Our Booker man
Intizar Husain is by far the most influential and respected writer of this country. His inclusion in the finalist list of the Man Booker International award is an occasion to celebrate
By Moazzam Sheikh
The South Asian literary world has warmly greeted the news of Intizar Husain’s inclusion in the finalist list for the Man Booker International award to be given later in 2013 by a panel of distinguished writers.
The international recognition of writers of South Asian origin writing in English against those who do not write in English has spurred many bitter debates. Our colonial legacy makes sure that those with the advantage of English will continue to have an edge either by hook or by crook.
So it was a pleasant surprise when Shirley Chew of the University of Leeds wrote some 15 years ago in the Times Literary Supplement, responding to the introductory pages of Mirrorwork, “To read An Epic Unwritten by Intizar Husain is to note that some of the preoccupations and techniques identified these days with the so-called postmodern works, such as Rushdie’s own novel ‘Shame’, are little more than familiar conventions in the indigenous traditions of Pakistan and India.”
As an editor, Ms Chew had read a brilliant critique of Intizar Husain’s story (ik bin likhi razmia) by Ian Bedford in 1993. Ms Chew and her crew were diehard supporters of the non-Anglophone writing.
Through little acts of activism, and subversion, some of us try to upset the statusquo and challenge the tyranny that publishing industry imposes on the reader. It is these persistent acts, however small, that sometimes lead to big events such as the arrival of Intizar Husain’s name in international literary corridors.
I won’t go into the irritating thing about the ‘international’ having become synonymous with the English-speaking world. That, another time!
Today we should celebrate, even if cautiously.
Intizar Husain is by far the most influential and respected writer of his generation. I would even go so far as to suggest that along with Naiyer Masud, Intizar Husain is the most important stylist in the domain of Urdu prose, though both represent opposing poles of the stylistic field.
After his first collection of short stories ‘Galli Kuchey’ (1952), six more followed, and in between he gave the Urdu reader three novels, ‘Basti’, ‘Tazkrah’, and ‘Aage Sumandar Hai’. He also slipped in a highly poignant and layered novella ‘Din aur Dastan’. Along with fiction, he has translated into Urdu fiction and philosophy from English; has penned travelogues and criticism; edited anthologies; not to mention his output as a journalist for dailies both English and Urdu; and stories for children.
Born in 1925 in a small town of Dibai, he moved to Lahore in 1947, and his love affair with the city continues. Yet most of his writing constantly deals with the enigma of exile, displacement, migration, the feeling of being an outsider, crisis of identity, and claustrophobia as etched so expressionistically in the stories ‘Hamsafar’ and ‘Shahadat’. (By the way, noted writer Naiyer Masud referred admiringly to the buses used in the two stories as Intizar Husain’s buses, suggesting the psychological horror the buses evoked couldn’t be replicated!)
Apart from Asad Mohammad Khan, no other writer in Urdu has tested the limits of the language’s varied registers. If memory serves me right, since I don’t have a copy of his ‘Tazkrah’ handy, the command and dexterity of the registers as they oscillate from rustic to refined, from colloquial to formal, and from personal to collective in the novel, are a sheer joy to a literary mind.
For reasons as complex as human history, Intizar Husain’s fame has been slow to reach the readership that craves international writers. This was a question I raised when I wrote the introduction to my translation of his short stories, first published in Pakistan as ‘Circle and Other Stories’ (2002/ Alhamra) and later in India as ‘Intizar Husain: Stories’ (2004/ Katha).
One obvious reason is the lack of translators and academics outside India and Pakistan who truly care for literature and writers living outside the western and ‘developed’ world. Let me explain: Professor Muhammad Umar Memon has done perhaps more than anyone else to bring Intizar Husain’s fiction to wider attention, but most of his books have been marketed in South Asia’s English-speaking world. Second, he is primarily a translator of Urdu short stories into English, not just an Intizar Husain translator.
Professor Frances Pritchett of Columbia University translated his novel ‘Basti’ in 1995. It’s been 18 years and I don’t think she has undertaken anything else by him. And there are those who have translated his short fiction without being able to read Urdu, relying on collaboration.
This paints a dismal portrait of a state of translations of South Asian languages. Most of the burden has fallen on those who are not the native speakers of the targeted language.
Another important factor is our own lack of respect for a healthy literary culture. Take for example, ‘Circle and Other Stories’, published in Pakistan in 2002. Neither I nor the author ever received any compensation. I don’t think the author even received a complimentary copy of his own book.
Just as Katha in India was about to publish the same book under the same title, they learned, to their horror, that another book by the same title but by a different translator, who knew that I had translated the story ‘Da’ira’ (Circle) for an anthology she had edited, was coming out the same week. There was panic but Katha decided to go with a different title. Professionalism on behalf of the publisher and the translator demanded that they knew how many other books of translations of this particular writer already existed.
As if that wasn’t enough, a respected Pakistani publisher recently republished that same book under the same title: ‘Circle and Other Stories’.
Intizar Husain’s page on the Man Booker International Prize has its share of mistakes. For example, he never wrote for an Urdu daily Firoze, and he is only credited with four short-story collections, not the actual eight. There are other mistakes as well. It is hard to figure out who is to blame but the Booker International folks stress that they don’t accept submissions from publishers and the winner is chosen by the panellists.
So whoever is responsible for the biographical note on Intizar Husain needs to do his homework. Otherwise to flaunt such brazen errors is disrespectful to a mind that has enriched the world literature.
Moreover, as if to celebrate Intizar Husain’s belated arrival on the international stage, New York Review of Books has recently reprinted ‘Basti’. Finally, the American readers have a shot at buying his novel to read!
As a translator, and a writer, there is no bigger joy than to see one of your favourite writers being recognised. Badha’i ho, Intizar saheb!
The writer has translated Intizar Husain’s short-stories published in Pakistan as Circle and Other Stories.