In celebrating his pluralistic literary roots, Intizar Husain was a truly contemporary writer
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.
Intizar Husain was a sought after presence at literary festivals, where his vast body of work was discussed
Intizar Hussain’s nomination for the Man Booker International Prize has finally placed him on the map of global literature, something that should have happened long ago. Intizar Sahab is Pakistan’s foremost Urdu prose writer who has retained his excellence in storytelling for decades and has also evolved in the milieu that Pakistan, the country of his choice, provided him.
There are many sides to Hussain: storyteller, journalist, public intellectual and mentor to many a writer. His wide-ranging oeuvre – novels and short stories, columns and memoirs – chronicles the unresolved questions of identity, location and migration. Hussain’s novel ‘ Basti‘, epitomizes the conflicts and contradictions of human existence that Intizar Hussain has pursued throughout his long literary career.
With Raza Rumi
Hussain was born in 1923 in the village of Dibai, located in Uttar Pradesh. His early years gave him an exposure to the classical literatures of Arabic and Persian, leading to his exploration of The Arabian Nights, among other tales; and the work has had no small part in making him a modern avatar of the dastaan go (traditional storyteller) of yore. Hussain completed his education in Meerut and by the time he had finished his Masters degree, the partition of India had broken storm-like and left him unsettled. Thus began a never-ending process of Hijrat (‘Migration’ in the Islamic sense) that is the underlying current in much of Hussain’s creative imaginings, eventually growing into a universal metaphor for the human condition. Hussain has explored this experience from every angle, including the famed Hijrat of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Mecca to Medina.
literature festival in Islamabad sounds a contradiction in terms. A city better known for politicos, babus and palace intrigues also patronizes the state run literary establishment. The bureaucratization of literature has only stunted the growth of a literary culture in the capital. Oxford University Press (OUP) and its partners broke the conventions by organizing the two-day festival showcasing segments of Pakistani literature both in local and English languages. The greatest success of the event was the massive participation of people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was inspired by the annual event in Karachi, which has already set a benchmark for such multi-lingual events. Of course, the critique even this time was along the similar lines: that these festivals only cater to the English-speaking world and the ‘liberal class’ as someone confided in me during a break. Having said that there were sessions on Pashto and Punjabi poetry and many discussions on Urdu literature with luminaries such as Intizar Husain, popular writers like Mustansar Husain Tarar and Amjad Islam Amjad. The unassuming and mild-mannered Kamila Shamsie also joined in from the UK.
The most heart-warming aspect of ILF was the interest it generated among the students and young men and women. Halls were packed with university students and young professionals. For the first ever literary event taking place without state patronage this was quite a feat.
The organisers of the festival kept me busy throughout. On day one I hosted a session with the Left activist and LUMS academic Dr. Taimur Rehman on the class structure in Pakistan. I was quite surprised to witness huge attendance at the session. Taimur, an affable and enthusiastic conversationalist made rather insightful remarks on the way Pakistan was changing. He talked about his book and also the central role of caste in understanding how class as a construct exists in South Asia and the areas that comprise Pakistan. During the session he also challenged ‘Naya Pakistan’and explained to some of the youth how corruption as an issue could not be viewed in isolation and was a product of the class system. In a response to a related question Taimur assertd that “politicisation of corruption” was done during the various military regimes,” and thus the corrupt political system and corrupt politicians was a narrative that had gained much traction in the country (to the extent that the politicians were using it against each other). Continue reading →
Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com
The third Karachi Literature Festival concluded recently. I am posting a short piece of mine which was published by the News on Sunday. Another report that I wrote for TFT can be found here. Faiza S Khan’s review is most interesting. Another review by Umair found it sterile and comments on the technocratic discussions that took place on ‘national’ issues. And a comprehensive round up at DAWN’s Books & Authors magazine here.
“When our lives are written about in the English language, the books become best sellers,” thundered Pakistan’s rebel poet Kishwar Naheed at the Karachi Literature Festival. This was a session where I had the rather undeserved honour of introducing and talking to Naheed and the other master poet, Iftikhar Arif. She added that there was little emphasis on quality as the books you were supposed to buy at the airports for light reading were now ‘high’ literature. This was an oblique, yet unambiguous reference to the Pakistani writing in English. The two worlds — “native” and English — remain quite separate in a manner that Kipling had envisioned. English writing from Pakistan has received global attention and is celebrated at festivals across the globe. Yet how many Pakistanis have an idea of what it is all about? This is an uncomfortable question that we need to ask and perhaps keep on asking.
The Karachi Literature Festival has now evolved into a serious annual festival where writers gather and interact with thousands of readers each year. To be fair to the organisers, they have been mindful of the principle of inclusiveness from the very start. Asif Farrukhi, an eminent writer (who is my actual role model for his supernatural powers to write, edit and think with a full time job) has been organising the “regional” side of the literary ramblings at the festivals. Big names such as Fahmida Riaz and others are given due acknowledgment by holding sessions with them. Yet, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on the universe of English writings — both by Pakistanis and foreigners. This year, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, Anatol Lieven and several others attracted much attention by their readers, fans and critics. There were a few sessions on Urdu and regional languages’ literature but it was obvious that the attendees were not always the same.
As a young woman confessed at the festival, “I hardly read Urdu, but do you consider Initizar Husain a great writer?” Despite the shocking nature of this statement, I was hardly surprised. The apartheid that exists in Pakistan’s education system marginalises the local and the vernacular compared to the more market-oriented, global English. Aside from its potential “benefits,” English language, for some, remains an odious status symbol. A colonial legacy, a preserve of the postcolonial elites, and a stepping-stone for entry into the deliberately constructed, globalised monoculture. Continue reading →
Huma Imitiaz has summed up the session I moderated at the KLF. Huma has been kind to me but I am just a humble student of literature and facing Intizar Saheb in this session would remain a milestone in my imagined literary journeys, yet to start…
“There are two forces that have risen in Pakistan: women and mullahs,” said writer and journalist extraordinaire Intizar Husain, at the Karachi Literature Festival. The crowd roared in approval, and Husain smiled. At his session, held on the second day, the room was nowhere near full capacity, but those in attendance were hanging on to his every word. In a one on one discussion with writer Raza Rumi, Husain talked about a variety of subjects, from writing techniques to the Lahore that once was. Continue reading →