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“In those days, we used to live for literature"
An Interview with Intezar Hussian

 

Sohail:  Intezar Saheb, I would like to ask you some questions about your personal and family life, as well as about your literary life.  Could you tell me about your childhood?

Intezar: I have given many interviews in my life and this question has been asked many times.  When I have narrated everything about my childhood, I feel I have said very little.  Perhaps I can’t describe the ambiance of my childhood in words.  It does somehow appear in my writings, but when I talk about it in an interview, I feel as if I have been unfair to my childhood.  With this in mind, I shall narrate some key points.

            There was a community called Dibai - near Aligarh - it still exists.  It’s a small town in the district of Bulandshehar in India.  It was very close to Aligarh.  Even though it was a town, it was more like a village.  The first 8 years of my life that I spent there are still fresh in my memory.  After that I moved to Meerut and then to Lahore, in Pakistan.  But those 8 years are still safely tucked away in my memory.  Both Hindus and Muslims lived in Dibai.  We lived at the end of the Muslim neighbourhood and at the start of the Hindu neighbourhood.  There were many Hindu families around our house.  During Diwali Festival (the festival of lights), they used to light up rows of little oil lamps around the houses, and I used to climb up the walls and steal those lamps and collect them.  There was a Hindu temple in front of our house.  I would often wake up very early in the morning, when it was still dark, by the chanting of the priest.  Those chants still resonate in my ears.   

My mother’s family was from a Shia background, but on my father’s side was a mixed Shia-Sunni family, with Sunnis in the majority.  During family gatherings, both types of relatives used to mingle.  My father had two uncles, and we used to call them Dada (grandpa).  One of them was an Honorary Magistrate and he was posted at a high position in the Indian Intelligence.  He was on friendly terms with British officers.  The other Dada was somewhat of a wizard and had a great interest in mysticism.  If people had encounters with evil spirits they would be brought to him, and he would exorcise the evil spirits out.

 When I was a child, I used to disappear from the house in the afternoons when everyone in the family was taking a siesta. The atmosphere in those hot afternoons was eerie; it was believed that headless demons and witches lived on trees.  The interesting thing is that while others saw all the evil spirits, I could see nothing!  I especially miss the rainy season; as soon as monsoons arrived, the Hindu festivals would start.  It was a mixture of season and culture.  I grew up in the atmosphere of Muharram, which is full of grief-stricken Shia rituals.  At one time I was really into prayers, and would often also chant Azaan - the call to prayers. I even wrote laments.  My father was quite religious; most of his books were of religious nature. Of these, I found three books most useful - The Urdu translation of the Bible, the Urdu translation of “Nehjul Balaagha”, and “Aab-e-Hayaat”.  The Urdu translation of Bible was so good that I brought it with me to Lahore.  My father insisted that I learn Arabic. He wanted to send me to Lucknow exclusively for religious education.  He made me read the Qura’an, but I never learned Arabic.  I used to be quite fond of the margins of the Qura’an, which had the legends.  In the explanation of one verse, it said, "When God punished the Israelites, they were degraded to monkeys, and the whole community was turned into a colony of monkeys”.  Later, when I read Kafka’s "Metamorphosis”, I remembered that verse.  I wrote a fiction entitled "The Last Human” with inspiration from this very verse and I used the language of the Bible.

Sohail: Emotionally, were you closer to your mother or your father?

Intezar: I did not have the usual attachment with my parents.  I was close to them but not in the traditional way.  I was the only son with four older sisters and one younger sister, so I was quite the darling of the family.

Sohail: Tell me about your father.

Intezar: My father was a very honest and principled person and as a result he was not very successful in the practical aspects of life.  He tried agriculture as well as business, but was not very successful.  Then he moved to Hapur.  He used to give lectures against collecting interest [he believed it was forbidden in Islam].

Sohail: What was it like in Hapur?

Intezar: All around our house, there were fields, trees and ponds. There was a Dharamshala where the Hindus used to incinerate their dead.  We spent many years in Hapur - my eldest sister was marred there.  She was very close to me and wanted me to become a government official.  

            I was admitted to Grade 8 in Hapur.  It was a Hindu school; most of the students and all the teachers were Hindu and there was only one other Muslim student in the school.  They were very kind and gentle and I did not experience any prejudice.  I completed my High School Examination there.  An interesting incident happened there.  Since my father was a very strict Muslim, he did not eat anything prepared by Hindus.  They used to offer me sweets in the school, but I would always refuse to eat them. So, I asked for a refund.  The Principal called me in his office and tried to reason with me, but I did not agree, so he said, "You don’t have to pay any fees”. Even after that incident, everyone treated me very well. I had a Hindi and Sanskrit teacher who was specially kind to me, as he liked my Persianized Urdu.  He used to help prepare me for debates.  After many many years, when I went back to Delhi, I went to see him.  He was a retired professor of Sanskrit in Delhi.  There were a few sadhu (saintly) looking disciples waiting for him, and when they saw me, they asked me what association did I have with their guru?  I told them that he used to be my Hindi teacher in school.  When the professor found out that his student had become a writer, he was very pleased.

Sohail: You started school in Grade 8 - did that cause you any problems?

Intezar: My father had arranged a tutor for me so I was well prepared.  In High School examination, I got First Division.  My sister wanted me to become a District Magistrate, so I was sent for higher education to Meerut.  I completed my B.A. from Meerut College.  My sister wanted me to compete in Administrative Examination, but I wanted to teach and be a writer.  I took a job and started preparing for my Master’s degree.  I moved to a cousin’s house.  My uncle was a magistrate - he arranged a government job for me as a food ration inspector.  I started to study Urdu literature for my Master’s degree.  My teacher was Professor Karraar Hasan.  I used to go to his house to study.  He was a freedom fighter and his house had become a political hub.  First we talked about the problems of Muslims, and then we discussed the poetry of Meer and Ghalib.  Those were very formative years in my career.

Sohail: How did you feel when you left home?

Intezar: When I went to Meerut, it was the first time I had left home.  I used to miss home a lot and would cry a lot.  I used to go home every Sunday.  My uncle often taunted, "How can you study if you keep running off to your home every week?”  But, gradually I got used to being away from home.

Sohail: Were you shy or outgoing?

Intezar: I was very shy, and I still am.  I suffered a lot due to my shyness.  When I was at the school, I could not mix well with other students.  Of course, there were no girls in the school and homosexuality was rampant.  Every student was involved with some other student, but I stayed away from this.  Had I got involved, perhaps I would have lost my shyness.  Because my father was a religious man, and often preached people about morality theretofore I stayed away from such activities.  In his opinion, such sexual relations were immoral and forbidden by religion.  In Meerut College, I barely made two or three friends, and they to were transient friends.

Sohail: Did you have a chance to socialize with female students at Meerut College?

Intezar: Meerut College was co-educational.  We had 3 girls in our class - two of them were Hindu and one of them was a Muslim.  But, even there, there was segregation.  We had no contact with them.  I became the editor of a magazine and asked the girls very sheepishly if they wanted to contribute articles for the magazine, but never got a chance to mix with them.  I never developed an informal relationship with them. 

Sohail: How did you develop the interest in writing, and when did you start writing?

Intezar: When I became the student of Urdu literature, I started to study it seriously.  I decided that if my focus was Urdu literature, then I must have a good knowledge about that subject. So I read the history of Urdu literature. I truly enjoyed the writings of Mohammed Hussian Azad and gradually developed an interest in writing in Urdu.  I had no idea that I would be writing fiction one day. In the beginning, I was interested in poetry and wrote some critiques of poetry. The idea of writing fiction came to me much later.

Sohail: What was the literary atmosphere in Meerut?

Intezar: It was in Meerut that I met Mohammad Hussian Askari.  I learned a lot from him.  I met him in rather unusual circumstances.  Once there was a mushaera (an Urdu poetry gathering) organized at Meerut College in which Firaq Gorakhpuri participated.  I was very keen to meet him.  I went to see him at the mushaera but I was very disappointed. The audience did not appreciate him as much as others like Josh and Jigar, and some people even booed him.  I was quite disheartened.  When I reached home, I thought we should invite Firaq to the College.   After consulting a friend, we decided to invite him to the College through Urdu Society.  We also consulted Karrar Saheb.  He said, “I will give you a tip - professors like to give lectures, so ask him to give a lecture on modern literature”. We went to Firaq Saheb and made the request, he looked at us intently and asked, "Have you read any modern literature?”  I said, “Yes, I have read N.M.Rashid, Akhtarul Iman, Faiz and Bedi”.  He was convinced and accepted our invitation to give a lecture.  We were delighted.  When he came to give his lecture, another person who was somewhat shabbily dressed accompanied him, so we did not pay him much attention.  His personality did not impress us either.  During his lecture, Firaq Saheb said, “Contemporary writers include Mohammed Hasan Askari, who is here with us today”.  We were quite surprised.  I asked him, “Are you the Mohammed Hasan Askari who wrote ‘Haramzadi’?”[1].  He said, “Yes!”.  I had read several of his stories.  On our way back to Firaq Saheb’s place, I had a chance to talk a little more with Askari Saheb, and discovered that he was living in Meerut.  We started to socialize and gradually we developed a strong bond of friendship.  By chance, Z. Ansari was also from Meerut and wanted to start a nucleus of progressive struggle.  I attended  the first gathering of the progressive circle in Meerut that Z. Ansari organized.  He thought that I was an aspiring progressive writer.  After the event, I met Askari Saheb.  When Z. Ansari Saheb came to see me again, just by chance, Askari Saheb had also come to see me.   As soon as Ansari Saheb saw Askari Saheb, he was turned off and left disappointed.  Askari Saheb was also astonished to see him.  I grew closer to Askari Saheb and when he moved to Lahore and asked his family to join him, he asked them to take me along.  In those days, Lahore was the hub of contemporary literature, and once I reached Lahore, I planted my roots there.  I had no idea that it would become so difficult to travel back and forth between the two countries. 

Sohail: When did you move to Pakistan?

Intezar: I went to Pakistan in October 1947.  In those days, there was a special train between India and Pakistan.

Sohail: What did your family think of your migration to Pakistan?

Intezar: They had no objections.  Many young people were migrating to Pakistan.  It was a way for me to escape family pressure to be a government officer, and follow my own desire to be a writer.

Sohail: When did you write your first story, and when was it published?

Intezar: In 1947, when there was a rumour that there was going to be an attack on Meerut, I felt that I should write a story.  I started writing two stories at the same time, and after reaching Pakistan, I edited and polished them, then published them.  My first story was published in “Adab-e- Lateef” in 1948.

Sohail: How were your received in literary circles?

Intezar: I read my first story in a literary gathering, which was presided by Mukhtar Siddiqui.  He praised my story and it was very encouraging.

Sohail: Did you feel self-confident?

Intezar: I had a feeling that the story was well written.  When I presented it in the literary gathering, there was some criticism of the use of the language.  Someone said that the language I used was that of the countryside.  Afterwards I discovered that the criticism had originated from Muzaffar Ali Sayyed, and he liked the story very much.  Gradually, I became a close friend of Muzaffar.  We both had a passion for classical literature.  Muzaffar introduced me to Russian literature.  Later, I also became a friend of Nasir Kazmi.

Sohail: What was your employment?

Intezar: The periodical “Imroz” was about to start publishing.  A friend of Askari Saheb recommended me to Faiz Saheb.  He asked me a couple of questions and said that if the periodical started to publish, he would hire me.  In those days, “Nizam” used to be published from Bombay.  When it started to publish from Lahore, I edited it for some time.  When it started to flounder, “Imroz” started publishing and I transferred to it.  I got the opportunity to work with Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, who was well grounded in classical literature.  He used to have many progressive writers visit him, and they used to tease him:

Maulana, have you read ‘Tilsam Ho Sharba’?”[2]

“No”. 

Maulana, have you read ‘War and Peace’?”

“No”

“Then, what have you read?”

Sohail: In addition to fiction, you have had a liaison with Journalism.  How did you manage the two interests?

Intezar: My friends used to say, “One who becomes a journalist can’t be a scholarly writer”.  They believed that journalism is a profession that crushes literature.  I was aware of it from the beginning.  I tried hard to get rid of it.  I wanted to go into an academic profession, but unfortunately for me, it never materialized.  I applied many times, but they preferred their own candidates to me.  I was unemployed several times.  Finally, when I got a job as a columnist in “Mashriq”, Nasir Kazmi warned me that it was a challenge to keep journalism and literary writing apart.  I accepted the challenge.  When I started to write a daily column under the title “Lahore Nama”, I could not write anything literary for several months, but then this process got started too.

Sohail: How did you manage this challenge?

Intezar: In the beginning I had a lot of difficulty, but then I started to circulate around the city and became a cultural ambassador.  Whenever there was a cultural program, I used to appear there.  Before this happened, I was trapped in literary circles only.  Journalism helped to liberate me.  As a result, I got to meet many women.

Sohail: Were you less shy after you became a journalist?

Intezar: No, I remained shy.  However, I was popular with women and was often invited in their gatherings, but I never took advantage of these opportunities.  Female students became my admirers.  They used to think of me as an important writer because of “Lahore Nama”, not because of my skills as a writer of fiction.  I tried many times to tell them that this was journalism not literature, but they never understood, and my shyness never left me.  I remained a klutz!

Sohail: Was your marriage a love marriage or an arranged marriage?

Intezar: There were many opportunities of falling in love, but I could never get involved in such matters.  Once I tried, but it remained incomplete.  I was beaten by my own shyness.  It never culminated.  I was married in a traditional way in 1966.

Sohail: What happened after marriage?

Intezar: Gradually, I got into the family life.  My wife used to complain that I go to see my friends every evening.  One evening, Nasir Kazmi said to me, “Now that you are married, you are of no use to us.  Go and spend time with your wife”.  Gradually, I tried to create a balance between friendships and family life.  Nasir Kazmi also got married.  We used to try to end the gatherings of friends by about 11:00 PM. 

Sohail: How did your shyness influence your marital life?

Intezar: My wife is very traditional; not very social.  She only has one or two friends, the rest of her life rotates around the family and relatives.  Once an older gentleman came to see her.  He was wearing a traditional turban.  My wife said that he was her brother.  Later I found that he was a family friend. He invited us to visit his village near Harrappa in Punjab.  When I went there, I had an opportunity of seeing a Punjabi village for the first time, and I truly enjoyed the experience.

Sohail: Do you have any children?

Intezar: No, I feel free without children.  If nature has kept me free, it is a good thing.

Sohail: Every writer has literary identity.  When did you feel that you would become a writer of fiction?

Intezar: In the beginning, I was interested in new poetry.  I was impressed by N.M.Rashid and Akhtarul Iman.  Then I got interested in literary criticism.  When I started writing stories in 1947, I realized that fiction is truly my field.  Therefore, after reaching Lahore, I started to concentrate on fiction.   

Sohail: What is your affiliation with progressive struggle and modernization?

Intezar: In the beginning, I had a strong association with the Society of Progressive Writers.  They were very lively and spirited; they also used to have more female participants.  These were their heydays.  It’s there that I met your uncle, Arif Abdul Mateen.  He was the Joint Secretary.  He was introduced to me by Muzaffar Ali Sayyed in the office of ‘Adb-e-Lateef’.  After a few encounters, we became friends.  After that my association with Society of Progressive Writers waned, but I remained friends with Arif Saheb. 

 Gradually I started socializing more with Modernist writers and started their meetings. In the beginning, the meetings of the Modernist writers seemed dull and sleepy, but gradually I got used to it and started to participate regularly.

Sohail: When did you publish the collection of your stories?

Intezar: The first collected works, “Gali Koochay” was published around 1952.  By then, the literary circles had accepted me as writer of fiction.  However, my writings appealed to a small segment that had developed a taste for my style and slang.  A. Hamid was the popular writer at that time.

Sohail: You once said that you don’t believe in cleaning and sanitizing the language.  Could you elaborate on it?

Intezar: Urdu has the character of the ghazal.  The poets insist on keeping the language literary and  pristine.  I prefer the local accents and slang.  That’s why I like the poetry of Nazeer Akbarabadi.  In addition to refinement, I also like to see some crudeness in literature.  I believe in using the popular, everyday  language.

Sohail: In one of your writings you mentioned that you prefer experience over ideology.  Can you expand on it?

Intezar: I grew up in the era of progressive literature that believed in socialist ideology.  I was influenced by Krishan Chander.  Later I read Manto and Bedi and developed the sense of sophistication and the role of ideology in literature started to bother me. Progressive literature insisted on writings based on ideology, but I had a growing desire to oppose this.  Askari Saheb also believed that the writer should be free to write according to his own style and his own notion.  I too believe that the writer must be honest with his own experiences.

Sohail: In commenting about history, time and past, you once wrote that you were still wandering in the past. You are learning about story writing from those people who are not even mentioned in the history of fiction.  You write fables[3].  How did you develop this taste?. 

Intezar: This aspect started in recent past.  When I wrote stories about India, people objected that I was writing about the past, that I was the victim of nostalgia; that we should write in the present.  This never appealed to me.  I had read classical literature and gradually got interested in history.  I started to read the literature of ancient India I read Ramaayan, Mahabharat, Katha Kahani.  The Punjab Library had old Sanskrit literature of India.  I tried to read that.  Finally, I discovered the fables of Buddha.  Sohail Ahmed Khan got me some fables from the library.  I thought of translating these stories.  I wrote stories like ‘Kacchwa’ (Turtle). I was angry to note that our critics had written articles on Joyce and Flabert, but never mention Buddha’s fables.  Our literary critics never tell us anything about our own ancient classical poetry and literature written in Sanskrit.

Sohail: What is the reaction of modernist writers?

Intezar: I have travelled this road alone.  Gayan Chand Jain wrote a book on ancient literature, but he had a lot of criticism on ancient literature.  I have always been very fond of old fables, narratives and mythology.

Sohail: It seems to me that people who criticize you as nostalgic don’t understand that you consider the whole history as a living organism that lives in today.

Intezar: In my view, the division of past, present and future is artificial.  I have gradually come to realize that the whole of time is an enormous today!

Sohail:   Where do you think you have reached now in the evolution of your literary journey?

Intezar: I feel that there are three streams flowing within me now. 

First, the stream of old Indian traditions

Second, the Islamic stream, and,

Third, the modern stream of western thought.

But, I came to this realization only after I had completed my journey as a writer of fiction.

Sohail: But, you are still a rising star.

Intezar: I am approaching 75 now!

Sohail: What are your views on religion?

Intezar: My father was very religious, but I managed to come out of his influence during college days.  I do have religious traditions in me.  However, I have developed an aversion for Wahabiyat, fundamentalism and Puritanism over time.  When religion reaches a new culture, it should accept its influence.  People say that the rituals of Hindus are non-Islamic.  I say that our belief has come from Islam and our culture has come from India.  It has given rise to a richness of culture from the Islam of Arabs.  The apex of religion lies in its ability to blend with culture rather than just remaining a faith.  Different religions take different shapes in different parts of the world.  The Islam of Hind is different from the Islam of the Arabs.  I own my culture.  I have no interest in puritanical Islam.

Sohail: What is your opinion of the climate that was created by Pakistani socialism?

Intezar: In the beginning I liked it.  It felt like it was a compromise between progressive ideology and religious traditions, but gradually socialism started to diminish and the influence of Islam started to increase.  Many socialists turned out to be opportunists and started to take advantage of religion.  Now it appears that it was better when people were straight and used to talk about Islam and socialism distinctly.  People used to express their ideologies honestly.  In my view, over the last 50 years, the intellectual diversity seems to be disappearing leading to conformity and intellectual decline. 

Recently, I published a letter in “Zehn-e-Jadeed” (Modern Mind).  I said that people who used to consider me regressive and raise the socialist slogan have themselves become fanatics. At the time when my friends turned to Islam, I was turning to Hindu gods and Hindu mythology.

Sohail: I feel that the atmosphere in Pakistan was more secular and it has gradually become more intolerant. What do you think?

Intezar: I concur with  you views.  We have less tolerance now.  I feel nostalgic about the time when we used to debate different ideas and ideologies, and there was a continuous dialogue.

Sohail: I want to ask you as a cultural interpreter; how do you feel when your work is translated in another language?

Intezar: When my stories are translated in Hindi, I am happy to see that my stories will reach many  new readers.  Now when I visit India, I meet many people who have read my stories in Hindi, not in Urdu.  However, when my stories are translated in English, I don’t have the feeling that it will reach the ordinary reader of the English language; the translation will remain confined to universities.  It may reach some intellectuals and some new people, which is nice, but I don’t think I will ever win the hearts of English readers through translations. 

Sohail: You went to Calcutta to receive an award - tell me more about it.

Intezar: Mohammad Umar Meman had translated some of my stories, which reached other writers.  The magazine >Yatra’ published my stories and Faiz’s poetry in translation.  The publishers of Yatra decided to give an award of Asian writers and chose me as the recipient.  This is how I happened to go to Calcutta.

Sohail:   What are your impressions of your travels in North America and Europe?

Intezar: The first trip was to London, when Iftekhar Arif invited me to Urdu Centre. Altaf Gohar was there too.  Later, I went to Oslo.  Once the German Cultural Centre invited writers from India and Pakistan and it included Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider, Surainder Prakash, Balraj Komal, Jamiluddin Aali, Iftekhar Arif and I.  They invited me again at a later date.

Sohail: What is your opinion of the work in Urdu in Europe and North America?

Intezar: I feel there are two kinds of Urdu speaking people in the West.  First, the group whose interest in Urdu is limited to Urdu ghazals, which are recited in mushaeras.  The second group includes professors and scholars who are at the universities, who are translators, who are critics.  This latter group includes people like Chowhdhury Naeem and Umar Meman.  These people are helping to introduce Urdu literature to the West. They are doing serious work.  I am sure you would know more about these things than I do.  The tragedy is that there is no communication between those who are arranging mushaeras and those who are doing serious work in Urdu.  The travelogues published in Pakistan don’t mention serious Urdu scholars in the West. 

Sohail: We are almost at the end; would you like to mention something we have not covered so far?

Intezar: I would just like to say, once again, that when I arrived in Pakistan, I was welcomed there by people like Muzaffar Ali Sayyed, Haneef Ramay, Sheikh Salahuddin, Ahmed Mushtaq and Nasir Kazmi. They helped me to rehabilitate. That was the period of 1950's.Those friends have played an important role in my literary journey and my evolution.  In those days, we used to work together, sometimes we used to work all nights, and in those days we used to live for literature. 

Interview in Urdu by Khalid Sohail Toronto, 2001

(Translated into English by: Khursheed Ahmed, 2002)


[1]Haramzadi means the daughter of the Harem or an illegitimate girl

[2]>Tilsam Ho Sharba' is one of the classics of Urdu Literature  

[3]The word used by Intezar Hussian is Jaatak kahani

 

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