Islamabad Literature Festival 2013: Intizar Husain speaks about Buddha, his literary mentors and storytelling

Islamabad – Since the nominees for the Man Booker International Prize 2013 were announced in January, almost every Pakistani who has some interest in the country’s Urdu and English literature knows that Intizar Husain is the first Pakistani and the first Urdu writer ever to be nominated for the international award.

What they might not know the diverse personalities he considers his writing mentors. Among his greatest literary influences, he lists Ratan Nath Sarshar, Anton Chekhov, Buddha and Husain’s maternal grandmother.

Three of the names are understandable: Sarshar is considered the pioneer of Urdu novels, Chekhov is undoubtedly one of the greatest modern short story writers of all time and Husain’s grandmother used to tell him stories in his childhood days.

At a delightful and amusing conversation session at Islamabad Literature Festival, Husain said when he read the Jatak Katha — or “Birth Tales” — of Buddha, he was bewildered. The birth tales are anecdotes and fables about Gautama Siddhartha’s earlier incarnations.

“We used to think that short story came to us from the West but we never knew short stories existed in the East in the past,” Husain said. “Short stories found perfection in these Buddha stories.

Moderator Asif Farrukhi and Husain had the audience in fits of laughter throughout the one-hour session with their witty remarks and humorous chatter.

Husain also jokingly admitted that he feels he was born in Buddha’s era, to which host Asif Farruki quipped that most people have the same opinion about Husain.

Farrukhi said the Man Booker International Prize judging panel has said that all the 10 nominees for 2013 write have pushed the form of writing and the humble Husain, who has already established his innovative writing technique with his famous novel Basti, proved this claim yet again when he read his short story Yaad at the session.

In the unique story, Husain imagined life from the perspective of Gog Magog — a people, mentioned in religious texts, condemned to remove a wall that separates them from the rest of the world by licking it. In Husain’s story, the characters Gog and Magog reach the Sisyphusian realization that they have spent ages trying to remove the wall but instead the wall has eaten them up.

Husain also shared anecdotes from the time he worked with the great short story writer Manto and mentioned that he had a great admiration for the writer Krishan Chandar which balanced out over time.

Talking about his novel Basti, he said he relied on the ancient storytelling tradition of India but kept writing without thinking too much about the kind of meaning readers might derive from the work.

Husain said Urdu has always had a strong tradition of poetry but if Urdu and Muslim writers had not disowned the grand fiction produced in ancient India, they could have built an equally strong tradition of Urdu prose, as well.

Farrukhi also presented the special issue of the Man Booker International Prize titled Duniyazad, which contains stories from all the ten nominees, to Husain at the start of the session.

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