The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers, traverses a number of cities, the connections between them, and the people who live in them. Within this slender book are a great number of dichotomous themes, most of them facing off with each other: tradition and innovation, Hinduism and Islam, India and Pakistan. But all of these revolve around a greater theme of change, mostly that which comes with war, and how the people involved must react to it—and possibly lose their humanity in doing so.
The book opens with Zakir as a child in India, which, at the time includes what would soon be Pakistan. He recalls growing up as a small Muslim boy alongside Hindu boys and girls. The calm of his childhood, however, is upset by an explanation of how Cain murders and buries of his brother Abel, with Zakir’s mother cursing Cain’s blood, for “it was thinner than water!,” and a discussion that Doomsday will come “when those who can speak fall silent, and shoelaces speak.” This particularly gloomy talk soon becomes appropriate in this context, however, as it clearly foreshadows the war that will rend India and Pakistan apart, and separate families and friends.
It is interesting, and then sad, to observe how the role of religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India changes throughout Zakir’s life. This conflict is a common fact of life at the beginning of the novel—it’s a point of exasperation more than it is one of violence. For example, when the rainy season comes and soaks everything, the Hindu women sing night and day for the god Krishna to come and end the rainy season. Zakir’s mother, a Muslim woman, sighs over this, saying:
“Oh, these Hindu women won’t let us get a wink of sleep tonight! And on top of it the rain keeps coming down.”
“Bi Amma, this is the Janamashtami rain!” Auntie Sharifan elaborated: “Krishan-ji’s diapers are being washed.”
“Well, by now Krishan-ji’s diapers have been washed quite enough! The water is overflowing.”
The Hindu explanations of nature in terms of gods, and their terms of respect, “-ji,” and the like, flow easily from the Muslim women’s tongues. However, after the split of India and Pakistan, and the wars that follow, these cease, and the language in the text seems less colorful for it. The vibrancy of the references to Krishna and Vishnu seem dulled when replaced with the uniform allusions to Qu’ranic verses and the disciples Ali and Muhammed.
The majority of the novel concerns itself with Zakir’s position as a professor, caught in the war in Pakistan, while the woman he loved when they were children, Sabirah, is stuck in India. He escapes the war by losing himself in memory, and these passages are some of the most beautiful, particularly when he starts keeping a diary of the events of the war. In these entries, he remembers the plague that swept his town as a child, thus associating for the reader war with plague; he also tracks the confusion that comes with war. One of the most beautiful passages is Zakir realising that home, in war, means everything and nothing as the concept becomes more confused: “I can do nothing else for this city, but I can pray, and I do pray. In my mind is a prayer for Rupnagar, and its people as well, for I can no longer imagine Rupnagar apart from this city. Rupnagar and this city have merged together inside me, and become one town.” Here, the reader sees how in the desperation that comes with war, one must cope by surrendering what one knows as home and allow it to blend, pulling it closer, for the sake of being able to hope and pray for it. Zakir defies the inevitability of the destruction of Rupnagar, by stating, “No, the bomb shouldn’t fall on that neighbourhood. The house ought to stay safe, the whole house and the room which holds in trust the tears of my first night in Pakistan.” By blending the two places he regards as home, he can keep the former in some semblance of safety and wholeness in his mind.
The story of the novel—the chronicle of a Muslim man dealing with the loss of war-torn India and Pakistan—is good on its own, and the language is occasionally very beautiful, especially when the text loses itself in the storytelling of Muslim and Hindu myths, and as Zakir loses himself in them. However, for all the times that the language is elegant, there are instances of where wording seems awkward and there is a literalness that at times is detracting from the story. In her forward, translator Frances W. Pritchett explains that she has “not ‘transcreated’ the text or smoothed out its stylistic idiosyncrasies.” Spelling this out does not necessarily make the text easier for a non-Urdu speaker to read. One example hinges on the use of formality in spoken Urdu. Pritchett explains,
“. . . traditional Urdu is notable for its love of direct address and direct discourse. Speeches often begin with a form of address—sometimes a name or kinship term, or very commonly a vocative particle of some sort; while omitting or translating most, [Pritchett has] retained a few of the more vivid . . .”
The Urdu-speaking young man is very fond of addressing his fellow as “Yar!” This word is a term of comradeship, which is all well in itself, but, for the English-speaker, it calls to mind the cry of a bloodthirsty one-eyed pirate. Thus, the pages where the address is sprinkled throughout the text is almost comical. It’s possible to become quickly disenchanted with this frequency and form of address; in one two-page span, the term “yar” was used fourteen times. Here is a small sampling:
“Yar, that man seems a very suspicious character to me.”
“You’ve said something like this before.”
“But today I’m convinced of it.”
“Yar, anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I’ve begun to have doubts about.”
“Oh, let’s drop the subject, yar. I’ll tell you some news.”
“Really? All right.”
“Yar, today a letter came,” he said confidentially.
While this is the most extreme example of the proximity of the placement of this form of address, it can at times be distracting to an English reader. While Urdu is a more formalized language in which these forms of address and telling of proverbs is common, English is not—though that’s not to say there is anything wrong with presenting some foreignness in the translated text, There are schools of thought in translation theory stating that it is advantageous—if not beneficial—to have the reader work a little to understand a text.
Overall, this is a beautiful book that introduces the uninformed reader to a conflict that shook a whole subcontinent. It is strewn with beautiful language and references to cultures and religions the reader may be ignorant of. The novel is one for people who are interested in leaving their comfort zones and entering into a warzone, a place that was once a home, and learning what happens to those who stay, those who struggle with change. One can enjoy the lands traversed, be pulled in by the political struggle that is reminiscent, in some ways, of what the Western reader might associate with East and West Germany. And, in doing so, we can come to understand the meaning of basti, knowing, finally, that it is an international concept.