The Personal Is Political, But Not Always Fictional

The Personal Is Political, But Not Always Fictional

The Personal Is Political, But Not Always Fictional

What is the novelist Intizar Husain’s theory of Pakistani history?


In an overly simplistic but nevertheless thought-provoking 1986 essay, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Frederic Jameson made the following claim:

Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic, necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.

Whatever we make of Jameson’s explanation for this—capitalism, he claims, has failed to separate public and private life in the Global South—there’s no denying that he spotted a major trend. From Chinua Achebe to Maryse Condé, José Donoso to Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie to Juan Rulfo (the list goes on and on), a great many 20th-century postcolonial writers have portrayed the personal as the geopolitical, telling their nation’s story through their individual characters’ lives.

This has not been an unequivocally good thing. For every J.M. Coetzee (whose Disgrace brutally reminded white South Africans that a decade of “diversity” did not atone for apartheid) or Ernesto Sabato (whose Abaddon, the Exterminator basically prophesied the darkest years of Argentina’s “Dirty War”), the form has had to endure the cynical intentions of countless authors who believed it offered a flashy way around the old novelistic challenges: gripping characters, setting, plot. The case of Pakistani writer Intizar Husain is instructive here.

* * *

Born in 1925, in the North Indian town of Dibai, Husain grew up in an anti-Western Shiite household and was educated at a madrassa. Perhaps in rebellion against his conservative upbringing, he went on to get an MA in Urdu literature and decided to become a writer. He graduated in 1946. A year later, the subcontinent exploded with sectarian violence as it was partitioned by the departing imperial government. Responding to a radio broadcast by his mentor, the critic Muhammad Hasan Askari, Husain then immigrated to Lahore. In the political and cultural capital of the newly independent Pakistan, he quickly established himself as a poet, journalist, and short-story writer. His major theme, in the words of the literary critic and translator Asif Farrukhi, was “the search for roots after the disruption of partition.”

Husain continued working in shorter forms until 1971, when Pakistan entered its next major crisis. “All at once,” he said in a 2005 interview, reflecting on his experience of the Bangladesh Liberation War,

I felt that 1947 had again come alive within me. That whole period before and during 1947 came back to me so sharply and intensely that without thinking what I should do with it, without planning to make it into a novel…I just went on writing and writing.

This creative torrent resulted in Basti, which is today considered a seminal novel of postwar Pakistan.

Set in 1971 and narrated from a perspective that shifts, glissando, between first- and close third-person, Basti is the story of Zakir, a romantic and slightly airheaded professor of history who lives in a fictional city that closely resembles Lahore. The novel’s first 50 pages comprise an extended flashback: Zakir shares his creator’s essential biography—the birth in small-town North India, the hard-line Shiite father, the bookishness, the postindependence migration—and, like him, is experiencing a sudden release of memory because of the Bangladesh War:

It was strange; he began to wonder at himself. The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts.

What we have, then, is a Proustian setup with political overtones, a rich mixture of the public and private, and a perfect example of Jameson’s “national allegory.” But the formulation is not so simple. Husain frames Zakir’s life in explicitly political terms (war sirens, not a madeleine), but Zakir himself views his natio­n’s history as an escape from its current reality, not a way to better understand it. Confronted by the post-riot wreckage of his college campus, for instance, he doesn’t lament the deteriorating political conditions, but simply rues its effect on his calm: “He had left the house richly drenched in memories…detached from the outside world. But…now it was no longer possible for him to take advantage of…leisure and solitude.”

Basti opens in medias res with Zakir’s earliest memories of Rupnagar (roughly, “beautiful city”), a small, largely preindustrial North Indian town. The novel then proceeds briskly, immersively, and episodically through his childhood and adolescence (with occasional flash-forwards meant to reassert the fictive setup). These early reminiscences are far and away the best things in the book. In graceful (though perfumed) prose, Husain conjures the unceasing wonders of early childhood and the social rhythms of small-town life.

Husain’s narrative ostensibly remains tethered to his protagonist, but his focus gradually shifts to Zakir’s surroundings. This is interesting at first, and the portrait of a harmoniously secular society and its inhabitants that emerges is Basti’s most important legacy. But these secondary characters remain one-dimensional, and they don’t interest Zakir. Which raises a fundamental question: Why are they being remembered? The question grows only more urgent and troubling once capsule cultural histories enter the text. Here, for example, is a passage about the (non)arrival of modernity:

When the electric poles arrived for the first time and were stacked here and there along the roads, what a revolutionary event it seemed to be! A thrill ran through all Rupnagar. People paused in their progress, and looked with wonder at the tall iron poles lying there…. Days passed, the curiosity diminished. Layers of dust settled on the poles. Gradually they grew as dusty as the heaps of stone chips which had been brought there in some prosperous time to repair the roads—but which had then been forgotten and had become a part of the dust-choked landscape of Rupnagar.

This is moving, even elegiac. But does it have anything to do with what Zakir feels? In either case, Husain has totally mishandled the Proustian recollection. The drama here is too resigned for us to associate it with a child. The units of time are likewise impossibly large and adult. The perspective is artificially social. And that exclamation point is just ridiculous. The passage, while it abounds in a cultural essay’s refined nostalgia, lacks fiction’s fierce intimacy. “National reality” is not being allegorized; it has simply taken the place of character.

Basti, then, is a novel that aspires to the status of national allegory, but fails to do the fictional or historical work required to get those lenses properly lined up.

For decades now, Husain has been praised in Pakistan for  “restaging orientalism,” as the novelist Aamer Hussein puts it, and evoking his country’s lost pluralist heritage. But his books have only very recently made their way to the Anglophone world. Frances W. Pritchett first translated Basti from the Urdu for India’s HarperCollins in 1995. Her superb rendition of it was then reissued by New York Review Books Classics in 2013, the same year Husain was nominated for the International Man Booker Prize. The latter event probably increased interest in his enormous back catalog. Now, a few months after his death, Seagull Books has published Death of Sheherzad, an oeuvre-spanning selection of his short fiction, newly translated by the Indian writer and historian Rakshanda Jalil. The stories suffer an extreme version of the same problem that strained Basti.

* * *

How do I begin to describe these pretentious, weightless, repetitive, and feeble-minded stories? Perhaps with a quote from the translator’s preface. “A dream-like quality pervades much of Intizar Husain’s writings,” Jalil observes:

[It] serves to muffle the sense of time and space, making [these] stories at once topical and universal—free from their moorings in time, place and circumstance. His characters become Everyman, his context Anywhere where there is strife and turmoil.

Indeed, Husain’s stories are “free from their moorings” of place and time, but also of emotion and intelligence. They are fatally immaterial; worse still, they irritatingly and ineffectually hanker for the status of depth

The stories collected in Death of Sheherzad fall into three general categories: postwar melodrama, absurdist parable, and mythological episode. The first includes aphasic tough-guy encounters like “Sleep” (in which a recently returned soldier, unable to recount his experiences in the 1971 war, falls asleep as his friends pester him about it) and “Captive” (in which two soldiers similarly fail to share their respective wartime experiences). These sound intriguing enough in summary, but read like the work of a macho high-schooler trying to imitate Hemingway. I could list the aesthetic sins—flat surfaces that conceal no terror, a total absence of narrative tension—but it’s Husain’s moral posturing that truly grates. From “Sleep”:

All four friends met in the evening. The three looked at Salman in utter amazement and Salman looked at them, equally bemused. Aslam expressed their collective astonishment at his escape, then spoke of his sorrow at the state of affairs there…. Zafar looked at him and asked, “What do you think, Salman?”

Aslam pounced, “Yes, let’s ask Salman. He has lived there for so many years. He has seen everything with his own eyes. What do you think, Salman?”

“I think…” Salman said and fell into contemplative silence.

Zafar became impatient. He prodded, “Yes, come on, tell us. Say something.”

“What shall I say?”

Zafar sneered, “Scared of commitment?”

“Commitment?” Salman gaped uncomprehendingly.

Aslam spoke forcefully, “Let’s hear what you have to say about the situation there.”

Somewhat uncertainly, Salman said, “Yaar, I don’t know what to make of it.”

What is the purpose of this vernacular dithering? In “Soldier’s Home,” Hemingway talked around his subject as a way of suggesting it was beyond words. But Husain makes no attempt to address Salman’s suffering; he simply borrows the device to take a cheap shot at the bugaboo of “political discussion.” This is, of course, a continuation of the project that he began in Basti. In the place of the personal, Husain presents the national, the political. But he presents it in a way that drains it of all interest and meaning.

The second category of stories includes circular fables like “Those Who Are Lost” (in which four men fleeing an unnamed conflict forget who they are and what they are fleeing) and “The Wall” (four men confront a mysteriously alluring wall that kills all those who cross it). Jalil describes them as “existential” and claims they emanate a “haunting sense of dislocation.” What she’s suggesting here is that they express the tortured feelings of Indian Muslims who emigrated to Pakistan. That’s a fine idea and a very important subject. But Husain’s contrived and thinly textured fables lack the human weight to tap into any collective unconscious.

Category three involves mythological episodes. I could describe them, but their earnest titles—“The Sage and the Butcher”; “The Story About the Monkeys of the Big Forest”; “Dream and Reality”—are revealing enough. Besides, it’s time we addressed the elephant in the room.

It is barbarous to criticize translators. Underpaid, under-recognized, regarded with ignorant hostility by readers and reviewers, they somehow surmount the tremendous chauvinism of Anglophone publishing to do their invaluable work. Given the contemporary ignorance of Pakistani culture in the United States (but also, and more scandalously, in India), Pritchett’s and Jalil’s projects deserve special praise. But good intentions do not equate with good literature. I am sorry to say that Jalil’s work is below second-rate.

Death of Sheherzad is full of careless repetitions, wooden constructions, avoidable gerunds, and tone-deaf dialogue. It is an alibi, not an experience—the German poet Michael Hofmann’s useful differentiation for translations—and an embarrassing one from start to end. The main problem is that Jalil has made no attempt to find an English register that conveys the spirit, let alone the music, of Husain’s prose. On a more basic level, one can’t understand how the following phrases (culled at random) got past an editor: “Zafar looked dagger at him”; “The youth spoke in a disbelieving tone”; “The question lay in their lips but in their eyes”; “Mandaris spoke in a majestic but somber tone, and fell silent”; “Buses, cars, taxis, rickshaws and, most of all, scooters…there was a veritable storm of traffic!”

But I’m being pedantic in my fixation on the texture of the prose. What’s the point of a refined finish when we’re dealing with a rotten product?

* * *

National allegories are fed by two metaphysics: an author’s personal understanding of life, and what Flaubert called his or her “philosophy of history.” By superimposing the two, a national allegory presumes that our personal fate and the fate of our country are intertwined. Consequently, it offers us, through its story, a single attitude toward both.

What is Intizar Husain’s theory of Pakistani history? The Urdu scholar Muhammad Umar Memon describes it well in his 1995 essay on Basti. After reducing Zakir’s memories of India into a long splotch of local color, Husain entirely ignores the violence of partition—which, given its spontaneous nature, the Pakistani writer Khalid Hassan argued is “more horrifying than the Third Reich”—and then shows how Zakir more or less ignores two decades of Pakistani reality in a magic-realist torpor. Addressing this inward retreat, Memon argues that Zakir’s behavior is based on “a particular view of history—one shaped in the crucible of Karbala.”

This is a reference to the Quranic story of Imam Husain, a Shiite leader whose tragic betrayal and heroic death are touchstones for the religion. According to Memon, Zakir “walks through a time and space with the graphic memory of Shiite suffering.” Since the imam’s suffering is everlasting, Zakir is unperturbed by the comparatively trivial disasters of his own life and times. “Where, in the Shiite world-view, have government and authority ever been anything other than corrupt?” Memon continues. “Events in East Pakistan seem to be merely a replay of the earlier Islamic civil wars. A history in which brother kills brother is being re-enacted with inexorable normative force.”

The fictional implications of this worldview, and its extreme manifestation in Death of Sheherzad, are clear. By placing his characters in an ancient cultural continuum, Husain elevates their suffering but rejects its causes. Is this a useful interpretation of their world?

Pakistan was founded on the belief that people from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds would be united under the banner of a religion. Very quickly, this was proven to be false. Economically backward Sindhis resented the Urdu-speaking Muslims from India who first migrated to the region. Both, in turn, felt that the real power lay with the elite Punjabi-speaking Muslims who lived in the north. Two decades after independence, Bengali-speaking East Pakistan separated to form its own country, present-day Bangladesh. A similar revolt in Baluchistan had to be suppressed.

This sundering cannot be explained away in cultural terms. Unlike India, which inherited most of the imperial government’s democratic structures, Pakistan had to set up its own, and was largely betrayed by its politicians in the process. The situation grew far worse when, in 1958, Field Marshal Ayub Khan inaugurated what was to become a national tradition of coups and countercoups that has made civilian rule an anomaly rather than the norm. But even the country’s poor political infrastructure cannot completely explain how the Taliban, which grew out of the political vacuum created by the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, has today become the formidable force that terrorizes, and even legislates in, large parts of Pakistan.

Husain, an atheist himself, obviously does not believe that ancient religious dicta can explain all these events. But by presenting them as the inevitable recurrence of religious tragedy (something like an Islamic version of Walter Benjamin’s pitiless “angel of history”), but without expressing the attendant passion and sorrow, he propagates a form of escapism that is morally, politically, and imaginatively suspect. Morally, because it denies the violence and deprivation experienced by so much of his country. Politically, because its nationalistic concept of a Muslim state delegitimizes the separatist struggles of various ethnic groups. Imaginatively, because it doesn’t offer contemporary readers a way of thinking about their life.

It must be stressed—and for a Western audience, this cannot be stressed enough—that Husain confronted a herculean task. What novelist would want to address such a dismal and intimidating history? Wouldn’t he or she be tempted to turn, as most American novelists do, away from it and toward more narrowly psychological subject matter? While this may be true enough, it is condescending to forgive Husain on such grounds. Besides, that would also overlook the work of his younger peers.

A remarkable generation of contemporary Pakistani writers—Kamila Shamsie, Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid, Mohammad Hanif, and Daniyal Mueenuddin are the most illustrious names—has proven, using forms ranging from satire (Hanif) to sharp fantasy (Aslam), that an ostensibly delicate form like the novel can carry the heavy cargo of national history. Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, for example, tells the largely forgotten story of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Muslim freedom fighter who opposed the British Raj and the creation of Pakistan. It does this without recourse to flashy formal conceits. Isn’t that the pluralist tradition that Husain set out to recover?

A novelist like Aslam goes further, presenting a world in which history makes itself visible everywhere. “It is possible here,” he writes in The Wasted Vigil, “to lift a piece of bread from a plate and, following it back to its origins, collect a dozen stories concerning war—how it affected the hand that pulled it out of the oven, the hand that kneaded the dough, how war impinged upon the field where the wheat was grown.” Following his intuition, Aslam has written a trilogy of unflinching novels that connect several national histories through its characters’ terrible lives. In their human richness and political insight, they offer answers (or rather raise questions) that Husain simply skirts.

Finally, the Urdu poetry of Afzal Ahmed Syed (who was also born in pre-independence North India) suggests that Pakistani history is an inescapable component of its aesthetics. “Instead of the white jasmine,” his poem “Our National Tree” begins,

we proclaim the acacia as our national tree
It does not line the campuses of US colleges
is nowhere to be found in tropical gardens
remains untouched by the ikebana practitioners
Biologists do not classify acacia as a tree
because it does not support hangings

Acacia is the shrub
with which our cities, our deserts
and our poetry is replete
We are much taken with
the spinous acacia
that kept our soil from being washed away into the Arabian Sea.

Cheeky, cutting, self-accusing, and fiercely moral: This is national allegory at its best (though not what Jameson had in mind when he coined the phrase). Rather than rehearsing a mock history lesson, Syed has looked within himself to find a soul deformed by historical circumstances. His poem may not describe a Pakistani city. But it teaches us how to live there.

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