When animals and birds migrate it is generally with the intent to return and, perhaps, they have an easier time of it than humans. Human, on the other hand, leave behind homes, families, streets, cultures and lifestyles — both the physical and the intangible, the measurable and the subjective — when they depart; and they often do so with the knowledge that they may never return to the land of their birth. The Sea Lies Ahead is the second book to be translated into English from celebrated Urdu writer Intizar Husain’s trilogy — Basti, Aage Samandar Hai and Naya Ghar — and is a story of migration and Pakistani nationhood. It is particularly concerned with the fate of those “muhajirs”, Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims who crossed the border during Partition.
Pakistani Independence is viewed differently depending on which side of the border the viewer stands. The Indian writer is likely to indulge in easily affordable nostalgia, a sense of loss for the missing “other”. The Pakistani writer, on the other hand, as translator Rakhshanda Jalil expounds in her sweeping introduction to Intizar Husain’s novel, has to navigate a variety of responses.
Even this response, whether biting in the immediate aftermath of a bloody Partition, or more considered a few years into Independence, will be as much a thing of its time, a product of its age, as it will be a reflection of the consciousness of the writer.
The Sea Lies Ahead takes as its title a literal quote from Pakistani Gen. Ayub Khan and employs it with great resonance throughout the novel. Khan used it to display his characteristic callousness towards muhajirs when warning them against voting for his opponent Fatima Jinnah. In the hands of Intizar Husain it becomes a leitmotif that displays the helplessness and restlessness of the migrant in a new land.
A narrative that moves seamlessly between period, style and place is something that is natural to Husain’s oeuvre, and Jalil manages to keep the prose flowing smoothly even in translation.
For Husain’s work displays virtuosity and an inherent multiplicity in the way he incorporates the Alif Laila Persian-Arabic literary traditions, the Buddhist Jataka tales in Pali, and the mythology from the Mahabharat or the pithy, demotic language of the Panchatantra, among other traditions.
Animals talk to each other and to people in the tales about his Phuphi Amma from India, trees from myth are fragrant enough to turn damsels into bees, even the great wave of migration, experienced through a series of panicky assertions (“Has Pakistan come?” or “Don’t talk about bullets now; we are in Pakistan. No one will point a gun at you.”), is likened to the Prophet’s own migration from Mecca to Medina in June 622 AD. In fact, migration, as Husain asserts, was a part of the Muslim experience even in the Middle Ages. He recalls the legendary stories around Spain’s Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Toledo, to evoke how Muslims in the diaspora have been condemned to rootlessness and eviction before.
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. Not that they help him in any obvious way to come to terms with the Pakistan he is living in now. Jawad Hassan is tortured by memories of his past, of his home town, childhood sweetheart, and the family that he left behind abruptly, but is incapable of redeeming himself even if he does return to visit them.
He is a banker, having risen to a senior position and equipped with a car and driver, but seems incapable of steering his own destiny — he is paralysed by the way the nationalistic and personal dream of Pakistan has turned to dust. Violence is a way of life in day-to-day Karachi and the grand banners of democracy and equality have been trampled into the ground under the weight of collective banditry, corruption and religious hooliganism. His friend and mentor, the charismatic and witty Majju Bhai, has one single coda to dispell the demons that come when Jawad asks too many questions about the current state of politics: Either leave this city or, if you wish to live here, do not think about what is happening.
That kind of initiative is something Intizar Husain’s protagonists are incapable of showing. As Jilal reminds us in her introduction, whether Zakir in the first book of the trilogy titled Basti, or Jawad in The Sea Lies Ahead, Husain’s heroes are sensitive, thinking young men who cannot adjust to the age. Jawad’s cautious examination of his situation borders on the self-obsessive and neurotic, even as he flits through Karachi society, on the fringes always. He observes the new elite like Tausif and Baji Akhtari who remake themselves in the image of their erstwhile superiors, better able to cope in the new Darwinian political jungle, organising “kabab-paratha” parties, and “mushairas” or poetry-nights, even as their areas burn up with rioting and curfews. He comes across a type of pathological fundamentalist, Ghazi Sahib, who drums up “the passion for jihad”. He is befriended by mild mannered gentlemen, like Rafiq Sahib, who lock their doors against burglars and hand over car keys to thugs when required, no questions asked.
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, a human experience that haunts the first generation even if it gives the second generation a chance to grow roots in a new land.
(Karishma Attari is a Mumbai based book critic and author of I See You a coming of age horror novel)