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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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It must have been in 1983 that a friend I’d known at university introduced me to the work of Intizar Hussain—a couple of translations, as I remember, accompanied by an introduction to his work, in a journal with Middle East in the title. The stories: “City of Sorrrow” and “The Last Man.” I was impressed. But it wasn’t until nine years later that I seriously began to read his stories in Urdu: I’d waited that long , simply because I hadn’t had enough confidence to read him in my mother tongue before, always feeling I’d miss something in my struggle with the script. Here in London I found all his volumes of fiction. First of all I read the tales I knew, but it was the collection Kachwe (Turtles) that I loved best, with its subversions of Buddhist tropes of longing and unbelonging: over and over, Hussain used myth, fable and folklore in a way that overturned the messages of the stories he’d borrowed. In a way, Hussain became for me, at the grand old age of 36, what Borges and Marquez had been for many readers and writers of my generation: a guide to the unconscious depths of the collective imagination; someone who proved to me that I could discover in my own cultural tradition the riches I needed for my writing.
There are works he wrote that perhaps passed me by, but at least two of his books are on my shelf of all-time favorites: Akhri Admi (The Last Man) and Kachwe. I think he is at his best in his short fiction. He’s been compared to Kafka and Ionesco: I don’t know whether he read those authors and I don’t really care, but he was always good at pointing out, in his sparkling essays, how we could find, in our own syncretic cultural heritage, those very signifiers that created western modernism and its mesmerising multiple tropes. His own art is a reflection of his aesthetic credo: at once deeply traditional, blending Islamic and Indian metaphors, and subtly postmodern, though I believe the latter has the edge. Yet his knowledge of the world’s literatures makes such divisions nonsensical. His was a craft that reclaimed and restaged orientalism.
I first met Hussain in 1996. I felt he was wary of me, or didn’t like me. I was an Anglophone, an expat, and a dilettante in the world of Urdu literature. We met over the years and I was never comfortable in his presence, much as I admired his prose. (I remember how, in 2010, in the company of two fellow writers, he pointedly asked me if I could actually read Urdu. One of our companions, an eminent critic, started reading out an invisible list of my credentials, to prove I was authentic and “one of us.” The other, a feminist poet, got the giggles, and I started choking with laughter too.)
Only a couple years later I wrote my first short stories in Urdu, and the first critic to mention them—ironically, in English—was Intizar Hussain, in a deftly written column. I’m going to paraphrase what he said: I think he’d approve of my version of his words. At a time when everyone was turning to English, here was a madman (me) returning to his lost mother tongue: and what is more with a semantic simplicity that manifested deep unconscious roots in the language. In his quiet way, Hussain was applauding the craziness of my retrograde motion. Later, I told him how readers had praised one of those stories of mine at the expense of all others. “Nonsense,” he said. “They’re all equally good.”
By 2013 I felt he’d relaxed with me to an extent; later that year I enjoyed introducing him to Marina Warner at the Booker ceremony when he’d been nominated for an award, and listening to them discuss The 1,001 Nights.
The last time we met was less than a year ago, where in the corridor of the Karachi hotel we were both staying at he ragged me about a mysterious woman writer’s admiration for me. I laughed and told him I knew whom he meant. We laughed, though I was always shy in his company. But I hope I did tell him that without his example I’d probably never have written in Urdu. Even if I failed to do so, I nevertheless think he’d have known.