Intizar Husain: Basti

So, my friend, time is passing. We’re all in the power of time. So hurry and come here. Come and see the city of Delhi, and the realm of beauty, for both are waiting for you. Come and join them, before silver fills the part in her hair, and your head becomes a drift of snow, and our lives are merely a story.

Basti is a lovely Urdu word that hints at space and community, a human settlement of any dimension, from a few houses to a city. 

The word alone is enough to pique my interest. But because some books lead you to other books, that is exactly what Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand did for me. I stopped counting at six — the number of times Intizar Husain’s name was raised in the novel. 

Now I see why. Basti can be looked upon as a literary father of Tomb of Sand in the family of borderland literature. Both also defy the borders of literature.

Basti maps the life of Zakir who experienced the divisions that created Pakistan that created Bangladesh that separated him from the love of his life.

I have to admit that it took nearly half of the book before I was able to get into its rhythm and flow, but I allowed its poetic beauty to lead this reader from outside the Indian subcontinent to be drawn into its history and heritage; and sadly, into the tragic quotient of its divisions.

Nadeem Aslam: The Wasted Vigil

August 8, 2021

As soon as my eyes traced the first line, the words held my face in its hands, implored me to keep looking it in the eye, made me reread and reread sentences and paragraphs for the sheer texture and the lushness of its polyphony; even when it became too brutal, even when it felt too much, it would not let me look away.

I have not experienced a novel this heartbreakingly breathtaking since Ondaatje and de Bernières — for its beauty, for its pain, for its music, for its truths.

This is a poetic education on the conflict in Afghanistan with an intricately wrought storyline and a web of characters that could only have been written so painstakingly. 

Set in a time when its people were still in a daze, trying to assess who, what, and how much was left or if there was anything left at all, it was that period after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York, and as retribution, the collapse of the Taliban.

But for many days now, I have been waking up to updates of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan; and here I am reading a book published in 2008 that carries this ominous line: “The Americans should not exult: the war hasn’t ended. The real war is about to begin.”

It chills me to the core and I cannot look away.

Kamila Shamsie: Burnt Shadows

AUGUST 31, 2021

Imagine my delight when I opened this recently acquired secondhand book and discovered that it was a signed copy!

_ _ _

Nagasaki just before the bomb dropped in 1945, Delhi at the cusp of the partition that created Pakistan in 1947, Istanbul briefly, life in Pakistan in the early 1980s where Islamic fundamentalism began to be felt, post-9/11 New York, Afghanistan amid the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Iran much more briefly than Istanbul, and back to North America — this is where the book takes you.

Now I understand why Salman Rushdie described Kamila Shamsie as a “writer of immense ambition and strength.” The scope of this novel is ambitious, and to succeed in carrying it out is where her strength manifests.

Although admittedly, this will not be one of the books I would immediately recommend if asked to suggest a Pakistani work, I have to say that it also gave me much. Through the characters the reader encounters the nuances of what it felt to be an ordinary German or Japanese after the Second World War, to be English in India during the last days of the British Empire, to be Muslim in India before the partition, to be a member of the mujahideen that would drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, to be an American in the midst of all these, and simply to be human in the face of war and conflict.

To humanize what we tend to generalize is what this novel does best. This one is certainly not bereft of poetry and pain.

“𝘞𝘢𝘳 𝘪𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘦. 𝘜𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘭 𝘺𝘰𝘶’𝘷𝘦 𝘩𝘢𝘥 𝘪𝘵, 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘥𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘪𝘵… 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘢𝘭𝘸𝘢𝘺𝘴 𝘧𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘴, 𝘣𝘶𝘵 𝘢𝘭𝘸𝘢𝘺𝘴 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘸𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘦𝘭𝘴𝘦. 𝘐𝘵’𝘴 𝘸𝘩𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘧𝘪𝘨𝘩𝘵 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘢𝘯𝘺𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘦𝘭𝘴𝘦; 𝘣𝘦𝘤𝘢𝘶𝘴𝘦 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘢𝘳 𝘭𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘢𝘭𝘭.”