Basti, By Intizar Husain, trans. Frances Pritchett

The time of a life and the life of a nation intersect in this classic from an Urdu master

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The Independent Culture

Intizar Husain, shortlisted for this year's Man Booker International Prize, has long been the eminence grise of Pakistani letters. After the death of Qurratulain Hyder, he is also Urdu's most celebrated living writer of fiction. Renowned for his short stories, he shifted at his peak from a quiet realism that some termed Chekhovian to a postmodern use of myth and fable that marked a radical change in Urdu fiction.

Husain, like Hyder, is deeply concerned with migration and the politics of partition in India and Pakisatn, with a syncretic cultural tradition, and with permutations of Muslim history in the Indo-Persian world. Unlike her, however, he doesn't translate his own work. On a Karachi platform we shared recently, he contested the session's agenda, "world literature", asserting that his own imaginative sources could be found in indigenous forms and traditions. His vision is deeply connected to the idioms on which he draws; capturing his style is a near-impossible challenge to potential translators.

His innovative first novel, Basti, first published in 1979 and efficiently translated by Frances Pritchett, constructs a framework of one man's experience of history - displacement from India and resettlement in Pakistan during 1947; the chaos and turbulence of war for an independent Bangladesh in 1971 - to house his elaborate investigation of historical time.

In his short fiction, Husain draws on Islamic and Indic legend and folklore; and often reverses the moral of Buddhist parables to assert the ascendancy of longing over its cessation. His sensuous reworkings of vernacular modes, and his intricate metaphysics, are effectively deployed in his novel. This trademark use of what might crudely be termed magic realism adds not just a dimension of timelessness and universality, but also a subversive exoticism that foreign readers might find seductive long after the topicality of much contemporary fiction from Pakistan recedes.

Basti, in spite of its engagement with grand issues, is a miniaturist's novel. Interwoven into its linear, if elliptical, narrative are diaries, letters, dreams, and memories that navigate the pre-Islamic Mahabharata, the 18th-century invasion of Delhi by Persian armies, and the so-called mutiny of 1857. Aptly, the narrator, Zakir, is a historian. His intimate recollections of a romanticised, idyllic childhood, and observations of an uneventful life in his adopted city Lahore, gradually turn into a fragmented meditation on history.

Central to Zakir's meditations are the chronicles of the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammed's grandson Husain, whose tiny army was defeated at the Battle of Karbala by the Umayyad tyrant Yazid two generations after the advent of Islam. Husain's own Shiite background makes his use of this tragic symbolism intensely poignant. Recent events add retrospective depths to a fine novel, finally introduced to an international readership. Let's hope his nomination for a major international prize also signals the publication in English of Husain's best short fiction.

Aamer Hussein's 'The Man from Beni Mora: new and selected stories' is published this year