Translation of celebrated Urdu novel Basti reveals search for a homeland

The new edition of one of the great works of the pre-eminent Urdu writer Intizar Husain on the partition of India through the eyes of an average citizen often falls flat.

Muslim refugees trying to flee India in 1947. About five million Muslims migrated to Pakistan after India gained independence.
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Intizar Husain (translated by Frances W Pritchett)
NYRB Classics

After having his evening disrupted by an angry mob outside his window, Zakir, the everyman hero of Urdu author Intizar Husain's 1979 novel Basti, reflects "so much anxiety, so much indifference". Zakir is thinking about the agitation and confusion sown by the 1947 partition of India, he may as well be summing up the feel of Husain's strange novel. Generally acclaimed as one of the great works by the greatest living Urdu writer, Basti is the most recent of several of Husain's novels to be translated into English, though the writer remains poorly known in this language. It tells the tale of the partition of India from the alternatively anxious and indifferent perspective of a man who, like many of the time, simply wants to live his life in a place he can call home.

Basti begins with Zakir's youth in a pre-partition, and largely pre-modern, Rupnagar, India. Here in the early days of the 20th century, the lamp in the goldsmith's shop "was the whole supply of light" for the town, and the construction of electric lights is met with curiosity and awe. Husain aims to give this short novel an epic scope, narrating from these primitive beginnings through the Second World War and up to a modernising India and Pakistan. His narration tends to come in short, intense bursts, with little scene-setting or even identification of characters. Some scenes, set off only by context, deal with a fantasia occurring inside of Zakir's head, while others employ journals and letters. What results is a very modernistic pastiche, which, combined with Basti's minimalistic prose, tends to impose a distance between us and the very dramatic historical events around which the novel is built.

Very little of the partition actually appears in Basti, although this is in keeping with Husain's oblique approach to the subject. Zakir remains on the sidelines of the upheaval, with Husain's "hero" simply wandering in search of a place to settle, taking in the tumult along the way. Along the way we meet Zakir's family, his friends, and his romantic interest, the beautiful, sassy Sabirah, but in the grips of Husain's brisk, whip-fast prose, the characters feel desiccated, more props than people. Only Zakir, whose voice frequently narrates, comes across as a fully embodied, memorable character.

When the partition does arrive, Husain presents it with little advanced notice, and he persists in consistently situating it off-screen over the course of the novel. This, combined with the book's jumbled chronology, gives the monumental historical event a strange air, as though it is incidental to the story Husain wants to tell yet also clearly central to Basti's narrative. Notably, when the action does brush up against the chaos of the partition, Husain frequently places us in the position of a political outsider, conveying a sense a dislocation that feels appropriate. At one point, as an angry procession passes by a cafe, an elderly man asks a member of the young generation, "please tell me, what's all this that's happening?" The reply leaves both us and the elderly man in the dark: "What's happening is what ought to happen." This approach has the benefit of sketching the generational divide in clear terms while conveying a sense of the uncertainty of the times, but the account lacks nuance and depth. Husain claims to have devoted his career to understanding the partition, yet in Basti it seems that he is much more interested in evoking the feel of the crisis than intellectually deconstructing it.

At its best, this understated, prosaic writing successfully captures Zakir's alienation from his homeland and the way this relationship develops amid the tumult of history, but it can also occasionally feel too taut for its own good. What Husain most commonly evokes here is the existential emptiness and confusion that is Zakir's lot in the face of great historical forces. In one dense, lengthy paragraph that describes the partition's reverberations across the land, Zakir stares confusedly at the political posters that have been plastered over the walls amid the chaos. But as he looks at the posters he seems unable to read them, as though the turmoil has induced aphasia in him and his countrymen. "People walk along in the spell of posters and slogans," he thinks, "ignorant of the handwriting on the wall."

As he ruminates, Zakir's mind drifts to the feet of the passersby, which Husain pitches as anonymous, disembodied footsteps, before coming to rest on himself: "a sudden impression came to him that the sound of his footsteps was gradually drawing away from his footsteps … where am I walking? On what earth are my footsteps falling?"

Basti's strength is just this evocation of the depopulated, confused landscape and how Husain leverages it to depict Zakir's struggles to make sense of the newly formed Pakistan. Such images of Zakir's alienation contrast sharply with an earlier scene where he, just arrived in Pakistan, manages to find some semblance of home. Searching for the familiar neem tree, which he fondly recalls from his youth, Zakir must settle for a foreign banyan. Husain's description of the moment speaks volumes about the human experience behind the historical details of the partition: "To say anything against the banyan just then would have been the height of ingratitude. Its shade was thick and cool. The grass spread out beneath it, all green and soft … I was remembering my lost trees. Lost trees, lost birds, lost faces." In moments like this, Zakir's pursuit of a homeland offers just enough of an emotional core to ground Basti, giving the novel some pathos amid its hopscotching, challenging style of narration.

Although Husain's prose in Frances W Pritchett's translation is generally muscular and efficient, occasionally it crosses over into dullness and cliché. For instance, describing the devastation that the plague visits on pre-partition India, Husain writes, "Now death was an inescapable reality. The dying died in silence. Those who arranged the funeral procession looked exhausted. How tired he himself had grown! A funeral procession passed, and he just stood there, staring at the empty street." A charitable interpretation might gratify this writing with a stoic sense of restraint, but whereas the best minimalist writing manages to make the quotidian feel fresh, Pritchett's translation often just feels flat. So frequently do we hear how "their hearts overflowed, and their eyes filled with tears" that one must conclude that in these moments the prose tends more toward laziness than economy. Undoubtedly, at least some of these shortcomings have been introduced in the translation (in her introduction, Pritchett outlines the many "intractable problems" the text confronted her with). Still, without any knowledge of Urdu, one can say that the overreliance on the exclamation "Yar" grates, and one hopes that Husain's dialogue did not originally contain lines like, "Since I left, haven't you made some experiments in love."

Basti ends on something of a dour note, with Zakir and his friends surveying a bloodied landscape in which, in the words of Zakir's friend Afzal, "people have grown cruel." Tellingly, the Shiraz, a hangout that has consistently served as a surrogate home for Zakir and his friends as they watch the drama of the partition unfold, is now "burned" and "smashed", its "doors and walls … covered with soot".

With Husain draping his men with the deepening shadows of twilight, it makes for a morose ending to a book that frequently wallows in the longing and insecurity of transition. This ending is only partially lightened by the hope that Zakir's on-and-off romance with Sabirah might now bear fruit.

One must commend Basti for its strange, melancholy approach to the partition of India, though its successes only partially compensate for its failures. A book that perhaps works a little too hard to frustrate a reader's expectations, it is nonetheless a worthwhile complement to the more lush, consciously historical novelisations of the subcontinent's tumultuous history.

Scott Esposito is the author of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Literary Movement, forthcoming from Zero Books.