Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A frustrated singer

An Unwritten Epic, a short story by Intizar Husain (1925-2016), is set in the immediate aftermath of Partition in 1947, when India became two countries, India and Pakistan. The characters in the story are Muslims who at first decide to stay in their village, Qadirpur, on the Indian side of the border, but eventually flee to Pakistan. The hero of the story is Pichwa, a young man who is excited about the creation of Pakistan and angry that Qadirpur is not part of it.

He cursed the people of Qadirpur for their lethargy, because while a new country had been carved, he had not shed a drop of blood for it. Full of bravado, he said, ‘Let’s forget the past and fly a Pakistani flag on the peepul tree near the Idgah.’

He is persuaded instead to fly their own Islamic flag, but even that is a provocation to the supporters of the Indian Congress Party. Pichwa’s defence of the village is short-lived. The exodus to Pakistan gathers pace.

At that point the conventional third-person narrative comes to an abrupt end. What follows is a series of first-person diary entries. It is as if the narrator has put down his script and instead speaks to his readers in his own voice.

3 April 1950
I started writing this story several months ago. Had I known then that it would be ruined, I would have finished it at once. But after I began writing it, I realised that Pichwa’s character needed something more substantial than a short story. Only an epic could do him justice. It occurred to me that no one had yet written an epic about the riots.

The story – for it is still a story that we are reading – is now about the narrator. The other story, the story within, or rather before, the story, is a work in progress, to be continued or not as the narrator chooses.

More importantly, it stands for what writers do to reality, making a fictional world out of the real one, in which people become characters and the riots in Punjab provide material for a literary epic. 

The epic, however, remains unwritten when reality takes its own course and Pichwa, its intended hero, joins the exodus to Pakistan, leaving the narrator crestfallen.

Why did Pichwa, who had confronted the rioters so bravely, lose heart and run? What a terrible fate has befallen Qadirpur!

But that, he admits, is not the worst of it.

What really upsets me is that the plans for my novel have been reduced to dust. Both Pichwa and I are unlucky. He is not fated to be the hero of an epic, and I am doomed to write second-rate stories about ordinary people who are more dead than alive.

Pichwa continues to disappoint him when they meet again in Pakistan. He is neither the Pichwa he remembers nor the character he has created.

Since his arrival in Pakistan, all he seeks is food for his stomach and a place to rest his head. All his arrogance and pride have crumbled into dust.

The narrator, we must remind ourselves, is a character too. There is an author, whose name was Intizar Husain and whose persona was both narrator and diarist, but who was not himself those things, though he shared some of their experiences and characteristics. He grew up in British India, went to Pakistan, wrote in Urdu and often aroused the suspicion of the authorities regarding his attitude to the new country. His narratorial persona is not exactly him, but partly him. A caricature, perhaps.

Whenever I pick up my pen people start shouting, ‘Pakistan zindabad,’ so loudly that the pen falls from my hand. There is a continuous chatter about ‘constructive literature’ around me. I can’t hear anything else in the din. What is this animal called ‘constructive literature’?

Another word for it might be ‘propaganda’. Intizar Husain, unlike his counterpart in the story, kept writing, refusing to engage in the ‘constructive literature’ that was demanded of Pakistan’s fledgling literary establishment.

I don’t know what to say about Pakistan. It is a reality. I am not imaginative enough to transform reality into fiction. Pakistan is a reality. Qadirpur has already become a fiction and I can write stories about it. I don’t know how to describe a real Pakistan.

The real subject of the story is fiction and its bearing on reality. Or reality and its bearing on fiction. How the two rub shoulders. The collapse of the initial story with the loss of its hero is in itself an admission of the narrator’s impotence. The reality of Pakistan is too great.

The more I try to run away from politics, the more it pursues me. Till Pichwa came to Pakistan, he was only a character in my novel. But now that he is here, he is part of a political game. The moment I think about him, I find myself knee deep in the muck of politics.

But he refuses to be drawn in. “A frustrated singer,” he says, “should be content to be a frustrated singer; he shouldn’t try to become a singer of marsias.” In other words, a writer should not attach himself to any political or religious group and become their writer. Singers should sing their own songs and, if they are prevented from doing so, should accept their fate and remain silent.

I am afraid of the real world, and politics is the worst part of it. I shudder at the very thought of politics in the same way as a cow trembles before a butcher. The truth is that politics does to a writer what a butcher does to a cow. The joke is that politics destroys both literature and the writer. Yet it is politics that gets all the reward.

The real Pichwa, as opposed to the character in the unfinished story, leaves Pakistan and goes back to India, though the narrator writes in his diary that he does not believe he managed to get across the border. A few days later, however, he writes in his diary that he did. A letter from a friend who did not move to Pakistan but stayed in Qadirpur brings him the news.

Your country had no place for Pichwa. He did, however, find a few yards of land in his old country. I didn’t get a chance to meet that blessed soul. But one day there was a lot of excitement in the basti, and I saw his head hanging from the same branch of the peepul tree near the Idgah on which Kalwa and Mammad had flown their party’s flag.

The diary entries that conclude the story are short and cynical. 

Poor romantic Pichwa! What a way to meet his end! His death was as dramatic as his life. The only unromantic event of his life was his hijrat to Pakistan. If only he hadn’t come to Pakistan. By coming here, he humiliated himself and ruined my novel.

Finally, the novel is abandoned in favour of a more lucrative use of the narrator’s time as the owner of a flour mill.

I am now a changed man. As long as I was obsessed with my novel, I felt alienated from my country. Like a dhobi’s dog, I belonged neither here nor there. I neither wrote nor did anything else. Now I am a responsible citizen – a responsible citizen of a new nation.

Responsible citizen or frustrated singer? The author himself seems to have been neither, though still perhaps leading the life of a dhobi’s dog.

Intizar Husain, 1925-2016


Idgah: a spacious building where Muslims offer prayers especially on the two festivals of Id
Pakistan zindabad: long live Pakistan
marsia: an elegy commemorating Imam Hussain’s martyrdom
basti: village, small town
hijrat: exile, migration
dhobi: washerman

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This entry was posted on January 31, 2022 by in Fiction, Literature and tagged , , .
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