‘Intizar Husain took Urdu prose and fiction to new heights post-Premchand, Manto’ | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Pakistan Press Foundation

‘Intizar Husain took Urdu prose and fiction to new heights post-Premchand, Manto’

Pakistan Press Foundation

Ammar Shahbazi

Intizar Husain is one of those rare writers who make efforts to spread misconceptions about themselves, said Shamim Hanfi, a New Delhi-based literary critic.

Delivering a lecture titled ‘An unparalleled literary master: Intizar Husain’ at the Arts Council on Wednesday, Hanfi said, “Nobody has worked so hard to distort the interpretation of his own works as much as Intizar Husain.”

Husain, the 90-year-old author who has been nominated for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, was also present on the occasion.

Hanfi said the history of Urdu prose fiction – short story and novel – is relatively new. “We began with modern fiction, as there is no previous example of experiments in this genre,” he said. Juxtaposing the works of Husain and Qurratulain Hyder, Hanfi said both the writers were contemporaries, but Husain was more “democratic” in his approach to fiction.

“Annie Apa [Hyder] mainly wrote from the vantage point of a certain section of society. I see a strong resonance of the elite culture in her work,” he said. “Her atmosphere was more urban and her characters were more moneyed and cultured.”

Comparatively, Husain was more of a people’s author. “His characters are mostly suave and, to an extent, lazy. They don’t tend to subscribe to any extremist views; they are ordinary and somewhat confused.”

Hanfi rebuffed the attacks made by progressive writers on Husain and said no matter how much Husain claimed to be apolitical, his stories have a heavy political streak, which shines through most if his work.

“Intizar may not have shared the tag of being a part of the progressive movement, but his world view, his approach to life is very much akin to those of his critics,” he said.

But Hanfi was quick to add that Husain’s work is open to interpretations, as he, like any master of fiction, chose not to dictate his reader. “The essence of his work lies not with him, but the reader.”

“Unlike Annie Apa, who at times turned zealous about the past, Intizar is more restrained in his approach to history. He has a cold and indifferent view about the bygone.”

In the lecture, Hanfi pointed out that the existential dilemma of living in the 20th century was aptly presented by Husain. “He is someone who does not tell you something with his pen; he enacts his own confusions in his stories, which tell his tales.”

Citing Munshi Premchand as the founder of Urdu prose fiction, Hanfi said he believed that prose fiction in Urdu literature witnessed three major events that practically chartered new vistas for the genre.

One was the work of Premchand, who, in a way, gave Urdu literature an outlet to the genre and the other was Saadat Hasan Manto. “Manto’s contribution was such that he singlehandedly took Urdu prose fiction to a new level.”

Hanfi further said that the third milestone that has made a major impact on Urdu prose fiction – opening up new avenues not only for the genre but the language itself – was the oeuvre of Hyder and Husain, as these two writers have defined an age as complicated and twisted as this one. “An age replete with conflicting ideologies… and a baggage of history that witnessed Partition.”

When asked to comment on the analysis of his work by Hanfi, with a sheepish smile, Hussain said he did not know how his work could have so many hidden meanings. “I don’t know what to say. I write my stories as they come to me. I don’t know how critics see the layers of dimensions in my work.”

Quoting the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Husain said the work of an author is incomplete without his share of serious readers and critics. “So I have been lucky to have some serious readers and critics in my life, with whom I cherished a love-hate relationship all my life.”

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