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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sea Lies Ahead

Intizar Husain

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To purchase The Sea Lies Ahead

Title: The Sea Lies Ahead
Author: Intizar Husain
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 342 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: The Sea Lies Ahead - US
The Sea Lies Ahead - UK
The Sea Lies Ahead - Canada
The Sea Lies Ahead - India
  • Urdu title: آگے سمندر ہے
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Rakhshanda Jalil

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Our Assessment:

B+ : artful, unusual novel of place, time, and culture

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Deccan Chronicle . 10/1/2016 Karishma Attari
The Telegraph . 22/1/2016 Fuzail Asar Siddiqi
The Wire . 7/5/2016 T.C.A.Raghavan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reading The Sea Lies Ahead requires patience with a narrative style that moves in circles, as flashbacks, legends and myths form a big part of the storytelling, tapping into a deeper well of human experience than that of the hapless protagonist Jawad Hassan. (...) Through all of his actions or inactions runs the strain of lament: the death of a dream so big that it has paralysed the youth who changed countries on the belief of it. The novel is a powerful indictment of Pakistani governance and its people’s inability to live up to the potential of their new nation. It is also a touching paen to the difficulties of migration" - Karishma Attari, Deccan Chronicle

  • "Husain's novel is about a journey but it is not merely a journey in the quest of a new homeland. It is also a voyage into the past; an exploration of one's roots that cannot be obliterated amidst the confusion and commotion of an event like that of the Partition. (...) Husain's story is an attempt to locate Jawad's personal history in a larger narrative of seeking refuge, whether it is in history, fiction, or mythology. In the end, he enmeshes them to suggest an eternal recurrence of the same predicament throughout human history. The novel then becomes a survey of a larger history of migration and how it affects individuals in peculiar ways." - Fuzail Asar Siddiqi, The Telegraph

  • "Neither time nor chronology is important in this book since space and sentiment is what really interests Intizar Hussain. (...) Jawed is a passive observer but passivity is inevitable since political and social decay is almost a natural force -- witnessed equally by the destruction of Krishna’s city Dwarka or the fall of the great Islamic capitals in medieval Spain -- Cordoba, Granada, Seville. This is a sombre and dark narrative but beautifully and lightly written. (...) History, mythology and memory fuse in a dense, complex and often opaque fog as we accompany Jawed in his journey which has no clear end." - T.C.A.Raghavan, The Wire

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:

       The Sea Lies Ahead is a muhajir-story, a migrant tale narrated by Jawad Hasan, who left his Indian hometown at the time of Partition and settled in Karachi (in Pakistan). While the adjustment isn't easy, he makes a life for himself there. The novel is indistinct in some of its chronology, but the focus is mainly on a mature Jawad, having established himself and lived a fairly full life already: he still works, having risen to branch manager of a bank, but his wife is dead and his son, Arshad, has gone to America. On the one hand he feels released from most concerns and worries; on the other, he remains unsatisfied with his life, and the city he has never completely adapted to and which seems to be changing for the worse before his eyes. With widespread crime and neighborhood curfews being imposed, he asks

It doesn't seem like the city we knew; it has undergone such a transformation that it is unrecognizable. After all, where are we heading ? Aren't we on the way to destruction ?
       Jawad lives with Majju Bhai, who has been part of his entire Karachi-life, from helping him find a first place to stay to getting his first job. The happy-go-lucky Majju Bhai -- with: "a lot of spit and polish on the surface" -- is a rather different type from Jawad, but in lieu of the family connection left behind in India he is the one constant in Jawad's life (and a useful fictional pendant, a figure for the otherwise isolated narrator to engage with, preventing him from being entirely alone with his thoughts as he might otherwise be).
       Majju Bhai's advice to Jawad suggests their different attitudes:
There is only one way to live in this city. Stop thinking about what is going on. Whoever thinks has had it.
       But broody Jawad can't help but think -- especially abut his life, and situation, and the place that is -- though he can't really seem to consider it as such -- his home. So also, he finds:
so many cities had collected in ths one Karachi as though it was not a city but a sea. And every river, every stream, from across the subcontinent, came noisome and rollicking and merged in it. But rivers are supposed to mix with the sea, and lose themselves. Here every river was shouting and saying, 'I am the sea.'
       Isolation -- of communities and individuals --, separation, and abandonment are dominant themes in the novel, and among the complaints Jawad hears over and over is of family members who have lost touch or not remained in contact. Jawad personifies this, from the unread letters from home he finally picks up to his realization that for all the years he has lived in Karachi, he has remained a stranger, in contrast to Majju Bhai, who knows everyone in their neighborhood. As Majju Bhai observes:
You have always shunned human company and lived in a world of your own.
       Jawad does venture back to his hometown, and his past, in India, drawn back to see what he left behind, and what remains of it. His first impression is: "nothing has changed", but he sees, soon enough, how much has. Among those he encounters is the woman he loved in his youth, Maimuna -- still single, still an obvious soulmate -- but he can't bring himself to reconnect to this world and flees back to his adopted home in Pakistan.
       Back in Karachi, conditions worsen. Curfews and closings spread, a bank close to Jawad's is robbed, and violence is constantly flaring up. While Jawad believes himself at the periphery, thinking himself able to stay uninvolved, it comes bearing down on him, and he ultimately becomes a victim of the violence. It almost costs him his life -- and: "you could say my entire being lay shattered", as he is not just physically damaged.
       Majju Bhai always counsels less thinking: given the prevailing conditions, nothing good can come of mulling anything over, trying to reason it out, analyzing it. Reflective Jawad, of course, can't help himself -- and even less so when he is critically injured. Here, now, a whole: "doomsday of memories had risen within me -- as though someone had played a tune". Throughout The Sea Lies Ahead, Jawad struggles with his memories and thoughts; here the onslaught, no doubt exacerbated by his confrontation with his past (his visit to his childhood home) and now violent present (present-day Karachi), becomes even stronger, a churning sea.
       Though The Sea Lies Ahead is a personal story, it extends far beyond its representative figure. In part a novel of Karachi, and the attempt to establish a new community -- fraying violently in the present-day --, it also revisits the abandoned Indian home, "ruined by those who went away to Pakistan", as one who stayed behind reminds Jawad. The theme of specifically Muslim (community) rise and fall repeats itself -- not only in the examples Jawad is personally involved in, but also with the historic example of, for example, Granada:
the history of Andalusia is in itself a cautionary tale. How the Muslims reached a zenith and how they fell back into the abyss of humiliation that they became extinct from the pages of existence.
       Story-telling -- whether history, memories, or myths -- figures prominently in the novel. The 'present' is presented vaguely -- no dates are given, for example, though circumstances give a general idea of the timeframe -- and Husain's artful layered use of pasts, fictional and real, contributes to the timeless feel of the novel: specifics of time (or politics -- alluded to, but rarely focused on) are not as important as the general -- universal -- themes to him. Though The Sea Lies Ahead is actually quite realistic in presentation, Husain gives it a dreamy feel. So too, narrator Jawad, though involved in the action throughout -- and even rather active -- stands and feels like a character apart, reïnforcing the sense of distance.
       Apparently the second in a loose trilogy that opens with Basti -- though without a continuity of characters or action --, The Sea Lies Ahead is an historical novel that, while situated in the (near) present-day, doesn't focus on the day-to-day or specific events but rather sees history, and the movements of people across it, much more broadly. It unfolds quite straightforwardly, in one -- in the traditional -- sense, yet reads unlike most 'Western' fiction (including the Indian fiction published abroad), distinctively of its place and culture; it is regrettable but to some extent perhaps understandable that it has not be published in an American or British edition, its foreignness of a kind that continues to seem more remote (than, say, 'magical realism', for example).
       Not always easily accessible but very much worth engaging with.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2018

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The Sea Lies Ahead: 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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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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