those who were not familiar with the world of Urdu. However, the novel as a genre and as a kaleidoscope of society conveys a discreet vision of the world. This is why Basti’s publication by New York Review Books is a landmark with respect to globalising the beauty and intricacy of Urdu literature.
Earlier, Qurratulain Hyder had translated her own novels (Aag ka Darya and Aakhir-i-Shab ke Hamsafar among others); her many admirers had been quick to point out that in the English translations she had been unfair, above all, to herself. The original Urdu novels are far more majestic than their translations. Except a few other novels, such as Abdullah Hussain’s Weary Generations (Udas Naslain), there is little that the world knows about Urdu literature. The Urdu short story has had a better deal in terms of translations, but the Urdu novel has largely been ignored.
Basti, at the outset, is the tale of a reminiscing Zakir, the novel’s protagonist who is a professor of history and a migrant to his new homeland from across the border. The novel primarily relates the various stages of his life.
Zakir lives in a dynamic, conflictual and contradictory world. There is no Hardyesque feeling of an individual pitted against the larger forces at work. Instead, throughout the novel, there are threads of nostalgia, displacement and ruptured continuities. The Partition of India in 1947 is the centre of the novel’s sombre, impressionistic landscape. That year turns everything topsy-turvy, and more so, it transforms the fate of the basti (settlement). Unlike other Partition literature, Basti avoids direct, graphic reportage on the psychological and physical violence inherent to Partition. The political chaos at one level is also interiorised by Zakir. There is, then, an intense feeling of alienation and emptiness that Zakir, as a migrant in a new country, feels. It should be remembered that Husain, now considered a torchbearer of progressive thought in Urdu language and literature, was never a firebrand revolutionary in the way that other luminaries in Urdu are known as. In fact, Zakir’s ambivalence towards politics and resistance is partly reflective of Intizar Sahib’s ideological moorings in the new discourse on jadeediyat or modernism.
Basti was criticised when it was first published in Urdu. Critics, often driven by ideological imperatives, considered it to be a lesser novel for its evident refusal to apportion blame or affix responsibility. However, the novel has proved to be a formidable work of art. Almost like “rocks beneath” (to borrow a phrase from Emily Bronte), it is a narrative that is neither noisy, nor voluminous or polemical. Its melancholy mood, layered plot and composite portrayal of human emotion ensure its timelessness and universal appeal. […]