Aamer Hussein on Nisar Aziz Butt

Although two months ago I'd barely heard of Nisar Aziz Butt, from the first line of hers I read I was entranced. I knew she was originally from the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and wrote not in Pashto but in Urdu. I had no idea what her works were about or even how old she might be. Then, one day, when an art critic friend was over for dinner and told me for the third time that I should read her because she was a genius, I became curious. I began my research by asking another friend, editor, fictionist and critic Asif Farrukhi, what he thought of her work and to recommend a book. "I'm very fond of her novels," he wrote back immediately, naming her second novel, Nae Chiragh nae gule (No Lamp, No Flower), as his favorite. I couldn't find the book at SOAS or at the British Library, though I did locate and request a couple of her later novels. While I waited, I managed to uncover a few facts about the author. Born in 1927 in what she has termed a backward place, Nisar Aziz belongs to that remarkable generation of Pakistani women writers, born between 1925 and 1930, which includes novelists Qurratulain Hyder, Khadija Mastur, Jamila Hashmi, and Altaf Fatima; and short story writers Mumtaz Shirin, and Hajra Masrur. With Fatima, she's also one of the last living representatives of that generation (three of whom died very young).

I should add the obligatory passage here about how she has been neglected and should be better known; but all I will say is that she's quite simply one of our best. She is difficult and challenging, but not excessively so; her work is experimental by chance, because the material demands it should be. She often writes beautifully, and at times her sentences can indulge in philosophical gymnastics, but neither pretty nor obscure prose is ever the point of her writing. She hasn't courted publicity, spent nearly two decades on her second book, and brought up two children in the meantime; even in her mature years her production has been sporadic. In a culture that thrives on short fiction, she has concentrated exclusively on the novel. But speak to other writers and she's both known and admired; her work has been the subject of academic theses (which means, at the very least, that early critical material on her novels is diligently collected). Best of all, she's in print, though many say that doesn't mean her work is easy to find. I also hear she has another two books ready for publication.

She began to write while she was still at college. Her first novel, Nagri nagri phira musafir (The Traveller Wandered From Land to Land) was published in 1955, the year she married (and I was born). It was compared to Mann's Magic Mountain, because it was set in a sanatorium. However, the author, who was well versed in English literature and also familiar with the Russians in translation, hadn't yet read Mann when she wrote the novel; she was, in fact, fictionalizing her own early experiences. Like her heroine, Afgar, she'd lost her mother as a child, grown up among the Urdu romances her mother left behind, and then chosen to pursue her studies in a conservative world that frowned on further education for women. She chose math as her subject, rather than literature or philosophy, as those options, which to her only seemed to require solitary research, were too soft. While she was studying she was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the lung. In her novel, her heroine spends her time fantasizing about, and also rejecting, various men but also, like her creator, obsessively writing her memories and her fantasies and dreaming of the day she'll be a novelist.

Poetic, whimsical and claustrophobic, Nagri... is the only one of her novels I have yet to finish reading: that's a fitting irony, because I'm reading her epic memoir, the earlier part of which covers the same ground as the novel. After she'd published her four novels over just as many decades, she was to disappear for two decades to explore her life and times and reemerge with the work I'm reading now. This memoir, chronicled with Proustian amplitude, has elicited varied critical responses, ranging from Indian academic Shamim Hanafi's description of it to me the other week as a very important documentary work of literary and social history (it contains, among its many pleasures, word portraits of several of Butt's contemporaries) to Asif Farrukhi's somewhat less adulatory comment that in spite of its undoubtable virtues the book is so mired in quotidian detail that it becomes tedious. For the reader of her novels, though, it provides valuable contexts: the author has often spoken, for example, about the German philosopher Spengler's influence on her work, and here she discusses in some detail how she adapted his theory of the decline of western civilization to her analysis of the end of the Raj—although she found Spengler wanting in his insights into the Islamic and Indic cultures that she, inspired as she was by western ideas, nevertheless felt were her abiding material. Spengler is revealed, thus, as a catalyst rather than direct influence. These tensions—or occasional harmonies—between the modern and the traditional, the eastern and the western, and the masculine and the feminine animate at least three of her novels, often producing astonishing epiphanies that quite spontanously enter and redefine the third space that post-colonialism claims as the outcome of hybridity. Even the title of her book, Gaye dinon ka suragh (In search of days gone by, 2004), seems to pointedly echo Proust, (although it actually, like almost all her other titles, is a quote from an Urdu poem.)

For those curious about the autobiographical bases of fiction (I'm not), the memoir also honestly lays bare the many parallels between the author and her alter-ego, who reappears (as Sara) in her second and third novels. (I now have all her fiction in one volume, posted to me from Pakistan.) Nae chiraghe... (1973) is the first of these, its title taken from a brief Persian verse the empress Nur Jehan wrote as her own obituary. Arguably Butt's tour de force, this novel in multiple perspectives begins in 1921, when a woman servant comes to visit the mother of a young girl, Rosa, to see if the latter will make a fitting bride for her young master. She will and does, and, before she dies of tuberculosis many years later, gives birth to Sara and to two other children.

The man who is the object of her first, unconfessed love, her friend's brother Manmohan, is our first guide to the other geographic strands of the story. A Hindu—which makes his reciprocated love for Sara an impossibility—Manmohan goes to Britain to study, and encounters two other young men who will also play crucial parts in this novel without heroes of either gender. Manmohan fails to come home (like several others in the book, he dies abruptly and young); his friends, Munir and Khurshid, return to Lahore in postwar India, witnessing anticolonial agitation and the creation of the new nation of Pakistan. Munir also crosses the Hindu-Muslim divide to marry Manmohan's grieving sister Padmini, who for a time blossoms in her new identity as a contented lover and wife, but as Munir becomes increasingly complicit with a conformist lifestyle, she piles on weight, and becomes a sluggish version of her former discontented self. Through her as well as through the novel's other married women, we see the ennui that sets in and corrodes most seemingly happy marriages, as a wife's material (and sexual) wellbeing, provided by a doting husband, ceases to compensate for the increasing indolence and mental torpor that attends the role of trophy wife. Each woman's ennui has a different flavor, but they're equally bittersweet.

Butt has spoken of Tolstoy as a model for this novel, which seems, however, to be too deeply located in 20th century history and literary techniques to draw too many lessons from 19th-century Russian models. In a deft tying together of this massive book's narrative strands—which include documentary footage and walk-on appearances by Gandhi and Jinnah—that occasionally threaten to drift in different directions, the author brings together the adolescent Sara, who moves to Lahore to study at a rather sleepy college for the daughters of conservative Muslim parents, with Padmini, her mother's girlhood friend, and orchestrates the joining of various social and geographical elements. Khurshid, who marries a radical young woman lecturer from Sarah's college, is the author's spokesman for the post-Spenglerian historical ideas propounded in a part of the book.

As the old dies, the new is yet to be born, and during these morbid symptoms young Sara, in spite of the onset of TB, determines to pursue her postgraduate studies. Finally, in what is effectively a post-Partition coda to the novel, Khusrshid, assisting in the rescue of a woman who has been abducted and gang raped, becomes a witness to an act of 'heroism' as the young woman lobs a grenade at her rapists in what becomes a willed act of suicide. Tormented during a sleepless night in camp, this act has become, in his eyes, a metaphor of the suffering caused by the creation of the new, and Khurshid abandons the abstractions of historiography for some very vivid dualistic imagery, sensing the imminence of Ahriman, the dark and evil twin of the God in the ancient Zorastrian cosmogony, as the presiding deity of the moment: ruler of chaos, warfare, strife, whose footsteps echo loudly around him. Yet, in a closing moment of peaceful reflection, Khurshid is ready to accept that the rule of chaos, too, is short-lived; a brevity inevitable in both nature and history.

Sara returns in Butt's third novel, Karavan-e-vujud (Procession of Existence, 1983); seen, at first, through the eyes of a younger woman, Samar; at this point she's a lecturer, recovering from the familiar illness, researching Urdu literature in her spare time, and broadcasting on local radio. She meets a man and marries, and moves to Karachi where, as the novel shifts to her point of view, she divides her time between bringing up her two sons in a semi-bohemian milieu and endlessly researching esoteric subjects in library archives until she's given the opportunity to travel to Harvard for an international summer seminar during the Vietnam war. She comes back from the US with a sense of cultural balance and an understanding of neocolonial hegemony and orientalist theory before Said's classic work canonized the latter as an academic discipline. But just as the novel's subjective layer threatens to implode in the climate of political, feminist, and ethical debates in its concluding section, the author returns to the marriage plot which, according to some lukewarm critics, is her main concern. Here, Samar, disappointed by a love affair with a Frenchman, seduces Sara's husband, and marries him in a polygamous act while Sara remains blithely ignorant of the fact, leaving it to mutual friends to annul the mismatch and clean up the debris. Though it is a less intricately textured work than the novels that immediately precede and follow it, Karavan deserves a separate review as it is the most radical examination of the lives of educated professional women to appear in Urdu since Ismat Chughtai's wartime classic The Crooked Line (tr. 1995) of the early 1940s.

It wasn't either of those novels I read first, though, but Darya ke Sang (The Stones of the River), her last novel to date, published in 1986. This is the relatively brief confessional monologue of a man in middle age, alone in a house by a river, who is struggling to write and recover his memories. He often spends pages merely chronicling the time of day, a chat with a waiter, a landscape, the moods of the river, a random thought, an exchange with an imaginary listener/reader. And yet his memories emerge as well, of a marginalized childhood as an orphan, a wanderlust that takes him to Hong Kong, London, Paris, Perugia, and the pyramids, bringing him into contact with travellers like himself, women and men, all of whom look to him for love, companionship, or friendship he can never quite give in the measure it's expected of him. (He admits early that, as a compensation for his childhood feeling of liminality, he's obsessed with being loved.) Central to his search is the figure of the woman he wins perhaps too easily, the wife he alternately neglects and pursues, as she refuses to hold on to him and yet, with her fortitude, practicality, and silence, fills him with guilt. It's only after a series of detours—some of them quite picaresque—as when, for example, his witty, life-affirming travelling companion turns out to be a card-carrying communist—that we realize that the loss the narrator is aiming to compensate for in his writing is actually the death of his wife, and when he finally manages to write the scene of her death, it's chilling in its understatement.

This complex novel deploys a knowledge of existentialist and postmodern tricks familiar from Camus and Nabokov, inventively translates into Urdu Neruda's poem 'Widower's Tango', and yet remains lucid in its style and in its alternation of past (the time of memory) and present (the time of writing); a book that, cosmopolitan in its reach, is also rooted in more than half a century of Pakistani experience from colonial times to the 1980s. But Nisar Aziz Butt is a visionary writer, and it's hard to reduce her fictions to the sum of their own ideas or their abiding and graceful images. Above all it is the recapture of memory, both tragic and affirmative, along with its narrator's assumption that all texts address a reader and thus break the barrier between reader and writer, that shifts the timbre of the book from an autumnal lament to a quirky but wise celebration of human relationships and experience.