Books

Narrating the Life of Mohajirs in Today’s Pakistan

Migration and displacement, nostalgia about a pastoral age, decline and disaster run through Intizar Hussain’s classics, The Sea Lies Ahead and Basti.

General Ayub Khan, who reportedly said, "Aage samandar hai" ("The sea lies ahead") to Urdu-speaking mohajirs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

General Ayub Khan, who reportedly said, “Aage samandar hai” (“The sea lies ahead”) to Urdu-speaking mohajirs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Until his death in February 2016, Intizar Husain was often described as possibly the greatest living Urdu writer. After his death, he unambiguously occupies a pedestal with the greatest Urdu writers ever. In Pakistan he was an intellectual and literary figure of eminence. Up to the end of his life, he produced a regular stream of columns in Urdu and English on a diverse range of subjects. He will remain best known for his short stories and novels. Among the latter, Basti (1979) is now a classic and for many, in Pakistan and outside, a literary landmark for looking at Pakistan’s tangled history through the lens of an older, pre-Pakistan past. Basti’s impact was amplified, including for many in Pakistan, when an English translation appeared in 1995. A new edition (same translation) has recently come out from The New York Review Books under its classics series.

Basti exemplified themes now regarded as synonymous with Intizar Hussain. This is a novel centered on an individual who goes through the partition of India in 1947, lives in Pakistan thereafter and witnesses a second partition in 1971. Nostalgia about a golden, almost pastoral pre-partition age, displacement and migration in the hope of a new, better world and finally a loss of hope culminating in disaster: these are the fundamental themes in Basti. But Intizar Hussain widens the frame beyond a Pakistan bookended by 1947 and 1971 and looks at these themes drawing on earlier metaphors such as the Prophet’s own migration or hijra, or the disaster which overtook Delhi during its sack in 1857. Hindu mythology, the life of Buddha and Islamic history were other sources Intizar Hussain drew on to illustrate his reading of Pakistan’s predicament and history.

Credit: NYRB Classics.

Intizar Husain
Basti
NYRB Classics

The mohajir universe

The Sea Lies Ahead takes the story beyond Basti but is more difficult to situate chronologically. The title itself is presumed to derive from a warning by General Ayub Khan to the Urdu speaking mohajirs lest they not support him. “Aage samandar hai,” he is famously believed to have said. In those three words was a dual message: that the mohajirs had nowhere else to go once they had migrated to Pakistan and that they had their back to the sea in a population of indigenous Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluchis and Pathans. But this is not something the book itself informs us. Neither time nor chronology is important in this book since space and sentiment is what really interests Intizar Hussain.

The setting is Karachi and the principal interlocutor is Jawed Hassan, a banker, senior enough, well off, but somehow still not a man in control. His Karachi is almost exclusively the city of mohajirs with their memories of the past – some treasuring these memories, others finding them a burden as their new environment provides new opportunities for mobility. This is also a city of curfews, bomb explosions and frequent random violence – suggesting the 1980s or the early 1990s. There is an elusive reference to Babri Masjid – suggesting much the same time period. In this violence-dominated Karachi, older nexuses continue as if nothing has changed – the vanities of those from Lucknow, the contestation of these by the khari boli speakers of Meerut, the poets of Amroha, the mela of Nauchandi and its parathas. This is totally a diasporic universe as Intizar Hussain gives a rich and dense portrayal of mohajir Karachi – as original towns and villages are remembered and old ties and rivalries continue even as everything else has changed. But this also a universe descending into chaos and at one stage Jawed’s friend, Majju Bhai says to him:

“if you must live in this city, you must stop thinking; or else leave this city”

An India left behind, again and again

This mohajir universe is interrupted by Jawed returning to Vyaspur, his home town in India near Meerut. This is his first visit after the departure at partition, a long gap but whose duration is unspecified, to meet the remnants of the once large family that stayed back.  

Here again time remains elusive, almost as if it is not necessary to Intizaar Hussain’s structure. Memories of the past and the present coalesce here but what makes Jawed return for this visit is never quite clear: is it part guilt, part curiosity, or just nostalgia? Certainly he goes back to see Maimuna again – a cousin to whom he was once betrothed and one of those who stayed back. Jawed, now a widower, could have asked to marry her now but that would be too neat for Intizar Hussain since he is by no means looking for solutions or even endings to current predicaments and very clearly going back is neither. Jawed, despite prompting, does not ask the question. This is a familiar situation for those who have read Basti for there too the principal character chooses not to marry into what has been left behind in India.

Jawed returns, leaving the family behind in its genteel decay, to Karachi in the throes of a different and immeasurably more violent decay. While in India however, Jawed also visits Meerut to visit Khairul Bhai, once at the vanguard of the Pakistan movement, but who also decided to stay back. Jawed asks why he chose not to leave or even visit Pakistan even once, since he was, after all, at the forefront of the movement?  There is only a half answer:

Khairul Bhai was quiet. Then he said, “Yes, that is true. But at that time it was not a country; it was a dream.” And then he added softly, “A dream contains the promise of a morning till it remains a dream but…”And at that very moment his cat, which he had turned away because of me, jumped in. Khairul Bhai cuddled the cat, and he became so engrossed in tickling it that he did not feel the need to complete the statement.

“We are only scared of our own history”

Jawed, back in Karachi, provides the setting for Intizar Hussain to write about its decline and the mohajir quandary by contextualising decay. Jawed is a passive observer but passivity is inevitable since political and social decay is almost a natural force – witnessed equally by the destruction of Krishna’s city Dwarka or the fall of the great Islamic capitals in medieval Spain- Cordoba, Granada, Seville. This is a sombre and dark narrative but beautifully and lightly written. It is almost as if Intizar Hussain has no need to add detail or draw inferences, since he knows that his readers understand this narrative and he is only writing what they feel and know. Jawed is told by another friend, Mirza Saheb:

“Jawed Miyan, this isn’t only about the present times. The Muslims have never done good to themselves. When the hurt becomes unbearable, I tell myself: Mirza Dilawar Baig, what are you complaining about? Just think of all that has been happening in your history. We are not scared of anyone; we are only scared of our own history.” He was quiet for a moment and then he began to mutter, “We had our Maulana Hali. May Allah have mercy on him! What a Mussadas he wrote. My father used to read it and weep…’Go and see the ruins of Cordoba…’ And at that point he would begin to cry uncontrollably. And he would say, “ Why go there to see the ruins? Is there any shortage of things here to learn a lesson from?”    

Nostalgia and a pastoral past, migration and displacement, decline and disaster are the themes that also run through The Sea Lies Ahead as they did in Basti

Credit: Harper Perennial.

Intizar Husain
The Sea Lies Ahead
Harper Perennial.

History, mythology and memory fuse in a dense, complex and often opaque fog as we accompany Jawed in his journey which has no clear end. There are multiple meanings condensed here and it would be too easy to set these books only against the differing impacts in Pakistan of the partitions of 1947 and 1971. Like Basti, The Sea Lies Ahead is not an easy book for the uninitiated. Intizar Hussain rarely, if ever, makes allowances, demanding instead the reader’s patience as he draws you in step by step, slowly but surely.

A pre-eminent chronicler of Pakistan’s present

Rakhshanda Jalil’s brilliant translation nevertheless makes Intizar Hussain available to a larger audience and her brief introduction situates him and his work in the larger canon of partition literature from Pakistan. As she notes in the beginning of her fine essay, “…there has never been a uniform, unvariegated, one dimensional response to the partition among the Muslim intellectuals.” These sentiments and debates continue today in different forms. The most obvious and ironical of these is the one concerning the mohajir identity in Pakistan, and indeed of its persistence and consolidation over seven decades in urban Sindh.

There is the even greater irony of mohajirs being viewed as a fifth column or, even worse, as Indian agents by many in Pakistan today. Then there is the historians’ debate about the Pakistan movement: was it a bargaining chip which acquired a life of its own, an ‘insufficiently imagined’ Pakistan or one into which great deal of thought went, or was there a more elemental process at work of Muslims deeply cherishing the notion of living in a well-defined Islamic space? These debates will continue as indeed will Pakistan’s evolution into something different from what was originally envisaged.

Finally, there are many in Pakistan who question some fundamentals of Intizar Hussain, in particular his nostalgia for a pastoral past or the location of Pakistan in the backdrop of a much older history. For many others however, if Manto is the articulation of the diverse and contradictory impulses of the early years of Pakistan’s existence, and Faiz of its middle period, Intizar Hussain certainly commands the heights when it comes to narrating the Pakistan of today.

The author served as Deputy High Commissioner and later as High Commissioner to Pakistan. He retired from the last post in December 2015.