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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Intizar Husain

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To purchase Basti

Title: Basti
Author: Intizar Husain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 215 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: Basti - US
Basti - UK
Basti - Canada
Basti - India
Basti - España
  • Urdu title: بستى
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Frances W. Pritchett
  • With an Introduction by Asif Farrukhi

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine impressionistic slice of Muslim life between India and Pakistan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Dawn . 17/2/2013 Raza Rumi
The Hindu . 2/9/2007 Ziya Us Salam
The Independent . 17/5/2013 Aamer Hussein
The National . 8/12/2012 Scott Esposito
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . 3/2/2013 Paul Overby

  From the Reviews:
  • "The grand nature of Basti’s tale, therefore, grows on the reader; like an anti-hero, Basti weaves an epic and also challenges it from within by underlining the grains of nothingness in our everyday lives. Basti does not have a well-defined ending, as it reinforces the melancholy mood and raises more questions about the emptiness of human existence. Frances W. Pritchett’s translation is competent, though it struggles to address the intractability of the Urdu language. (...) Overall, Pritchett does an efficient job for which she must be commended." - Raza Rumi, Dawn

  • "Intizar Husain does not live in the past, so much as he draws from it. His nostalgia is not comforting, there is that disquiet air that runs through his works, and Basti, arguably the finest novel on Partition, is no different. Distance in time often diminishes emotion, but in Husain’s case it only serves to distil it: what goes away is the peripheral, what is retained in the essential." - Ziya Us Salam, The Hindu

  • "Basti, in spite of its engagement with grand issues, is a miniaturist's novel. Interwoven into its linear, if elliptical, narrative are diaries, letters, dreams, and memories that navigate the pre-Islamic Mahabharata, the 18th-century invasion of Delhi by Persian armies, and the so-called mutiny of 1857." - Aamer Hussein, The Independent

  • "What results is a very modernistic pastiche, which, combined with Basti's minimalistic prose, tends to impose a distance between us and the very dramatic historical events around which the novel is built. (...) Although Husain's prose in Frances W Pritchett's translation is generally muscular and efficient, occasionally it crosses over into dullness and cliché. (...) One must commend Basti for its strange, melancholy approach to the partition of India, though its successes only partially compensate for its failures. A book that perhaps works a little too hard to frustrate a reader's expectations, it is nonetheless a worthwhile complement to the more lush, consciously historical novelisations of the subcontinent's tumultuous history." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "It is a compelling read -- a fine work of fiction that foreshadows in so many ways the Pakistan that exists today. Mr. Husain's fiction is marvelous for the writing alone. As a translator, Ms. Pritchett has done wonders to preserve many of the nuanced elements of the original" - Paul Overby, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Basti is, in many ways, a sweeping novel, beginning in an India still under British rule before the Second World War and extending past the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. But this isn't standard historical fare: Husain offers detailed and often dialogue-heavy scenes, but skips over great periods of time, in a novel that is more photograph album than a narrative focused on continuity.
       The central figure is Zakir, and the novel begins in his childhood, in the village of Rupagnar, where electricity is just being introduced. Change is a force that can not be stopped: Zakir's father is only absent for a single day from guarding the mosque, but when he returns the electricity has been hooked up, against his wishes; monkeys, too, are defeated by the high-power wires. Tellingly, too, it is about this time that the plague ravages the local population, Hindu and Muslim.
       Relatives move to town, and among them is young Sabirah, a girl whom Zakir befriends and who remains a constant (though not a physical) presence in his life. Setting the tone for their story, young Zakir suggests early on: "let's play bridegroom and bride", but she nervously worries that someone will see -- and a rainstorm interrupts them before anything else happens. Their relationship is more forcefully interrupted later, and they remain separated -- Sabirah the one member of her family to remain in India after the 1947 partition, while all the other Muslims (including Zakir) moved to Pakistan, with most of Sabirah's closest relatives going to the eastern part, what would later become Bangladesh. Sabirah remains on Zakir's mind, yet he finds it difficult to reach out and even just contact her over the many years that follow their separation.
       The trauma of partition is strongly evident, yet Husain presents it and much else obliquely. There is conflict, flight, occasional terror, but little of the worst excesses of partition -- or then the 1971 war -- are described. Instead, most is in the vein of:

The discussion was first ideological, then personal, then insulting, then abusive, and then it came to blows. Passerby stood bewildered, stared at the combatants with fright, then asked each other, "What's happening ? What's going to happen ?" In everyone's eyes a single terror, as if something was indeed about to happen. Then they went their several ways, and forgot that anything had happened at all. As though nothing had happened, as though nothing would happen.
       A first-person account by Zakir, dated diary entries ("a means for keeping my mind occupied during the wartime nights") of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, offer greater immediacy, yet also take on a surreal, alienated feel, Zakir exposed to war yet largely only indirectly. And:
     The war threw the life of the city into confusion. Inside me, times and places are topsy-turvy. Sometimes I have absolutely no idea where I am, in what place.
       Basti is a novel of this uncertain sense of displacement. So, also, it's littered with abandoned houses, left behind by those who fled, new inhabitants (other refugees) often moving in in a world turned upside down. Rupagnar is abandoned, but remains the Zakir's (lost) home; moving to a new(ly created) state demands new allegiances, yet Zakir always remains torn.
       It is a friend of Zakir's who suggests, in answer to the question:
     "What has happened ?"
     "It isn't clear. But what's the good of clarity ? What I feel obscurely is everything."
       Zakir is not convinced, but Husain is. There are scenes of precise clarity in Basti, but the overall feel is one of flashes and fog in this impressionistic novel of these nations and their history. It is successful as such, giving a good feel of the experience of these times -- even as it can frustrate in its many shifts and often disjointed narrative. Basti is a different kind of piecemeal historical novel, less concerned with detailed realism and continuity; as such, in many ways, it is also more true to life.
       A rewarding though unusual read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2013

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Basti: Reviews: Other books by Intizar Husain under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian-born Intizar Husain (انتظار حسین) (1925-2016), moved to Pakistan after the Partition. He was a leading Urdu author.

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