Wajh-e-begangi nahin maloom? Tum jahan ke ho wahan ke hum bhi hain. (Why do you call us strangers? You belong to the same place that I do.)
Perhaps these lines best express the faith of Intizar Husain, one of Pakistan’s leading short story writers, who has admitted with disarming honesty: “I have always felt there is a Hindu sitting inside me.” While growing up in India may not have prevented his departure post-Partition, it left him with the nostalgia of a childhood in UP, amidst Hindu neighbours, watching the Ram Lila, participating in community rituals, oblivious of a divided world which would soon separate them. It has also given him the felicity and strength to write with equal conviction, whether it is about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or just human relationships, set both in India and Pakistan.
These are no borders or boundaries for this writer, he does not need the artifice of passports to paint his literary canvas, as he understands only too well the hurt and wounded pride beneath the skin of these two nations, carved from each other’s flesh.
A Chronicle of the Peacocks: Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories By Intizar Husain Translated from the Urdu by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil OUP; Rs 395In this remarkable collection of short stories, which smashes just about every stereotype we might have of the Pakistani mind, the most powerful is “A Chronicle of the Peacocks” (Morenama). A gently allegorical tale, it links the recent competitive testing of nuclear weapons to the Mahabharata, specifically the persistent shadow of Ashwatthama, who released the Brahmastra and then refused to recall it. In the epic, the savage destruction that followed almost wiped out the Pandavas. The last survivor, Parikshit, asks sorrowfully when he is king: “Why did the Kauravas and Pandavas fight knowing that war destroys everything?” In Morenama, the narrator is haunted both by Ashwatthama, who has refused to fade away from either side of the border, and by Parikshit’s question on war.
Indeed, Husain belongs more to “our” subcontinent than to a “Pakistan” or “Hindustan”. The sentiments he holds out to us are universal — whether they reside in the surreal “The City of Sorrows” (Shahre-e Afsos) or in the ironical “An Unwritten Epic” (Ek Bin Likhi Razmiya). Unlike Morenama these two stories are firmly moored in the tragic events of 1947, violent memories that Husain still is trying to understand. Shahr-e-Afsos is particularly eerie as dead men try to identify their own corpses and cannot recognise themselves.
The Jataka parables are also re-interpreted by Husain and contain his own search for the truth, and the contradictions within. So, we may find that the Bhikshu does not turn his face away from the temptation life offers. In fact, he may discover his salvation within that, or he may be left wondering which path to take.
One very welcome addition to this collection is a conversation between Intizar Husain and Alok Bhalla. (Unfortunately, the other fine translator of the stories, Vishwamitter Adil, died just before the book was printed). Through this dialogue we learn that Husain has tried to combine eastern and western styles of storytelling. The eastern style in which stories flow from each other blends into the western style where the stories are discrete.
Interestingly, Husain also elaborates his theory of the similarities between the partition of India and the exile, migration and division of kingdoms depicted in the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. As he says, “The frustration felt by the Pakistanis seemed to be like the frustration of the Pandavas. Indians should understand that what happened in 1947 was akin to what was often described in their traditions.”
For those among us who cannot access Husain in the original, this book definitely provides a rare glimpse of a writer who is bold enough to openly acknowledge his joint heritage... demonstrating yet again that when true freedom dwells in the mind, it cannot be partitioned.