Excerpt

Basti

Intizar Husain, trans. Frances W. Pritchett

February 5, 2016 
The following is from Intizar Husain's novel, Basti. Husain (1925–2016) was a journalist, short-story writer, and novelist, widely considered one of the most significant fiction writers in Urdu. Born in Dibai, Bulandshahr, in British-administered India, he migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and lived in Lahore. Besides Basti, he was the author of two other novels, Naya Garand Agay Sumandar Hai.

But every action in that town seemed to be spread out over the centuries. The caravan of nights and days passed so slowly there, as though it weren’t moving at all, but had halted. Whatever came to rest somewhere settled down and stayed there. When the electric poles arrived for the first time and were stacked here and there along the roads, what a revolutionary event that 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.

“So is electricity coming to Rupnagar?”

“It sure is.”

“Swear on my life?”

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“I swear on your life.”

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. Now the poles too were a part of the dust-choked landscape. It seemed that they had lain there forever, and would lie there forever. The affair of electricity was already a thing of the past. Every day when evening fell, the lamplighter appeared, ladder on his shoulder and oil-can in his hand, and went around lighting the various lanterns fixed to wooden posts or hanging from high walls. “Hey, you, Vasanti! It’s dusk, light the lamp!” With her tawny complexion, fresh young face, rumpled sari, forehead adorned with a dot, bare feet thup-thupping, she came to the doorway. She put a wick into the lamp in the wall-niche, lighted it, turned and promptly went back into the house, without looking toward him as he stood in his own doorway staring at her. In the small Bazaar, Bhagat-ji put a drop of mustard-oil in the lamp on the dirty lamp-stand, lit it, and considered that his shop had been illuminated. By the gutter near Bhagat-ji’s shop, Mataru lit a torch and anchored it in the ground by his tray, and a few seconds later called out, “Ginger-chips!” But the brightest light was in Lala Hardayal the Goldsmith’s shop, where a lamp hung from the roof, its light reaching beyond the shop and making a spot of brightness in the street. In the town, this was the whole supply of light. And even this—for how long? One by one the shops closed. In the niches by the doors the flickering lamps grew dim and finally burned themselves out. Then only the lanterns fixed to wooden posts glimmered on a few street corners. All the rest was nothing but darkness. Still, in that darkness, wide-open eyes saw a great deal.

“Bi Amma! Last Thursday it happened, just at twilight. When I passed by the village hall, I thought I heard a woman sobbing. I looked this way, I looked that way, no one at all. Near the door of the hall, there was a black cat sitting. My heart almost stopped beating! I shooed the cat away. When I went on, ai, what did I see, but on the wall of the old lady’s house by the neem tree, the same cat! I shooed it away again. From the wall, it jumped down inside. When I went on and came out by the lane with the high well—ai, Bi Amma, believe me, there was the same cat again! It was sitting on Lala Hardayal’s terrace, sobbing the way a woman would sob. I was petrified!”

“God have mercy upon us,” Bi Amma said apprehensively, and she fell silent.

But there was no mercy. Two or three days later, Sharifan came with more news: “Ai, Bi Amma! All over the neighborhood, so many rats are dying!”

“Truly?”

“Oh yes, when I passed by the rubbish pile, I saw them lying dead in heaps.”

First the rats died, then people began to die. From outside came the chant of “Ram nam satya hai.”

“Oh Sharifan, just look and see who’s died.”

“Bi Amma, Pyare Lal’s son Jagdish has died.”

Hai hai! He was a strong healthy young man, how did he die?”

“Bi Amma, pustules came out on his body, and in a few hours he was dead, just like that.”

“Pustules? You wretch, what are you saying?”

“Oh yes, Bi Amma! I’m telling the truth. The plague—”

“That’s enough, keep your mouth shut! In a house full of people you shouldn’t mention the name of that ruinous disease.”

Pustules came out on Jagdish, then on Pandit Dayaram, then on Misra-ji. Then they kept coming out on other people. Funeral processions left from one house, then another house, then house after house. Bi Amma and Sharifan together kept count of them, up to ten. Then they lost count. In a single day, such a number of houses sent out funeral processions! As evening came near, the streets and lanes grew empty. No sounds of footsteps, no voices of laughing and talking people. Not to speak of all the rest, today even Chiranji and his harmonium had fallen silent—Chiranji who through winters, summers, rainy seasons, used to sit every night on the terrace with his harmonium and sing,

“Laila, Laila, I called out in the forest,
Laila lives in my heart.”

When morning came, the feel of the town was utterly changed. Here and there a shop was open, all the rest were closed. Some houses had already been locked up, others were being locked up now. In front of one house a bullock-cart stood, in front of another a horse-cart. People were going, the town was emptying out. The town was emptied both ways: some people left the town, others left the world.

“Bi Amma, more Hindus are dying.”

“Bibi, when cholera comes the Muslims die, when plague comes the Hindus die.”

But then the plague ceased to distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. More funeral processions came out to the sound of the kalimah as well.

“Daughter-in-law! Keep Zakir inside, he’s constantly going out.”

“Bi Amma, the boy won’t obey me.”

“All right, if he goes out to look any more, I’ll break his legs!” But no threat had any effect on him. The sound of “Ram nam satya” came—and he dashed out to the front door. Behind the funeral procession the grieving women passed by, carrying wood for the pyre and wailing aloud. After they had passed, how desolate the street seemed. Sharifan ran and seized him, and brought him inside.

A bullock-cart came rattling along, and halted before the door.

“Oh Sharifan, just look and see what guests have come in this disastrous time.”

Sharifan went and returned. “Bi Amma, they’ve sent a bullock-cart from Danpur, and sent word that it should bring everyone out.”

Bi Amma went straight to the big room, where Abba Jan sat apart from everyone, day after day, on his prayer-carpet.

“Nasir Ali, my son! Your uncle has sent a bullock-cart.”

Abba Jan reflected. Then he said, “Bi Amma, the glorious and exalted Prophet has said, ‘Those who run from death, run toward nothing else but death.’”

The bullock-cart had arrived empty; it went back empty. And Abba Jan dissolved saffron in a china cup, dipped a purified pen into it, and on heavy paper wrote in clear letters:

I have five personages by whom the power of destructive diseases can be eliminated: they are Muhammad and Fatimah and Hasan and Husain and Ali, Ali, Ali.

He went to the front door and pasted this paper on it, then went back and sat down on his prayer-rug.

When Doctor Joshi came out of his clinic and went into somebody’s house, it used to be an event. But now the Doctor Sahib, stethoscope around his neck, appeared in the neighborhood at all hours, sometimes in this street, sometimes in that. The Doctor Sahib was Rupnagar’s Messiah. People said that even in the big hospitals of Delhi, no doctor could equal him. But now the Messiah’s power was waning, the power of death was growing. The Doctor sahib’s wife herself broke out in pustules, and drew her last breath before the Doctor’s very eyes.

“Even the Doctor’s wife has died.”

“Yes, she has.”

The people sitting on Bhagat-ji’s terrace could say no more than this. Faith in Chiranji Mal Vaid’s knowledge and in Hakim Bande Ali’s learning had departed long ago, at the first shock. Now Doctor Joshi’s Messiah-hood too had lost its status. Now death was an inescapable reality. The dying died in silence. Those who arranged the funeral processions looked exhausted.

How tired he himself had grown! A funeral procession passed, and he just stood there, staring at the empty street. The street before his house looked so desolate. The shops and houses had mostly been locked up. Vasanti’s house had a lock on it too. Here and there a shop opened its door a crack for a little while, then soon closed it again. He grew tired of looking at locked doors, closed shutters, and the empty street, and even before Sharifan insisted, he came back into the house, which itself was always sunk in silence. Abba Jan, distant from them all, detached from questions of life and death, sat on his prayer-rug, his fingers busy with his prayer-beads. Bi Amma sat on a cot, with her sewing. A word or two from Ammi, or Sharifan. Now shock had vanished from their eyes—shock, and fear as well. Other eyes too had lost both shock and fear. Everyone had accepted the plague as an established, eternal reality. Yes, but one morning Bi Amma awoke to find that her body was trembling. In this state she offered her prayers, and lay for a long time making her prostrations. When she lifted her head from her prostrations, her wrinkled face was wet with tears. Then she drew the end of her dupattah over her face, and very softly began to weep. Abba Jan, seated on his prayer-carpet, looked at her closely. “Bi Amma, what’s the matter?”

“My son, the Imam’s coach has come.” She paused, then said, “Such a light, as though a gas-lantern had been lit. As though someone were saying, ‘Prepare the majlis.’”

Abba Jan reflected. Then he said, “Bi Amma! You’ve had a vision.”

Through Sharifan, the news of the vision spread from house to house. Ladies came from every house that had not been shut up. The majlis took place, and there was much weeping and lamentation.

Ai, Bi Amma! Have you heard? The cursed ill-fated disease has been halted.”

“Oh, tell the truth!”

“Yes, Bi Amma! Doctor Joshi has said so.”

“Thanks be to God.” And again tears welled up in Bi Amma’s eyes. When she lifted her head from her prostrations, her wrinkled face was still wet with tears.

* * * *

Just as the loaded, overflowing bullock-carts had gone away, so they came, loaded and overflowing, back again. Every little while a new horse-cart came creaking along, and another shut-up house was opened. The shut-up houses were opened; old ragged clothes and blankets were brought out of the houses, piled up in the street, and burned.

Now it was evening. Far off, from the courtyard of Vasanti’s house, the clattering of large and small pots and pans could be clearly heard. And along with the sound of the temple bells came a familiar voice: “You there, Vasanti! it’s dusk, light the lamp.” And Vasanti came to the door, barefooted, in just the same way, put a new wick into a new lamp, and lit it. She was about to go back inside, when he crossed the road and approached her: “Vasanti!”

Vasanti turned and saw him, and smiled.

“So you’re back?”

“Sure.”

He came nearer. He gently touched her bare arms, and said in a soft, tender voice, “Come on, let’s play.”

Vasanti hesitated. Then she suddenly flared up: “Go away, you Muslim brat!”—and ran off into the house.

Having been scolded by Vasanti, he went back to his house drunk with pleasure, and for a long time felt a melting sweetness, right down to his fingertips.

The uninhabited houses were inhabited again, and in the small Bazaar there was the same hustle and bustle. Still, here and there he saw empty gaps, and here and there faces were missing. Pandit Hardayal was not to be seen on the terrace of his house, nor Misra-ji on the cushions in his shop. And where was Jagdish, who used to go every evening to Chiranji’s terrace and practice the harmonium? For weeks the shaven head of Sohan, Pandit Hardayal’s son, proclaimed that he was in mourning. But gradually hair grew out again on Sohan’s head, and the gaps in the small Bazaar began to be filled. Finally, there were as many people as though none were missing, and as much liveliness as though nothing had happened at all. Again a crowd began to gather on Chiranji’s terrace. The harmonium played on and on until midnight, and the sound of singing could be heard far off:

“All night long Laila lies
Embracing a secret pain.
Is suffering too a beloved?
Everyone’s absorbed in it!”

“Chiranji, you bastard, you’re really the lucky one!”

“Why?”

“The pole’s been put up right by your terrace. Now, you bastard, you’ll be playing the harmonium by electric light!”

The poles, which had been lying covered with dust for ages, suddenly rose up. Walking along, people paused, lifted their eyes to the high poles, and imagined with astonishment the new light that would soon arrive.

“They say electric lights are very bright.”

“You’d think the night had turned into day.”

“Why man, those English are amazing!”

But the workers, having put up the poles, again vanished from sight. Days passed, months passed, then time just went on passing. The poles, laden with dust, again became part of the landscape. They didn’t look as if they’d been put up, but as if they’d grown from the ground. In mid-flight, a dove or a woodpecker sometimes alighted for a moment on one of the poles—but, perhaps disgusted with its iron surface, the bird soon flew off. If a kite came and perched on a pole, it would stay there for a long time. But the kites preferred to perch on rooftop ledges. Any kite that came and perched on the high ledge of the village hall stayed there for ages. It seemed that the world would pass away, but the bird would still be perched there. This ledge had grown old with the help of passing time—and with the further help of kite-droppings. But the crenellated walls of the Big Mansion were broken down before they grew old. This was the doing of the monkeys. Just as kites don’t perch on every ledge, monkeys don’t take a fancy to every rooftop. Some of the town’s ledges had suited the kites, some of its rooftops had pleased the monkeys.

The monkeys had a strange way of life. When they came, they kept coming. When they went, they did it so completely that even on the tamarind trees near Karbala—not to speak of the rooftops—there wasn’t a sign of them. The roofs were empty, the walls deserted. Only the ruined parapets of the highest stories served as a reminder that these roofs had once been within the monkeys’ range. And what had happened that evening? Passing through a lane, it seemed to him that someone had jumped from one wall to the opposite one, over his head. When he looked up, what did he see but a troop of monkeys, traveling from wall to wall. “Oh, monkeys!” he exclaimed, and his heart only slowly recovered its beat. And the next morning when he woke up, there was commotion both inside and outside the house. Everything that had been left in the courtyard was either broken to pieces or missing entirely. One monkey had carried off Ammi’s dupattah and was sitting on the rooftop parapet, holding the dupattah in his teeth and tearing it to shreds.

There was no telling what towns, what forests, the monkeys had come from. One troop, another troop, troop after troop. From one roof to a second, from the second roof to a third. Swiftly leaping down into a courtyard, snatching things up, here one minute and gone the next. Nanua the oil-seller, collecting contributions from everyone, bought grain and a lump of raw brown sugar. He went down to the site of the weekly market; in the small reservoir there, which stayed dry year-round except for the rainy season, he spread out the grain, placed the lump of raw brown sugar in the midst of it, and put a number of small sticks nearby. The monkeys came leaping and skipping along and gobbled up the grain, filling their cheeks with it. They threw themselves on the lump of sugar. One lump, a hundred monkeys. The riot began. The sticks were ready at hand; the moment they saw them, the monkeys equipped themselves with sticks. Whenever a monkey picked up the sugar-lump, a stick crashed down on his head.

The monkeys raised a commotion for days, for weeks. Night ambushes, looting and plundering, finally civil war among themselves; and after that—gone. The roofs were again silent, the parapets once again empty. But when the electricity came, the monkeys were in the town, they could be seen on roofs and parapets. The electric poles, enduring the harshness of the seasons, had become part of the scenery; now suddenly they again became a center of attention. Workers appeared, carrying long ladders on their shoulders. At the tops of the poles iron crossbars were attached, and on the crossbars white ceramic insulators were fixed. From the first pole to the second, from the second to the third, wires were strung, and from street to street the wires gradually connected all the poles.

Something new could be felt in the atmosphere, and the birds had acquired new places to perch. Rupnagar’s birds were no longer confined to walls and tree branches. When the crows grew tired of sitting on the walls and cawing, they flew off and swung on one of the wires. Bluejays, shama birds, swifts would pause to rest in mid-flight by alighting on a wire.

Copying the birds, a monkey leaped from one wall of the small Bazaar and swung on the wires. The next instant, he dropped with a thud and lay flat on the ground. From one side Bhagat-ji, from the other side Lala Mitthan Lal, left their shops and dashed over. With astonishment and terror, they stared at the dying monkey. They yelled, “Hey, somebody bring water!” Chandi dashed to the well, filled the bucket, brought the water, and poured the whole bucketful over the monkey, but the monkey’s eyes had closed and its body had gone limp.

Monkeys poured in from all directions, and the nearby parapets were full of them: they were gazing at their companion’s motionless body lying in the middle of the street, and they were making a commotion. Then people came running from the streets and neighborhoods, and stared at the dead monkey with amazement.

“Which wire was he swinging on?”

“That one.”

Chandi pointed to the highest wire.

“Then the electricity has come?”

“Yes, it’s come. The moment anyone touches the wire, he’s done for.”

The next day a monkey again leaped onto the wires, and instantly dropped with a thud to the ground and lay still. Then Bhagat-ji and Lala Mitthan Lal again jumped up and went to see, and again Chandi ran with a bucketful of water, but the monkey had grown cold before their very eyes.

Again a turmoil arose among the monkeys. They came leaping and bounding from distant roofs. They stared wildly at the dead monkey lying in the middle of the road, and made as much noise as they possibly could.

The monkeys, tired and defeated, gradually fell silent. Many of them had begun to go back, when a strong, stout monkey came running from a distance to Pandit Hardayal’s high roof. His face was red with anger, and the hairs of his coat stood up like arrows. He leaped onto the pole, and shook it with such force that it swayed like a half-uprooted tree. Then he climbed up and attacked the wires with his whole strength. The instant he landed on them, he collapsed. For a moment he hung suspended, then fell half-dead to the ground. Bhagat-ji, Lala Mitthan Lal, and Chandi, all three again did their duty. When the water fell on him the monkey opened his eyes, looked helplessly at his sympathizers, and closed his eyes for the last time.

Leaping from roof to roof, the monkeys came. It seemed that they would all come down into the street, but they only milled about on the parapets, shrieking and screaming. Then suddenly they fell silent, as though some terror had gripped them. Then the walls began emptying.

Evening was coming. The stout monkey still lay in the street. On the nearby parapets there was not a single monkey. Rupnagar, offering up its three monkeys as a sacrifice, had entered the age of electricity, and the monkeys vanished so completely that for weeks not one was to be seen on any wall, roof, or tree. In fact even the big pipal tree near the Black temple, where every day, in every season, monkeys could be seen leaping and jumping from branch to branch, was silent.

 

 

From BASTI. Used with permission of NYRB Classics. Copyright © 1979 by Intizar Husain. Translation copyright © 2007 by Frances W. Pritchett.


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