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Intizar Hussain (1923-2016) - Tributes & resources

7 February 2016

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Intizar Hussain, leading Urdu writer, dies aged 92

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Intizar Hussain: Mourning an Urdu literary icon

By M Ilyas Khan BBC News, Islamabad

3 February 2016

Intizar Hussain was one of Pakistan’s towering literary figures and his death is seen by critics as marking the end of an era.

Hussain, who was in his early 90s, died in hospital in Lahore after contracting pneumonia. His funeral was held on Wednesday.

An icon of Urdu literature, he was born in Dibai, a village in northern India’s Bulandshahr district, in "1922, or 1923 or perhaps 1925", as he explained light-heartedly in an interview with Dawn newspaper some years ago.

He studied Urdu literature at a university in Meerut, India, and soon afterwards moved to Lahore, with the intention of returning after meeting figures in the so-called Progressive Writers’ Movement.

But that was not to be. India had been partitioned by then, following independence from Britain, and Lahore had become part of a newly-created Pakistan.

Going back was not easy, given the acrimony and bloodbath that followed. His family later joined him in Lahore.
Image copyright AP
Image caption Partition was a time of huge upheaval and suffering in India and Pakistan

In Lahore, he worked as a journalist and prominent columnist, an occupation he continued until recently, writing in Urdu as well as English.

But fiction was his real forte. His short stories and novels raised him in stature to match some the most celebrated writers in contemporary India and Pakistan.

Hussain 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.

His distinguishing mark was that he tended to narrate reality - the present - through surrealistic imagery, mythology and Indian, Persian and Arabic folklore.

His early works, produced in the 1950s and 60s, mostly focused on characters that matched French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s concept of "anomie" - people who suffered a loss of identity due to a breakdown of values.

In an interview with BBC Urdu in May 2013, Hussain admitted that his detractors accused him of being "nostalgic" - of being in Pakistan temporally but mentally craving an earlier life and culture in India.
Image copyright AFP

Unlike most "progressive" writers of his age, he could not be bracketed with the Left, but he was not a romantic either, says Rauf Parekh, a linguist and columnist.

"His point of view was basically human and philosophical, always leaning towards enlightenment," Mr Parekh wrote in a column in Dawn.

Critics say that through his surrealistic symbolism and his mythological spin on events, he created authentic narratives to revisit political tragedies such as the 1971 secession of Bangladesh, the radicalisation of society under military dictator Gen Zia-ul Haq, and the rise of the Mohajir (or emigrant) nationalism among Karachi’s refugees from India.

His 1979 novel, Basti (town), which was written against the backdrop of Indian Partition, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 after it was translated and republished by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics.

In 2014, Hussain was given the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award for his achievements.

He was also awarded Pakistan’s third-highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, or Star of Excellence.

Many say that with his death, the last chapter of one of the most energetic modernist movements in Urdu literature has come to a close, and there is no one left to take on the mantle.

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The Express Tribune > Opinion > Editorial

Farewell Intizar Hussain

February 5, 2016

When some people depart, they leave behind such a deep void that one cannot help but imagine how it could ever be filled. Intizar Hussain’s departure is one such for Pakistan. His death on February 2 is not only a loss for Urdu literature, language and the art of storytelling, it is also a loss for our society at large that desperately needs intellectuals of the calibre of Intizar Husain. In his death, we grieve the passing away of arguably our greatest storyteller, who in his writings and by his mere presence reminded us that our society has still not lost everything, that there are still people left who are markers of our culture, that there are spaces for literary conversations, that violence and extremism has not yet taken everything away from us.

Intizar Hussain enjoyed a prolific literary career and continued to write literary notes for Dawn and columns for Daily Express until recently. Even at an advanced age, he could be seen in regular attendance at literary festivals and gatherings, and sessions where he was on the panel would be packed, with both the young and old eager to hear his views in his typical soft-spoken and kind manner of speech. Remembrance, nostalgia, Partition and migration were common themes in his writings, which gave a voice to the human suffering and trauma of migration. Among his most well-known works are Basti, Tazkira, Aagay Samander Hai, Hindustan Se Aakhri Khat, Shehr-e-Afsos and Janam Kahanian. His works have been recognised both at home and abroad and he was a recipient of Pakistan’s third-highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz. In 2013, he was among the 10 finalists for the Man Booker International Prize for fiction and the first Urdu writer nominated for this prestigious award. The year after, he was given the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award for his achievements. Through his writings, columns, and his presence alone, Intizar Hussain made the difficult realities of our society more bearable and certainly less suffocating. His absence will be deeply felt for many years to come.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2016.

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The Daily Times [Pakistan], February 05, 2016


Intizar Hussain

Intizar Hussain, the tremendously revered Urdu literary icon, passed away on February 2, 2016 at the age of 92, succumbing to cardiac arrest after a period of illness. Hussain is widely recognised as one of the greatest Urdu writers in history. He has left countless ardent admirers of his work mourning the enormous gap left in the realm of literature in the subcontinent. He was born in Dibia in the Bulandshahr District of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and gained his MA in Urdu in 1946 from Meerut College, but migrated to Lahore shortly before partition where he started working as a journalist in Mashriq daily. Despite working as a columnist, critic, biographer, travel writer, translator and playwright during his life, it was his work as a novelist that raised his standing as one of the legendary giants of Urdu writing. Some of his most loved books include Naya Ghar and Basti, that were also translated into English, and some of his short story collections include Din aur Dastaan, Aakhri Aadmi, Kankri, Khali Pinjra, and Shehr-e-Afsos. His stories often explored the phenomenology of loss of identity due to disintegration of values, and he was known for his distinct style of narrating reality with the use of symbolism, surrealistic imagery, and Indian, Persian and Arabic folklore. In many of his writings he reflected on political tragedies, including the secession of Bangladesh, and most significantly the Indian partition. Hussain already had the Sitara-e-Imtiaz to his name in Pakistan, but also recently gained international recognition after his novel Basti was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013. Moreover he was awarded France’s highly prestigious Office of the Order of Arts and Letters a year later.

Hussain was from a generation of writers that located their literature in the realm of nostalgia, and he is undoubtedly the master of the genre. From his stories emanates a deep sense of personal experience, and while criticized by some for his immensely forlorn sentiments regarding his earlier life in British India, his unfeigned and heartfelt memories of uprooting connect his work to the universal theme of migration, striking a chord with readers from across the world. What is less known about him is his stature as an acclaimed journalist, writing in both Urdu and English publications. Also that he was a remarkably polite, courteous and a humble human being. And it is with regret that one must note that this generation is naturally, through the process of time and attrition, gradually disappearing. And while its ranks are thinning, replacements are still needed. However, it would be an understatement to say that Urdu literature is struggling, and there appears no indication of a new generation of writers that could fill these undeniably very big shoes. The nation faces a dire need to address this dearth, otherwise an entire treasure house of writing, art and culture will be lost forever. *

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The Hindu, 3 February 2016

Tribute: Intizar Husain

Burden of memories, reality of the present

by Rakhshanda Jalil

Let us not merely mourn the loss of a literary giant. Let us also mourn the loss of a man who understood his country and ours

Early on in the Pakistani writer Intizar Husain’s novel Beyond Lies the Sea, a character says, “All sorts of rogues and upstarts, thieves and robbers and terrorists have a field day; the respectable folk are at their wits’ end. Where have we ended up?” And indeed the city they ended up in was unlike any other they had ever seen. For one thing, the sea itself was new and frightening for most of these muhajirs who had come from land-locked towns and hamlets. What is more, each muhajir brought with him his own Pandora’s box of memories, memories that made him name the new enclaves, gardens and housing societies after the ones he had left behind.

Aqa Hasan, an effete gentleman from Lucknow, who is given to venting his ire about the ways of the new city (Karachi) and its people, also bemoans: “It is a reign of tyranny and dictatorship. Those who were low born roll in wealth and the shurfa go hungry for even one meal. And on top of it all, no one’s life or property is safe.” And then addressing his question to Majju Bhai, a blithe spirit and by far the most colourful character in the entire list of dramatis personae in the novel, Aqa Hasan goes on to ask: “My dear sir, these are difficult times… What lies ahead?”

To which Majju Bhai blithely replies, “The sea.”

Majju Bhai’s breezy answer refers to an urban legend from Pakistan’s hoary past when stabs at democracy and genuine people’s representation still seemed possible. In the run-up to the presidential elections to be held in January 1965, a motley group of political parties coming together as Combined Opposition Parties (COP) decide to field Fatima Jinnah, sister of the late M.A. Jinnah and popularly known as ‘Mother of the Nation’, against the incumbent General Ayub Khan. The COP comes up with an impressive nine-point agenda including restoration of direct elections, adult franchise, democratisation of the 1962 Constitution and, among other things, greater representation to the Urdu-speaking muhajirs in Sindh. As a warning to the Urdu speakers not to vote for his opponent, Ayub is said to have famously declared, “Aage samandar hai…” (The sea lies ahead.) The implicit threat was twofold: one, the muhajirs had burnt their boats when they had crossed the border for, clearly, they could not go back; and two, having done so, this fifth entity (paanchvi qaumiyat), namely the muhajirs, really had no place to go. In other words, if they didn’t like it they could lump it!

Not everyone in Pakistan shares Intizar Husain’s mournful longing for a syncretic past or yearns for the sights, sounds, smells and seasons of the beloved land left behind. The second of his trilogy of Partition novels, Aage Samandar Hai, shows that there were many among the Urdu-speaking muhajir who were aspirational, upwardly mobile and keen to shed the ‘baggage’ of the past and had little patience for Intizar sahab’s brand of nostalgia. Two characters in the novel, Tausif and Baji Akhtari, were low-caste Kamboh in the past but have successfully refashioned themselves as high-born Saiyads and remodelled their lives by taking part fully in the nation-building project such as it is; they are exemplars of a new world order. It is in their home that we first encounter the ominous figure of Ghazi sahib who will prove to be the cause of the city’s undoing.

Clad in a green robe, a constantly moving rosary between his fingers, Ghazi sahib is the epitome of a monolithic and inflexible Unitarian Islam with his stern gaze and unforgiving relentlessness towards those he considers not true to the tenets of Islam. Guarded by Kalashnikov-toting ‘volunteers’, he is busy dreaming of a nursery of martyrs, young men he will train to lay down their lives for a larger cause.

What we should mourn

Today, when we mourn the passing of Intizar Husain at the age of 92, let us not merely mourn the passing of a literary legend, the last of the great Urdu writers of our times, a nominee for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, the man who told incredible stories about the Partition with gentleness and humanity and none of the abrasiveness and combativeness of Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander. Let us not merely mourn the loss of a literary giant who was all the more taller for his whimsical humour and ordinariness.

Instead, let us mourn the passing of an era. Let us mourn the loss of a man who understood his country and ours, and who cared for both with enormous empathy and great wisdom. Let us mourn the man who wrote unflinchingly, and with brutal honesty, of a land he made his home and which he undoubtedly loved. For it takes a brave man to speak of the soiling of dreams, to look inwards and outwards, to live in the present and also cherish the past, to live in the ‘here’ and now, while constantly visiting and revisiting the ‘there’ that has been left behind.

Let our tribute be as much to Intizar Husain, the man of letters, as to Intizar Husain, the man of courage and conviction. Let our tribute be to a man who believed in friendship and the joys of a shared past and who, despite all odds, was hopeful of new beginnings. For truly, with Intizar Husain gone, there is a vast emptiness ahead. Who will now speak up about the ominous figure of Ghazi Miyan and others of his ilk? Who will point a figure at the rot within? Who will carry the burden of memories and still own up to the present?

(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, and literary historian. This tribute is drawn from her introduction to The Sea Lies Ahead (HarperCollins, 2015), which she also translated.)

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The Wire

A Pakistani Writer Who Saw Himself as Part of ‘a Great Tradition, as Much Muslim as Hindu’

by Javed Malick

The well known Urdu writer, Intizar Husain passed away on February 2 in Lahore. He was 92 and was ailing for sometime.

Widely regarded as the best fiction writer in the language since Qurratulain Hyder, Husain’s main achievement was the perfection of a unique style of fiction writing, which departed from the mainstream tradition of realistic fiction – developed and enriched by writers like Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, and Ismat Chughtai – and, instead, built on the age-old traditional techniques of story-telling. The corpus of his stories shows his mastery of an extensive range of narrative traditions. He drew upon Babylonian, Greek and Hindu mythologies; Biblical, Quranic and Buddhist texts; magical tales of West Asian and Indian origin; the traditions of the moralistic fable, the Qissa and the Dastan. While his treatment and techniques were traditional, Husain’s concerns were unmistakably contemporary.

Born and educated in Uttar Pradesh, Intizar Husain migrated to Pakistan and settled in Lahore. He began his literary career during the difficult years of the late 1940s. His early writing – like the work of major Urdu writers of that time – described the painful experience of the partition and the accompanying riots. His celebrated novel, Basti concerns a group of people who were uprooted from their homes. Through different characters and their several though different stories, the novel gives powerful expression to the terrible atmosphere of tension and fear and the sense of loss – material as well as spiritual.

Although his more recent novels and stories do not make any direct reference to that difficult period in the history of the subcontinent, they nonetheless reflect a mind, a consciousness that was fundamentally shaped by that traumatic experience. Nostalgic memories of childhood and an anguished, restless quest for happiness; an irresistible longing for transcendence and a simultaneous awareness of the impossibility of such an escape; confusion, anxiety, and a sense of loss – these continued to be the threads of experience with which his stories were woven.

It was 1993 and Husain was visiting India to receive the first Yatra award for “excellence in writing in the Indian subcontinent” (instituted by Rupa and Harper-Collins, India). I met him at the India International Centre where he was staying. He talked to me at length about his work and his views on things of social and cultural significance. Although 23 years have passed since then what he said in the course of that conversation remains very relevant for us even today. Here are some excerpts from a conversation:

What made you abandon the realistic style of writing?

After about 8 to 10 years of writing in that tradition, I began to feel that realistic fiction had reached a dead end and had started repeating itself. The reason was that the social questions of the late 1940s for which realism was the most suitable form of expression had, in the subsequent decades, given way to new questions which required a very different treatment and expression.

What was it in these questions that caused you to turn towards the ancient traditional narratives?

A question that was most vigorously debated in Pakistan during the decades following independence was the question of its history. It was inevitable that such questions should arise. Now we had a new nation state, a new country. But then where did its history begin? Where and what were our roots? Where were the roots of those who had migrated from India? So there was an interesting controversy. Some argued that our history should be traced back to Mohammad Bin Qassim. Others disagreed, and said, no, it begins with Mohenjodaro and Harappa. These new types of questions had a profound influence on our fiction. For example, Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag ka Dariya starts with the Vedic age and proceeds from there. Thus an involvement with history, with questions from the past, was developing in society as in literature. This was the time when I started writing stories that were very different from my earlier work. They were not linear, realistic narratives. I also became increasingly more interested in mythologies and legends, which was perhaps an influence from my childhood.

Many of your stories draw upon Hindu or Buddhist sources. What made you turn to them?

As a Muslim, the stories from the Quran and Islamic history were available to me. As I was working with the Islamic texts and Alif Laila stories, it occurred to me that there is an enormous treasure of old stories which belongs to our own land(the Indian subcontinent). These too are part of our tradition or heritage. I had known them from childhood and was inspired by them. I now tried to use them in my fiction. Buddha fascinated me as a great story teller.

Your mastery of old traditions is very impressive in its range and grasp. How did you manage to acquire such an extensive knowledge of the old texts?

Look, I’m not a scholar. I cannot claim to have made any deep and sustained study of the Hindu or Buddhist texts, or Greek mythology, or the Quran. It is mainly my interest in stories, my interest as a fiction writer, which takes me to these areas. I am really like a greedy person who is always looking for new, interesting stories.

These old tales, for example, the Jatakas, that are found in your writings, have you merely borrowed and reproduced them from the old literary sources or have you fabricated them yourself?

There is no one pattern. I have adopted basically two methods. Sometimes I have taken and reproduced an old tale in its entirety and sometimes I have taken just the basic idea of a tale and then proceeded from there to build a new story on it. Even when I rewrite an old story, I do it with a view to giving it a contemporary slant.

In your story Kishti, (The Boat) you have interestingly combined three distinct traditions: the ancient Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, the Biblical story of Noah, and the Indian legend of Manu.

While reading ancient mythologies, I was struck by the fact that a legend about the great deluge in the distant past is found in Hindu mythology, Judeo-Christian and Islamic texts, as well as in an ancient Babylonian epic. I was haunted by this fact and it finally led to Kishti where I have interwoven all these traditions into one narrative.

Your stories, even though based on old traditional sources, have a distinctly contemporary ring.

But I am mainly involved with the present. All these wanderings into areas of the past are dictated by contemporary concerns. For example, Kishti is not merely a re-telling of old myths but a contemporary piece of fiction. It refers to a modern condition because the people in that story are a troubled, displaced people, people who have lost their homes and are now drifting in a vast, endless expanse of water.

In traditional story-telling there is always a moral attached to a fable. Every story invariably concludes with an explicit message or lesson. But your stories, although based on the techniques and style of these narrative traditions usually end in dilemmas and questions.

I have always been against preaching through literature. True, I have been involved with moralistic stories. But whenever I borrow or rewrite such a story, I always delete the last moralising part. I feel that a story can by itself express whatever it wants to say and that the moral is therefore totally unnecessary.

Why is it that one finds an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the future throughout your writings. There are questions and uncertainties about what is to come.

Anxiety is a global condition today. The future of the entire world has become uncertain. There is a terrible sense of crisis in our part of the world as also elsewhere. It is this sense of a crisis in our collective existence that I have tried to express in these stories.

You have said about yourself, “I am a Muslim but I feel that there is a Hindu sitting inside me.” And again, “I still feel that I am an exile who wanders between Karbala and Ayodhya.” What did you mean?

You see, I am a Muslim by religion. From childhood, Muharram was a big event for me. But I am also from this land and therefore have known and been fascinated by Ram Lilas. I have been inspired and influenced by both. Also in the story of Ram I see the story of a small family which is forced to leave its home and wander through wilderness for many long years. The tale haunted me until I began to see its contemporary significance.

This is really interesting. For there have been and still are certain forces on both sides of the Indo-Pak border who would like to define culture in communal terms by trying to rigidly separate the Hindu and the Muslim elements in our common heritage and history, by disowning and rejecting a large part of that shared culture as alien to a particular religious community.

My position is entirely different. I like to see myself as part of the great tradition to which Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Aulia, and Dara Shukoh as much as Rahim, Raskhan and Jayasi belong. This tradition is as much Hindu as it is Muslim. My stories are a struggle against religious fundamentalism, against mullahism. This trend of attacking culture in the name of religion may be a recent trend in India but we have had to suffer it for a long time in Pakistan. Our serious writers and artists have been fighting precisely against such forces. Because, you see, if we purged our heritage all un-Islamic or Hindu influences, what would remain of our music, our painting, our poetry, or our architecture? After all, our culture is made up of a very wide and complex range of historic influences. Muslim intellectuals are facing such fundamentalist attacks even in countries like Egypt and Algeria. In Egypt, when a new edition of Alif Laila (Thousand and One Nights) was released, the fundamentalists burnt down the entire edition in Cairo because the ancient popular narrative was “un-Islamic.”

Many of your stories can also invite the charge of being “un-Islamic” because they are derived from Hindu and Buddhist sources and portray non-Muslim situations and characters. Did you ever come under attack for writing those stories?

No, because the mullahs generally do not read books. They do not know what is being written in literature until somebody tells them. However, once a Jamat-e-Islami paper criticised my work for dealing with the “un-Islamic” concept of transmigration of souls. But fortunately nobody picked up the issue and the controversy died down.

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Kamila Shamsie On Intizar Hussain’s Novel, Basti
Reimagining the Intimate Sweep of History
February 5, 2016 By Kamila Shamsie

When did I first hear about Intizar Hussain’s Basti? I can’t possibly answer that. Even for someone who grew up reading English almost exclusively it was impossible not to know that Basti was one of the great novels of Pakistan. It was on my “must read” list for years but the stuttering slowness of my Urdu reading meant that it was only when the English translation arrived on my doorstep a few months ago that I actually sat down with both Urdu original and English translation side by side, and plunged in.

How strange to discover it started in the days of the Raj! I’d always thought of it as a novel about 1971. But it was that too. How was such a thing possible? How could any novel, let alone such a slim volume, carry within it the story of both Partitions—that of 1947 as well as 1971—without becoming entirely weighed down? But of course, I quickly remembered as I read on, it is the particular genius of the greatest of writers to find ways to change our concept of what a novel can do between its bindings. Such a writer is Intizar Hussain; such a novel is Basti.

Basti, a word which might refer equally to a group of houses or a sprawling metropolis, works beautifully as a title for a novel that is vast and yet concentrated on the life of an individual, Zakir, who starts as a boy in British India, is a young man in East and West Pakistan and approaches middle-age when his already truncated nation is further truncated into simply the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Summarizing the events of Zakir’s life is a difficult business—he is precisely that character which creative writing teachers warn their students against writing: he drifts through the world, existing more in thought than deed, almost entirely passive. Of course, the wise creative writing teacher would tell students that there is only one rule of writing: if it works, do it. It works.

But why does it work? This is the more difficult question to answer but it must start with the language of the text which sets the story up as both creation myth and prelude to the Fall of Man. Here is Frances Pritchett’s translation:

When the world was still all new, when the sky was fresh and the earth not yet soiled, when trees breathed through the centuries and ages spoke in the voices of birds, how astonished he was, looking all around, that everything was so new, and yet looked so old.

It is in no way a criticism of Pritchett to say that the translation successfully conveys tone and meaning without matching the music of Intizar Hussain’s original.

So, here we are in a prelapsarian world—this is both Zakir’s childhood, the world of innocence, and the world of unpartitioned India in which the boy runs between Bhagat-ji, who is Hindu, and his own father, who is a Muslim scholar, and collects fantastic stories from both about the world’s creation. One tells him the earth rests on the head of an elephant which stands on a tortoise. The other tells him no, the earth rests on the horn of a cow which stands on a fish. Zakir gathers up the stories, and finds no contradiction, only an expansion of his image of the world. This is all Hussain needs to do to signal to us how much will be lost later when Zakir’s family migrates to Pakistan at the time of its creation and leaves behind the multi-religious world in which he grows up. No polemic about plurality is necessary.

It isn’t, of course, a particularly rare novelist who uses story and image to convey an idea—where Hussain’s genius comes through is both in the evocative language of the stories and, later in the book, in the unexpected echo of that beginning. Here is Zakir, considering the earliest days of Pakistan’s existence:

When Pakistan was still all new, when the sky of Pakistan was fresh like the sky of Rupnagar, and the earth was not yet soiled.
[ . . . ]

full text at:

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Badal By Intizar Hussain

Intizar Hussain in conversation with Asif Farrukhi at Jashn-e-Rekhta-2015

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The Wrong Bus, by Intizar Hussain

The following is excerpted from Intizar Hussain’s story “Humsafar,” newly translated by Basharat Peer

2013 English publication of Basti, from NYRB