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  • Introduction
  • Alok Bhalla (bio)

Every people has its tolerant path, its religion and its temple.

nizamuddin auliya

Before I met Intizar Husain in Lahore, I was told that he was a simple man of gentle wit and great learning who was always willing to travel miles to pay homage to an old banyan tree or an ancient village well. Since I was familiar with his stories, I recognised that his search for a many-rooted banyan tree or a well resonating with the uncanny was not a strange eccentricity. In his stories, a well with a parapet or a banyan tree with its spreading shade were sites of a soul-saving pilgrimage his wanderers felt compelled to make to places of continuous replenishment and generous shelter. The well, in his fictional mythos, was connate with the sacred foundations of a human settlement, and the banyan was a privileged village-centre under whose shade all claims about the innate differences between the sage, the beast, the parrot, and the jinn were inadmissible and unsustainable. The well and the banyan were, for him, the abiding and organising symbols of an older cultural faith of the subcontinent, which assumed that it was always possible for different communities to create a life of “complex and pluralistic wholeness” (the phrase is Charles Taylor’s)—a faith lost in the melodramas of grievance and revenge enacted during the Partition and the religious enthusiasm of mobs for gods, paradise, and martyrs.

I was, therefore, not surprised when Intizar Sahib, at the very beginning of our conversation—recounted in more detail in the afterword—brought up the Partition along with the subsequent problems of migration, Islamic nationalism, and religious selfhood. Speaking of the sources of culture-making in the Indian subcontinent, he said, “I have no idea what a purely Islamic culture is.” The Hindus and the Muslims of India, he continued, were not two strangers fated to move along different paths, but two who shared the same spaces and made their human way together through the same history. As if responding to the criticism often voiced against his work by conservative Pakistani critics, he assured me that he was not striking one of the many notes of nostalgia we hear so often in Pakistan, and that he [End Page vii]

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Intizar Husain
Photograph by Umair Ghani

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believed the formation of the nation state of which he was a citizen was an irreversible part of the geopolitical reality of the region. He was, however, convinced the analysis that the formation of Pakistan was “historically inevitable” was fatally flawed, because it failed to take into account the civilisational interactions between the Hindus and the Muslims over centuries. For the politicians, the question of religious identity was merely a useful instrument and rhetorical device for attaining power. It was not a mode of moral discourse about how we should live or a form of social inquiry about how we conducted our daily affairs as Hindus and Muslims in non-religious or agnostic spaces. In the past, people of different faiths had, after all, managed to live decent and productive lives in India without giving their religious selfhood precedent over interpersonal or familial or village solidarities. To say, therefore, as the Muslim League had, that the Islamic identity in the Indian subcontinent had always been utterly distinct from Hinduism’s notion of identity, and had been formed in an antagonistic relationship with it, making the formation of Pakistan a political necessity and a logical outcome of cultural differences, was not only bad history but also bad metaphysics.

The best Muslim minds, Intizar Husain said, like the best minds of any community, were in love with the “good.” They realised that in a place like the Indian subcontinent, where there was a plurality of gods and a plurality of “truths,” ethicality and religiosity were not the exclusive preserve of any single community or sect. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Buddha and the Jatakas, Meerabai and Tulasidas, he said, were as much a part of the literary, moral, and religious habitat of the Muslims as Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau, Baba Farid...