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Day and Dastan – Intizar Husain [Translated by Alok Bhalla & Nishat Zaidi]

Day and Dastan – Intizar Husain [Translated by Alok Bhalla & Nishat Zaidi]

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Day and Dastan – Intizar Husain [Translated by Alok Bhalla & Nishat Zaidi]

Akshyata Ray

What inspired you to translate Day and Dastan by Intizar Husain Ji?

I have maintained ever since I came across Intizar Husain’s work in 1994 when I was working on Partition Fiction, that he is one of the greatest writers of the Indian subcontinent in the latter half of the 20th century. There are others, too, like Kunwar Narain or R. K Narayan – writers with a visionary range and a profound understanding of the civilisation (not the nation) to which they belong. I should, of course add, that I had personal regard for Intizar Sahib as a friend from whom I had things to learn and who listened carefully to what one had to say (a rare quality these days). During our last meeting In Delhi, just before he passed away, he said that Din Aur Dastan was amongst his favourite books and he hoped that someone would translate it. At that time we were working on a volume of Intizar Sahib’s writings for a special issue of the journal Manoa (University of Hawaii). It was finally published as Story is a Vagabond. Nishat and I grew fonder of Din aur Dastan as we worked on it slowly and carefully. Incidentally, till recently people assumed that the book was a novel and not made up of two novellas which were as radically different in tone as they could be, but linked by the themes which concerned Intizar Husain all his life.


You have translated many works of Intizar Ji. Which one would yous ay is your favourite and why?

I have had the privilege of publishing three collections of Intizar Husain’s writings in English translation: Leaves and Other Stories (out of print), A Chronicle of the Peacocks (OUP) and Story is a Vagabond (Manoa, Univ. of Hawaii).

Favourite? One’s first and last and all that comes in between are always one’s favourites! But I have fond memories of listening to Intizar Sahib tell me about “Patey” (Leaves), a story he had just written. I was enchanted. I was visiting him Lahore; it was our first meeting. The story was full of the sad lyricism that marks all his stories. It was also about Buddhist monks and their intellectual moral struggle with asceticism and, what may be called “caritas”/ “charity”/ “the charity of love”/ kindness toward our body’s weaknesses. I was deeply moved by the fact that Intizar Sahib refused to speak about religious identities as being distinct from our historical presence in the Indian subcontinent; a position that I am very sympathetic toward.

I have translated quite a lot. A radically different translation is that of Dharamvir Bharati’s play in highly charged and sanskritised Hindi verse Andha Yug (published by Oxford University Press and the University of Hawaii). The play presented a unique and radically different challenge.


Would you say that converting a work from one language to another diminishes or changes its beauty? Especially when we talk about translation from Urdu to English, what difficulties do you face owing to the fact that finding the right word in another language expressing the same feeling is a tough ask?

I am sorry, but this is always a sad question which is always asked only in India like a mantra. I don’t recall it being posed repeatedly and endlessly to American/European translators of Homer, Dante or Tolstoy. I am sure that Richard Lattimore, the translator of Homer, or Boris Pasternak, the translator of Shakespeare, were never so troubled. I think that there is linguist arrogance behind the question which assumes that, while we can translate other literatures into our own vernacular languages, our literatures cannot possibly be carried into other cultural and moral realms.  Why can’t we, as Indians, ever accept that translation is and can always be an act of generous sharing with others of world-views unknown and inaccessible both to ourselves and to speakers of other tongues? That one translates because one is aware of the limitations of one’s own language and hence of one’s own world (that’s a rephrasing of what Wittgenstein says) and that one is so grateful to translators for making a significant work live again in another place and time, in another language and with other assumptions? Remember that many of the major modern Indian writers were translators and their readers were grateful: Nirmal Verma translated Kundera into Hindi from Czech; Bhisham Sahni translated Tolstoy into Hindi from Russian; Kunwar Narayan translated many European poets in to Hindi, Manto translated Gorky etc. The list is endless and reveals that the best of our writers have never shied away from being translators and thereby living at the cross-roads of civilisations to conduct excited conversations with others whose experiences were different from their own. 

What is strange is that the question is asked in a country which has, perhaps, the oldest translating tradition – a civilisation which could not have acquired its richness and it enviable cosmopolitanism unless each and every text produced here had not been translated. Everything we know about our past literatures is through translation. Think of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata alone which have been always translated into almost all the Indian languages for a people who did not always have access to Sanskrit or were descendants of rishis (that is an ironic reference to something that was said last week in the Parliament!). Or think of the Guru Granth Sahib where the Gurus had no hesitation in including translated texts from older Bhakti and Sufi traditions without any anxiety about “lost beauty” or “misunderstood meaning.” Indeed, the inclusion of translations of Bulle Shah or Kabir in the Sikh scriptures also enriched the world of Bhakti and Sufism; enabled a people to travel beyond the limits of their narrower worlds and speak with/about others with empathy. Kumarajiva the great translator, for example, carried Buddhist texts in Pali and Sanskrit to China and transformed the religious and ethical thought in both the lands. It is only now that a certain class of narrowly educated Indian who  have started speaking a bit egotistically about the impossibility of anyone else understanding what we think and write – what is called our unique sensibility or is it our fragile sensitivity. We diminish ourselves by asking these questions, apart from insulting the translators. Of course, I am not saying that all translations are equally good; I am, however, saying that one cannot begin with the assumption that translation by itself diminishes the original text. Maybe, as in the case of the Bible or Plato translation adds new meanings, brings new understandings and expands our intellectual world. 

As regards the difficulties of translation – well aren’t the difficulties of translation the same as those of any creative act; and translations is a creative act (think of TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and Tagore as translators). The “translations” of Indian epics into miniature paintings, that I am at present working on, are more remarkable and visionary than most critical texts that I have read.


There are elements of sensuality and romance in the book, albeit in a subtle way. Did it cause any controversies when the book came out? 

Why should sensuality and or romance cause controversies? Again, read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Both are sensual and full of romance. Or read The Gita-Govinda or the beautiful Sanskrit lyrics about love. But, then, there is always in the present an urge to find and create controversies because they create the necessary ‘machismo’ news and open dramatic spaces for mobs to gather. In any case, Intizar Husain’s texts are so gentle and concerned with how human passions are lost and distorted when we begin to fear traditions, ignorant opinions and censorious politics. We distort the “human body divine” and are left with nothing more than regrets and melancholia. What is rarely noticed is the simple joy at being part of the earth that marks many of Intizar Husain’s texts – parrots, banyan trees, mangoes, grass, clouds, songs of street vendors, cries of children playing – are more important in the creation of his Rupnagar (the archetypal City of Beauty that recurs in his stories) than any concern with the sorrows of history.


There are beautiful fables associated with emperors, making use of the elements of nature and enigma to weave them. Were they true, were they famous fables or were they original compositions of Intizar Ji?

Intizar Husain’s fables obviously existed before his or our times. He was in love with the Katha/dastan/kissa/tilism narrative traditions. He used them for his own ethical and subtly political purposes to subvert all forms of identity politics (so dangerously fashionable these days). For him they were part of the common inheritance of all who live/lived in the subcontinent and seem to have had a common origin. In these tales nature/ghosts/rishis/apsaras do not discriminate between Shia/Sunni, Hindu/Buddhist, but enchanted them equally and taught the same moral lessons. Incidentally, there are no true fables! If only the present politicians would understand that and stop using/abusing them for ‘closing the minds’ of our young students. There are better and more exciting ‘uses of enchantment’.

The dastan often uses fables to give a certain coherence to historical events and consequences which seem otherwise to be inexplicable by reason alone. Why did Tipu Sultan lose to the British when his forces were superior and political morality was on his side? Well, the fable says that he lost because he forgot to listen the neighing of his faithful horse and reciting the holy mantra. Historically untrue, yes, but then there are moments of inattention in our lives which may seem inconsequential but can have disastrous consequences (a variation, perhaps, of the butterfly-effect modern scientists talk about)!


Day and Dastan’s setting is that of the partition time. Do you think that this book is relevant in today’s time and if so, how? 

Both the texts are concerned with memories of loss and the seeming impossibility of recovering a past where something enigmatic, mysterious and kinder was interfused with the real. “Day” is a realist, elegiac tale where loss becomes slowly perceptible and people learn to accept it with a degree of grace. “Dastan” is more turbulent, more full of strum und drang, and where it is difficult to accept loss of empire and of love because the loss is so incomprehensible that it seems fated.  It is still important to recall the world both the tales evoke as a form of resistance at a time which people are becoming cynical and nasty once again; where identity politics and its driving force, hysteria, has begun to determine how we treat others or kill them if they are not like “us”.


What was the process of working together to translate this work like; could we say that both of you add completely different nuances to the translation?

That is a simpler question. Nishat and I brought to the work different skills, but responded to the two novellas with the same intellectual empathy. We also felt that we were living and working in a civilisation which was genuinely cosmopolitan and that, like Intizar Sahib, we wanted to reassert that civilizational ethic which had been ruptured by the partition and is once again being threatened. We wondered, of course, if there still are people who have the patience to listen to his quiet voice urging us to re-examine our personal lives and find there the whispers of  voices of reason, intellectual curiosity and courtesy (of course there are — but they are feeling threatened). I can hear behind my answer both the opening shlok (shok — sorrow) of the Ramayana and the last agonised speech of Vyasa in the Mahabharata in which he throws up his hands and asks: will anyone listen, ever listen?

About the Interviewee:

Alok Bhalla retired as professor of English Literature from Hyderabad and Delhi. He has been Fellow at the Institute of Advance Study, Nantes, Lady Davis Visiting Professor, Hebrew University, Fellow at the Rockefeller Centre, Bellagio, and the Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. As a critic, translator, editor and poet, he has published more than thirty volumes. His recent books include Stories About the Partition of India (4 volumes), Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, A Chronicle of the Peacocks (translations of Intizar Husain’s stories), Life and Times of Saadat Hasan Manto, and The Place of Translation in a Literary Habitat, Story is a Vagabond by Intizar Husain (co-edited for Manoa, Univ. of Hawaii Press), translation of Dharamvir Bharati’s play, Andha Yug: The Dark Age (Oxford Uiv. Press and Univ. of Hawaii). His latest book on miniature paintings of the Gita from late 17 th century Mewar is scheduled for publication in September, 2019. He has translated novels, stories, plays, and poems by Bhisham Sahni, K. B. Vaid, Asghar Wajahat, Kunwar Narain etc. He has also has a book of nonsense verse for children (illustrated by Manjula Padmanabhan).