Basti – Intizar Husain

The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are a forest. so where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in a forest…When he As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn’t grasp the moment. When he put his finger on the memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train.

Other people’s history can be read comfortably, the way a novel can be read comfortably. But my own history? I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present. Escapist. But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history.

Afzal, a friend of the narrator of Intizar Husain’s novel Basti, keeps a running list of virtuous men in the world inscribed on a sheet of paper. He laments that the number is small and is ever diminishing.

Basti, the title of which means “place,” is a chimerical tale that charts the creation of “modern” Pakistan and the evident dissolution of civil society. When the story opens, the earliest memories that Zakir reaches back for, his fictional hometown Rupnagar is peaceful, with Hindus and Muslims living side-by-side, the primal forest and old buildings dominating the town. South Asian mythology lives here. Zakir’s family holds a prominent position in the town, with his father a member of the religious elite. But, even before the trauma of the partition of India in 1947, there are signs of the world changing when electricity comes to Rupnagar, the wires kill monkeys. After the Partition, Zakir and his family move to Lahore.

The narrative takes place in two sequences, blended together in Zakir’s retelling. The “present” plot takes place in 1971 during the war between Pakistan and India that created an independent Bangledesh. Lahore is given over to protests and air raids that disrupt the schedule of the college where Zakir teaches history. Instead, he spends more time at cafes, which are increasingly depressing. The “past” plot are Zakir’s daydreams of Rupnagar and of earlier adventures with his friends in the heyday of Lahore’s cafe scene. The days are not perfect, but they are better—and can never be recaptured.

Basti is part of a genre that recounts the coming of modernity and upheavals within a community. Zakir is part of a younger generation that certainly makes the transition more easily than do their elders, but as one of his friends puts it, Zakir peddles a drug no less potent than the religion of their fathers:

“I’m telling you, you’re responsible for this defeat. And you, Zakir.

“How?” Zakir asked innocently.

Salamat said wrathfully, “You imperialist stooge, do you play innocent and ask how? Haven’t you thought about what you’re teaching to boys? The histories of kings. Opium pills! Yes, and your father is responsible, who every day feeds my father an opium pill of religion!…”

Zakir is a man out of time, but, interestingly, Husain implies that his backward-looking personality is a character trait rather than simply a consequence of the times he lives in. His memories, in particular, are infused with Hindu and Muslim, usually Shia, lore, for which there is a glossary in the back. However, though Salamat accuses him of teaching an overly optimistic version of history, one of the things Zakir’s daydreams make clear is that while the past might sometimes be easy to envision as a peaceful place free of responsibility, it is also filled with tragedy and suffering.

The only memories that escape this universal truth are those from his childhood and about the woman he loves. Contributing to Zakir’s pain and disillusionment, though is how his primary love interest is forcibly kept apart from him such that he goes years without knowing whether or not she is even alive. Other loves are foiled by his own naïveté, but the elusiveness of love, combined with the tenuousness of male friendships, forms a backdrop for the novel, as well as the actual human interactions between people who are powerless before faceless threats and changes.

I picked up Basti a few months ago because I like the New York Review of Books Classics editions and because the story looked interesting. It also had the advantage of being originally written in Urdu appealed to my interest in reading world literature. The book jumped to the front of my list because Husain just recently passed away (it was published in 1979, and the translation in 2012). It was one I was looking forward to reading and was not disappointed. Basti has its issues, but the prose is beautiful and there is always beauty within the desolation of the modern world. There is a simple solution to the problems, Basti implies: work hard, live simple, and be virtuous.

Three things debase a man: a woman when she is not faithful, a brother when he asks for more than is his right, knowledge when it comes without hard labor. And three things deprive the earth of peace: an ignoble man when he rises to high rank, a learned man when he begins to worship gold, a master when he becomes cruel.

Easier said than done.


Next up, I am currently reading Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

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