INTIZAR HUSAIN’S DAY AND DASTAN
Intizar Husain’s popularity with English-speaking readers has spiked since his death in 2016. It began with the biography, A Requiem for Pakistan, that year and was followed by translations of his book on Delhi and now two novellas—Day and Dastan (Din aur Dastan).
Distinct in form and content, the two works juxtapose novelistic realism and the fantastic narrative style of the Dastan. Steeped with the nostalgia for which Husain is famous, Day is the story of a feudal family watching their wealth slip away. The haveli that anchors them to their ancestry is mired in a court case that absorbs Zamir’s life. The familiar props that make up the paraphernalia of the mid-twentieth century zamindari household are rusting away.
A slow but certain decay suffuses the story and the people in it with a sense of asphyxiation. Zamir seeks to escape this oppressive air in his wanderings across the fields, while at home the women sit cooped up in the foreboding expectation of displacement. A stifling romance builds up between Zamir and his cousin Tehsina only to be smothered immediately by Zamir’s mother.
At the periphery are the promise and the pain of transition. In Day, it is a new house that will at once be a beginning and an end. It is telling that the family moves into the house before it is ready, and in the carts that carry their luggage sluggishly to the new kothi, one can imagine the caravans of migrants moving to a land not yet ready to nurture them.
Packaged in the same volume, Dastan overturns the languid pace of Din. It is electrifying and begs to be read out loud even in translation. Brimming with razm (adventure), bazm (gathering), tilism (sorcery) and ishq (love)— characteristic of a dastan—the story moves episodically from one heroic adventure to another. Yet the narrative is located against the displacement that follows a riot and the theme of loss permeates here too. Moving through stories that take us back in time instead of ahead, it uses the unique dastan style to let the fantastic inform the real and vice versa. We are transported to 1857, and Husain reframes Sher Shah Suri and Tipu Sultan as fabulous heroes in oral legends. While he follows the dastan-ic formula, he ends without the relief that a traditional dastan offers. The hero ends up lost. It is the way of Husain to leave a story as it might often be left in real life—without a solution.
DAY AND DASTAN by Intizar Husain (Translated by Nishat Zaidi and Alok Bhalla) NIYOGI BOOKS `395; 192 pages