The memories of war, love and loss common to two nations

India-born Pakistani Urdu author Intizar Husain was one of the most celebrated writers of Pakistan. His novellas, Din Aur Dastan, exploring memories of war, love and loss that the two countries hold in common, have been translated into English nearly six decades after they first appeared in Urdu.

Although both novellas revolve around the turbulent events of Partition, the narratives have diametrically opposite frameworks. While Day focuses on the minutiae of daily life in a hamlet, Dastan spans centuries and vast distances covering deserts and forests and wide rivers. Common to both is an exuberant tapestry of omens, myths and surreal happenings that leave no clue as to what lies ahead.

Twists and turns

In the introduction, one of the translators, Nishat Zaidi, lists out the essential elements of the Persian-Arabic tradition of dastan: razm (war), bazm (assembly), husn-o-ishq(beauty and love) and tilism(enchantment). While Dastan, filled with sweeping tales of war and bravery, lost-and-found loves, and restless souls wandering in search of their lives’ meaning, clearly lives up to this definition, the bizarre stories exchanged between characters in Day cover the elements in a tangential way.

Day takes the reader through the lives of the main characters at a time of great disturbance in the family. Zamir and his parents travel home when they learn that the family patriarch, Zamir’s grandfather, is ill. But they reach too late.

They stay back in their ancestral home, trying to come to terms with the loss. Zamir remembers his carefree childhood when he and his cousin, Tahsina, used to wander around the village, chasing butterflies and hunting chameleons.

'Day and Dastan' review: all the stories left behind

The memories are interspersed with the present where the elders — Zamir’s mother, aunt and Tai Amma — slowly get over their grief and indulge in gossip and story-telling sessions once again. Then Zamir’s father quits his job and settles down in his village, deciding to build a smaller house for the family. The move comes with unexpected hurdles.

In Dastan, six friends come together and try to move past the tragedy of migrating from their home-towns by telling tales of brave men and their adventures. When the traditional narrator of dastans, Hakimji, is requested for a story, he says that he himself has become a dastan now: “Friends, dastans were left behind in Hindustan — looted. Now only their memories linger… I can remember only a piece here or a bit there, like a dream.”

This sets the stage for the author to narrate tales within tales, with characters ranging from historical figures to soldiers moving around darkened village streets and towns where the people are silent. The colours of bravery, anguish, arrogance and folly form the strands of this novella set in the backdrop of the 1857 war of independence.

You can start with either novella: both are equally engrossing and expansive. It is to the credit of the translators that the prose reads as smoothly as the original.

Day and Dastan; Intizar Husain, trs Nishat Zaidi, Alok Bhalla, Niyogi Books, ₹395

The writer is an author and poet. Her short stories have been published in many magazines and journals.

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