'Basti': an exquisite novel of Pakistan

Pakistan makes for America's most complex international relationship. A newly translated work by one of the nation's great writers, Intizar Husain, illuminates and captivates.

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On the first of many visits I have made to Pakistan in recent years, I passed armed guards and went through a metal detector to attend a splendid nighttime wedding reception with hundreds of flower garlands strung from the ceiling of a colossal, well-lit tent. Endless carpets had been laid on the ground and plush sofas provided for our comfort. It was there, over Kashmiri tea, that I had a long conversation with a retired Pakistani army colonel who is an erudite authority on U.S. Civil War history and a veteran of his own country's extraordinarily violent civil war of 1971.

He was one of 90,000 POWs, he explained, taken captive by India after the ensuing Indo-Pakistani conflict in December 1971 that gave birth to the country of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, and that absolutely crushed his -- and Pakistan's -- spirit. At exactly that time, Pakistan was useful to the United States as a key channel for Henry Kissinger's secret approaches to Mao's China on behalf of the Nixon White House. Pakistan was also a significant U.S. ally against the India-leaning Soviets.


By Intizar Husain, translated by Frances W. Pritchett.
New York Review Books ($15.95)

Much as it does today, a troubled Pakistan sat dead in the middle of a global chess match.

"Basti," the wonderful, dream-like novel by Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Frances Pritchett and just published by New York Review Books for the first time in the United States, beautifully illuminates this tense period in Pakistani history -- an era that reverberates to the present day.

The story revolves around Zakir ("he who remembers"), beginning with an idyllic childhood in a leafy, peaceful town of Hindus and Muslims in India. Life changes abruptly when Zakir and his family hurriedly migrate to Pakistan at the time of the 1947 partition. The novel next centers on Zakir's uneasy, aching and increasingly distressed adulthood in Lahore. It culminates with the short and awful days of the 1971 war and subsequent street protests.

It is a compelling read -- a fine work of fiction that foreshadows in so many ways the Pakistan that exists today.

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Mr. Husain's fiction is mar- velous for the writing alone. As a translator, Ms. Pritchett has done wonders to preserve many of the nuanced elements of the original -- including the sometimes disorienting changes in points of view, references to wide-ranging literary and religious works of the East and West, poetic evocation of the past, the Shiite experience, interior monologues and fantasies as well as letters and diary entries, and peculiar paragraphs with descriptions of trees and birds and insects that made me think of Kafka.

Ms. Pritchett, a Columbia professor and expert in Urdu poetry, provides a useful, unobtrusive glossary to explain words and references in the novel. This contributes considerably to the understanding and enjoyment of several passages.

The word basti means "settlement" and I admired the novel's portrait of community on several levels. Family, tradition, dusty streets and lost love allow a truly visceral experience of Zakir's life and, by extension, a real taste of pre- and post-partition villages and cities.

In the mythical town of Rupnagar, where Zakir is born, we meet Abba Jan, Zakir's pious father, and Ammi, his long-suffering mother, whose sister has gone with her family to an ill-fated future in East Pakistan. We also meet Zakir's childhood friend Sabirah, who as a young woman stays behind in Rupnagar when other Muslims depart. Zakir fills his years in Lahore with long walks to nowhere in particular. Over tea, he discusses with friends the future of the country but resists affiliation with a party. He longs for Sabirah and reveals an astonishing inner life of visions that blend past and present, dream and reality, Rupnagar and Lahore. He buries his aged father amid the anger, humiliation and desolation that follow the war.

Reading "Basti" is a bit like running one's fingers over the texture of a Pakistani folk-art embroidery. One senses quilted cotton with sequins here and there, thicker and thinner ridges, patches of many subdued colors and surprises in the irregular needlework. The story's fabric is similarly exquisite and simple all at once, tempting the reader at every turn with the warmth, the suspense, the humanity, and the laments that are sewn in, stitch by stitch.

• • •

Upon its first publica- tion in 1979, some criticized "Basti" as a work that did not provide a clear political resolution and that gave a negative impression of Pakistan.

Of course, the country has not enjoyed a clear political resolution in the years of alternating civilian and military rule since then. Our Western media -- and Pakistan's, too, for that matter -- reinforce the country's frightening image. Car bombs kill Shiites in Quetta, political party demonstrations turn violent, drone missiles strike regularly along the frontier with Afghanistan, common criminals make the streets of Karachi dodgy and extremists shoot girls who just want to attend school. All this is set against a less-publicized backdrop of good and ordinary people doing good and ordinary things in a country that has the immense challenges of poor governance, a crisis of sincerity and an urgency brought on by demographics and the huge scale of a broad array of economic and social problems.

"We're unlucky people," says one of Mr. Husain's characters. Another asks, "Was it good that Pakistan was created?"

"Basti" is an excellent starting point for the work of Mr. Husain, now in his late 80s and recently named a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. His fiction is also a steppingstone to understanding the origins and mindset of the country whose military helped America supply and train the 1980s anti-Soviet Mujahideen freedom fighters, many of whom later became one or another version of Taliban; the country that harbored Osama bin Laden; the country that is a member of the nuclear club; and the country whose former POWs are lending their only sons to conflicts in Kashmir, police duty in the tribal areas of Northwest Pakistan or U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa.

Pushing back against the dreadful emptiness that has come with defeat, Zakir's close friend Afzal asks for his help to build a garden with roses and a mango orchard, because "we have to make Pakistan beautiful." At that moment, an Indian fighter jet roars across the sky. "Can't we stop the wars?" Afzal asks. "No," answers Zakir.

Paul Overby, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and corporate executive, is a board member of the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and the American Middle East Institute. He is co-founder of Rabta, LLC, a company dedicated to business development between the U.S. and Pakistan (poverby@rabtallc.com).



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