Book review: A Requiem For Pakistan—The World Of Intizar Husain
Mahmood Farooqui intersperses the story of Intizar Husain's life with his own
When I first set eyes on Mahmood Farooqui’s book, A Requiem For Pakistan, I had just returned from Pakistan, where I met people who spoke with love and awe of the subject of this book. Novelist and poet Intizar Husain had died a few months ago. The Pakistan I saw was vibrant, then why “requiem", I asked. The answer came to me as I reached the last page of the book; both the protagonists of the book were speaking to me. Husain writes, “Every affliction that falls from the sky and every turbulence that arises from earth comes asking for (the) address of Pakistan and having arrived here takes us into its arms."
The book is not about one but two journeys, that of Husain and Farooqui; it is hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. “I keep inserting my story and words into this account of Intizar’s life in the hope that I too may exalt my status," Farooqui writes.
Two persons have inspired the narrative: Husain, its raison d’être, and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a literary giant who is Farooqui’s lifelong inspiration. It was under his tutelage, 20 years ago, that Farooqui set off on the path of Dastangoi, when it was a little-known vocabulary. Husain and Farooqui are the archetypal daastaangos and this is where the pleasure of the book lies. The book uses poetry, interspersing Farooqui’s own favourites with those of Husain. “I don’t translate," Farooqui writes. “Let the words speak for themselves." This is how daastaans are presented, they teach listeners to fend for themselves and flow with word-sound.
Husain narrates stories from Alif Laila, Betaal Pachisi and the Indian Jatakas. Farooqui narrates the intricacies of Tilism-e-Hoshruba. Both retell Sufi stories and both deplore the vulgarization of the Sufi concept in pop culture.
Husain’s is a 93-year-old journey. He was born in Dibai, a nondescript qasba in Bulandshahr, which is idealized in his book Basti as Rupnagar. Here, the hawking calls of Mithanlal halwai’s gujias (sweets) and besan halwa are delivered in poems:
Musalmano na ghabrao shafa’at barmala hogi
Parho kalma Mohammad ka khareedo halwa besan ka
(Stop worrying, Muslims, your entreaty will be heeded
Recite the kalma of the Prophet and eat besan halwa)
At home, Husain was tutored in the scriptures by his father, in Indo-Muslim folklore by the women of the household, and in the Hindu Puranas and Shastras by a panditji. Muharram is commemorated as a local pageant; his first lesson in poetry is Azadari (mourning) during Ashura. The nostalgia for qasba life is Husain’s, but equally Farooqui’s. Their parallel journey extends to music as well. From Muharram dirges to wedding songs to dohas to hawker’s calls to recitations of the legend of Alha Udal, it gently saturates their world. Life is wrapped around vaidji, who is as essential to existence as the staunch Hindu baniya whose Muslim customers swear by his scrupulous honesty. Farooqui’s comment beautifully sums up this social fabric when he says, “Ganga Jamni tehzeeb, the most hackneyed phrase of depleted Indian secularism, is not so easily written off."
Next is Meerut College, where Husain comes under the influence of his Urdu lecturer Mohammad Husain Askari. It is at his behest that he goes to Pakistan. “The demise of the postal service during those months meant that Askari Sahib had to radio a message, ‘Send Intizar.’ And I went."
Those early days in Pakistan are spent in the company of poets and writers. We learn of his friendship with Nasir Kazmi, loitering with him on the streets, hanging around in coffee houses. These are awaragardi times. His friendship with Muneer Niyazi is in part due to their mutual longing for “the paradise" they had left behind.
Jungalon mein koi peechhe se bulaye to Munir
Mudh ke raste mein kabhi uski taraf mat dekho
(We all know deep in our hearts the genesis of this longing.)
The section on Progressives is contextualized in a summer in Chatgam (Bangladesh), where Husain spent his holidays in the library, reading endlessly. Farooqui writes here of two big voices which broke from traditionalists like Jigar Moradabadi, Hafeez Jalandhari, Asghar Gondvi, Seemab Akbarabadi; these were the voices of Rabindranath Tagore and Allama Iqbal. I missed any reference here to Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, who broke from the traditionalists in the mid-1800s.
Like others of his generation, Husain is the voice of Partition. Farooqui, child of the next generation, suffered Partition through his elders. Like Husain, Farooqui mourns for the massive rupture which ultimately resulted in the creation of three separate entities.
“Partition cleft India in two halves. Then in 1971 these two halves became three. Both India and Bangladesh have found some kind of wholeness or wholesomeness but Pakistan is still floundering." The next words echo the dirge that we heard from our mothers. “No one would have thought that Partition would mean irrevocable borders. And free movement to and fro would become impossible. A decision taken in panic or light-heartedly would transform not just individual and family lives but fates of entire mohallas, cities and provinces… Ah the follies that lead to revolutions in human fate." Farooqui’s evolved skills in translation, which result from being on top of two languages, capture the wantonness of Partition. “There was a swarm of uprooted hordes and in that flood there was a lot of flotsam and jetsam…that is how this twig ended up floating here."
On his canvas Farooqui gathers people who have known incarceration. Antonio Gramsci, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Maulana Azad, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. These, like the author, are men whose creativity remained free despite prison walls. Whether it is Siberia, Ahmednagar, Rawalpindi or Paris, these men streamed out of their barred windows and created literature. That is what Farooqui has also created—literature in English which is about the world of Urdu, and anchored in Husain.
In the entire book, there are no more than three references to Farooqui’s present incarceration. The last one resonated the most with me because it could be about anyone’s life, which is after all a prison cell, with the sword of death hanging overhead. Husain writes about Shahrzad, the intrepid storyteller of Alif Laila over whose head it also hung. Farooqui writes: “I too have written this with a sword hanging over my head. I may soon be sent to jail for seven years for a crime I did not commit. But then in prison even the guilty become innocent. ... We are all sinners anyway, whether in or out of captivity."
Ahista barg-e-gul befashan bar mazaar e ma
(Gently, gently sprinkle rose petals on my grave)
It is a book which teaches, elevates and teases; read it for pleasure, read it for pain, two sides of the same reality in the lives of Husain and Farooqui.
Syeda Hameed is an author and an activist.