What was the biggest wound of the partition? In Intizar Hussain’s novella Dastan, old Hakim Ali, known for regaling people with the rich repertory of his tales, laments not about the communal riots, but at the “loss of dastans”, the tales that “made Tilism-e-Hoshruba seem like dust in comparison”. With the tales now “left behind in Hindustan”, his “entire library of dastans looted”, Ali is under profound grief. Ali’s grief is as much a metaphor as it mirrors a civilisation. A nation nourishes its memory through its tales. The easiest way to kill a nation is to destroy its tales.
Hussain’s Day and Dastan, a translation of his two Urdu novellas by Nishat Zaidi and Alok Bhalla, confirms his reputation as a major storyteller of the subcontinent. A writer who effortlessly fuses the best traditions of Islamic and Sanskrit cultures, for whom the story is an art and also the measure of a civilisation. He recreates myths and legends of the past and illuminates them with references to the present. His is an elliptical narrative that seamlessly spans across centuries in just a few pages. The novella Dastan traverses the sorrow of several epochs and heroes, Sher Shah Suri to Tipu Sultan, the 1857 revolt to the partition. Day is about migrants whose past never leaves them. The narrative of Dastan resembles a fable, Day is told in a realistic mode; both weave the poetry of loss.
In his finest creative moments, Hussain infuses new meanings in old legends. Two of his stories published elsewhere may be noted here. One recreates an Islamic legend, another Sanskrit. In Scheherazade Ki Maut, the young protagonist of Arabian Nights now lives in the palace and has become a grandmother. She suddenly realises that she has forgotten the tales she had narrated to the king decades ago to save her life. The loss of the tales she had woven earlier to mesmerise the king mirrors the loss of her identity.
Jabala Ka Poot (The Son of Jabala) is a wonderful retelling of the tale of the great Brahmin Satyakama contained in the Chhandogya Upanishad. Hussain chooses Jabala, a woman who was not sure about the father of her son Satyakama as she had been attending to many (men), to remind us that the subcontinent needs to return to its ancient tales that were more modern and inclusive than many contemporary works.
It’s also a reminder of the era in which Sanskrit and Islamic traditions were not seen as inevitable political opponents. The Upanishads, after all, were translated into Persian by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh.
Born in a small town of UP, Hussain moved to Pakistan after partition, a loss that recurs in his tales. Since then, Hussain, who was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, has been extensively translated into Hindi. The contemporary politics that tries to create a communal rift between the two languages has not dented his reputation as one of the most adorable Urdu writers of the Hindi heartland. Bhalla has translated his earlier work too. Day and Dastan may not rank among the best fiction of Hussain, but marks a significant contribution to his writings available in English.
A fiction writer and journalist, the author is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla