Asia

Intizar Hussain: Mourning an Urdu literary icon

A file picture taken on May 20, 2013 shows author Intizar Hussain during a photocall for the finalists of the 2013 Man Booker International literary prize in London. Image copyright AFP

Intizar Hussain was one of Pakistan's towering literary figures and his death is seen by critics as marking the end of an era.

Hussain, who was in his early 90s, died in hospital in Lahore after contracting pneumonia. His funeral was held on Wednesday.

An icon of Urdu literature, he was born in Dibai, a village in northern India's Bulandshahr district, in "1922, or 1923 or perhaps 1925", as he explained light-heartedly in an interview with Dawn newspaper some years ago.

He studied Urdu literature at a university in Meerut, India, and soon afterwards moved to Lahore, with the intention of returning after meeting figures in the so-called Progressive Writers' Movement.

But that was not to be. India had been partitioned by then, following independence from Britain, and Lahore had become part of a newly-created Pakistan.

Going back was not easy, given the acrimony and bloodbath that followed. His family later joined him in Lahore.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Partition was a time of huge upheaval and suffering in India and Pakistan

In Lahore, he worked as a journalist and prominent columnist, an occupation he continued until recently, writing in Urdu as well as English.

But fiction was his real forte. His short stories and novels raised him in stature to match some the most celebrated writers in contemporary India and Pakistan.

Hussain was part of a powerful literary movement that emerged in India in the 1930s, and that transformed the old moralist and romantic traditions of Indian and Persian-Arabic literature into Western realism.

His distinguishing mark was that he tended to narrate reality - the present - through surrealistic imagery, mythology and Indian, Persian and Arabic folklore.

His early works, produced in the 1950s and 60s, mostly focused on characters that matched French sociologist Emile Durkheim's concept of "anomie" - people who suffered a loss of identity due to a breakdown of values.

In an interview with BBC Urdu in May 2013, Hussain admitted that his detractors accused him of being "nostalgic" - of being in Pakistan temporally but mentally craving an earlier life and culture in India.

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Unlike most "progressive" writers of his age, he could not be bracketed with the Left, but he was not a romantic either, says Rauf Parekh, a linguist and columnist.

"His point of view was basically human and philosophical, always leaning towards enlightenment," Mr Parekh wrote in a column in Dawn.

Critics say that through his surrealistic symbolism and his mythological spin on events, he created authentic narratives to revisit political tragedies such as the 1971 secession of Bangladesh, the radicalisation of society under military dictator Gen Zia-ul Haq, and the rise of the Mohajir (or emigrant) nationalism among Karachi's refugees from India.

His 1979 novel, Basti (town), which was written against the backdrop of Indian Partition, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 after it was translated and republished by the New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics.

In 2014, Hussain was given the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award for his achievements.

He was also awarded Pakistan's third-highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz, or Star of Excellence.

Many say that with his death, the last chapter of one of the most energetic modernist movements in Urdu literature has come to a close, and there is no one left to take on the mantle.

Image copyright AFP