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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Intizar Hussain's Basti by Frances W. Pritchett.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Intizar Hussain's Basti by Frances W. Pritchett. She is a lover of Hindi and Urdu literature and her "A Desertful of Roses" site, commenting on Ghalib's ghazals and couplets is in a league of its own. If you want to read her translation of Basti, click HERE.


Intizar Husain chose to call his now-famous novel Basti, a word that can refer to any place where groups of people live, from a neighborhood to a city. The novel itself is full of towns, including not only present ones in Pakistan and India, but also at least one from the past (the Delhi of 1857), some mythic ones from Muslim and Hindu story tradition, and two invented ones, Rupnagar and Vyaspur. Although all the outward events clearly take place during Zakir's adult life in Lahore, Lahore is never identified by name -- it remains "this city" from first to last. And the inward events take place in Zakir's memory and imagination alone, as he moves among the times and places of his personal and cultural history. The author has in some cases blurred the transitions. I have tried to clarify them a bit by providing breaks in the text to show movements in time and place, and using " . . . " where fantasy passages begin. Parts of Chapters Seven, Eight, Ten, and Eleven include fantasy and tangled thoughts. While I have provided footnotes identifying quotations and references, the tangle itself is part of the writer's artistry.

Some Pakistanis have criticized my choice of this novel, on the grounds that it offers a "negative impression" of their culture, a mood of "nostalgia." Certainly Basti has been controversial; and certainly it is nothing like a definitive, complete picture of modern Pakistan. But surely no intelligent reader will expect it to be. Self-critical literature is one mark of an open and confident society; sophisticated literature is one mark of a rich and healthy language. Basti is not a perfect novel, but it is a fine one, and revelatory, and very powerful at its best. I hope it will become part of a growing repertoire of good Urdu novels translated into English; there are a number of promising modern works that would well repay the translator's efforts.

I am grateful to Professor Muhammad Umar Memon of the University of Wisconsin, who proposed this project. For insight into the Urdu text I thank Professor Razi Wasti, former Qaid-e Azam Visiting Professor at Columbia University, who answered many questions; Janab Qamar Jalil of the Berkeley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan, who had previously compiled a useful serial glossary; and my students at Columbia, who read parts of the novel with me and shared their thoughts and feelings about it. My special thanks go to the author, Intizar Husain, for his kindness and patience with my many questions during my visit to Lahore in 1988. For valuable comments on the translation as a work of English prose, I am indebted to my teacher and friend C. M. Naim of the University of Chicago, to my friends David Rubin and Jennifer Crewe, and especially to my mother, who is a superb grammarian and detector of small errors. All the calligraphic designs that appear in the book were generously provided by my friend Adil Mansuri. Chapter One of the novel recently appeared in Edebiyat, and I thank the editors, Michael Beard and Julie Meisami, for their comments and encouragement.

Above all, I am deeply grateful for the help of my best friend and collaborator, the distinguished critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who listened to me read my whole draft aloud while he compared it with the original. His comments not only saved me from numerous mistakes, but immeasurably increased the subtlety and depth of the translation. I have had the best possible help in this task, and any errors that remain are mine alone.


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