- In Conversation with Intizar Husain:Some Remembered, Some Imagined
Meetings with Intizar Husain in Delhi are almost always interrupted. Old Urdu scholars, aspiring novelists, young students, or acolytes walk in and out of the room wherever he happens to be staying. Some have prior appointments; others knock and walk in. He greets everyone with courtesy, an enigmatic smile, and a gentle twinkle in his eyes. I think of him as the Bodhisattva of caravanserais who, like his favorite storyteller of the Jataka stories, always has a new tale in response to yet another question about his life, faith, craft, or times. But unlike the Bodhisattva—whose Jataka tales are always about his own birth, life sufferings, and death from generation to generation, time upon time, incarnation after incarnation— Intizar Sahib rarely talks about himself. I am among the very few who persuaded him, more than a decade ago in Berlin, to speak of his childhood and life history. I was lucky and grateful for that long, recorded interview.
We had met before and have met since, but always informally. Even so, after every meeting, I returned home and wrote down a story he had told or his comments, because I always had the feeling that something important had been said, however casually. Now as I look over my notes, I find intimations of an ethic that might serve as a guide through our cities of labyrinths and nightmares. When you come to a forking path, he seems to say, always choose the direction that leads through a forest and into a city where people are free to ask questions, and where the answers they receive are grounded in reason. Any claim to one commandment, law, desire, or identity sanctified by mists of holiness is dangerous, for it always leads to genocide . . . I am never surprised when these days Asif Farrukhi refers to him as Master, with a self-conscious nod towards Henry James’s description of a great storyteller. Not that Intizar Sahib ever sets himself up as a teacher or a guru. He is much too self-effacing for that and always aware of life’s ironies. He understands that even if the Bodhisattva could be tripped, deceived, betrayed, puzzled, or confused, then . . . !
Bits and pieces of the conversation we had in Berlin—remembered and imagined—blended with another meeting recently in Old Delhi. On that [End Page 245] occasion, I drove Intizar Sahib to see the ruined arches of Dara Shikoh’s legendary library at Kashmiri Gate. In front of the arches, the empty strip of land was strewn with garbage. He said he was familiar with such ruins in Lahore, too. We bantered about which city had more garbage. In the vicinity of the library, I showed him the lovely, white Gothic domes of St. James Church, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built in imitation of the cathedral in Florence. In the church grounds, there is a graveyard for some of the British soldiers who died defending Kashmiri Gate during the 1857 rebellion. The rebellion—by Indian soldiers in the British army seeking an end to colonial rule—was led by the last Mughal emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar. On the way back, we stopped at the remnants of a sixteenth-century stone gate of a citadel now known as Khooni Darwaza, the Gate of Blood. Its grim name has wandered out of horror tales and folk romances, and got mingled with Delhi’s brutal history. After all, when heads of rebels are hung from the ramparts, they summon ancient prophecies of revenge and doom. In Intizar Husain’s fictional world, historians and dervishes, storytellers and epic poets, Bodhisattva and Sufi singers, peacocks and ghosts wander over the sorrowing earth in search of another gate—not the gates of blood, khooni darwazas, but gates of peace, shanti darwazas.
Kahani to awara hoti hai. Story is a vagabond. For instance, my nani, maternal grandmother, from whom I learnt the art of storytelling, used to tell me a story in which a girl says to her father, “I love you as much as salt.” My nani didn’t know about...