Book Review: The Chronicle by Intizar Husain

This book a part of the trilogy of Intizar Sahab’s work (Basti, The Chronicle and The Sea Lies Ahead) – though he insisted they were not a trilogy – deals with various periods in Pakistani history; and the turmoil that the country faced This novel is set in the backdrop of Zia’s regime in Pakistan who ruled the country from 1977 to 1988. The main protagonist of the book is Ikhlaq, who migrates with his mother Bujan to Pakistan after partition. He finds the manuscript of the tazkirah, his family chronicle, written by his father, and he decides to add his story to it. The family chronicle starts from Isfahan in Iran from where their ancestor Ahmed Billah migrated to Qazvin after city was ravaged by Taimur. The family continued to migrate over generations till they finally settled in Jahanabad, where the iconic Chirag Mahal was built by Hakim Gul Zurgah Ali. The family resided in this Haveli for three generations before Ikhlaq Ali and Bujan were forced to migrate to Pakistan after partition. Apart from the chronicle of a family, it is also a chronicle of Pakistan – the promised land for many – which failed to live up to its promise. The changing politico-socio-economic landscape of Pakistan, the withering away of a dream and idealism form the backdrop of the book.

In a non-linear writing style Intizar Sahab tries to situate Ikhlaq’s Lahore with his ancestor Mushtaq Ali’s undivided India. Like all his works, in this book too, the idea of ‘memory’ and ‘loss’ are the recurrent themes. While Iqhlaq and Bujan, do attempt to establish new relationship and forge a new identity with their adopted homeland, their memories don’t seem to leave them. Bujan’s mind keeps wandering back to Chiragh Haveli, which now falls on the wrong side of the border. Iqlakh too can’t get over his memories of Shireen, the cousin whom he was set to marry in India but could not and the times they spent together in Chirag Haveli. When they have a chance encounter in Lahore, where she is on a trip for some work, all those memories of the times they spent together in Chiragh Haveli are rekindled. Together, through their nostalgia, they revisit their ancestral home taking “hold of its memory for ourselves: the building sprang vividly to life, and in the process, we discovered ourselves.”

It is indeed a paradox for me that when I read his nonfiction writings I find that he supported the idea of partition as a historical necessity, but then in the same breath he questioned the identity of the new land. I remember in one of his interviews he asked as to if we were a different nation [from India] then what was our national and cultural identity? In another interview he remarked, “What a purely Islamic culture would be, I don’t have any idea”….“It is this Indian Muslim culture of which I am a product and which has shaped the history of which I am a part”. In line with this belief, the motif of syncretic Indian culture pervades the work. The deep knowledge that Intizar Sahab possessed of Buddhist and Hindu mythological and philosophical traditions are brought out by the characters of Pandit Ganga Dutt and his father Som Dutt. The Pandits are as well-versed with the Bhagavad Gita and shastras as they are with the Quran and hadith, something which was pretty commonplace in India, especially amongst the intelligentsia, before the deracinated Nehruvian secularism made study of “Indian” philosophical traditions unfashionable. That this syncretism was challenged by the rising separatism and communalism in the mid 1940’s is highlighted through Kishan Lal, Pandit Ganga Dutt’s son for whom Mushtaq Ali, the best friend of his father is now the ‘other’. When he hands over his recently deceased father’s writings in Farsi – a language now primarily associated with Muslims – to Mushtaq Ali he says, “It’s in your writing. It’s for you people – you keep it”.

At the end have to say a word about the translation – it has been brilliantly done. It is not so easy to translate Intizar Sahab’s book in English, especially his non-linear style of writing and a typical subcontinental ethos that his work carries, but Matt Reeck has done a fabulous work in retaining the ethos and sensibility of the work.

Lovely read, as usual with all Intizar Sahab’s work.

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