Everyone is a buyer of worldly but transient commodities. No one stops to think what they are buying or selling.” The expression sounds out of place both contextually as well as character in a story titled ‘The Story about the Monkeys of the Big Forest’ by, perhaps, the subcontinent’s most eminent living Urdu writer from Pakistan, Intizar Husain, who once gallantly observed that “the future of the short story is dark because trees keep diminishing in the world and men grow more numerous. In a world of nothing but men, journalism can grow, but the poem and the story cannot.”
And that’s because “monkeys and humans have always changed and interchanged forms to become one and the other” and we have reached a stage when men have, indeed, outnumbered both monkeys and other legged species on earth. A somewhat abstract and unconventional narrative style seemingly derived from both the oral and written Biblical, Arabic, Persian as well as Hindu texts and subtexts in the form of fairytales, kissas, parables, kahanis, Jataka fables, Alif-Laila and evident in stories like ‘The Sage and the Butcher’, the confessional ‘Between Me and the Story’ and “The Death of Sheherzad’ that provide a glimpse into the author’s varied oeuvre.
An element of the erotic invariably invades explicitly into the 15 narratives judiciously selected and rendered into eminently readable English by Rakhshanda Jalil from a corpus of seven volumes though it does seem at times that she is at unease with the colloquial, yet at the same time seemingly more poetic than the original.
One couldn’t possibly have defined and placed Husain’s work better than the manner in which Jalil has done in the postscript where she also deals with the strength and weaknesses in his narratives: “there are bewildering and frequent changes between past and present, between memory and desire. In the best tradition of oral storytelling, craft and technique take a back seat; the spoken world is all.” Yet he is regarded as a master storyteller who is not necessarily, as is claimed by Urdu scholars, economical in his expressions and often tends to slip into the world of overstated.
She also observes that his narratives are not in the conventional form “with a beginning, middle and end, but a rambling monologue peopled by characters from a past that is in many ways more vivid than the present (‘Those Who Are Lost’, ‘Noise’). In other words, not like a story at all but the recounting of a dream, or the story one has heard a long time ago, or maybe in another lifetime (‘The Last Man’).”
One found ‘Clouds’, ‘Needlessly’, ‘The Sage and the Butcher’, ‘The Death of Sheherzad’, “Dream and Reality’ as the most satisfying, and the much touted ‘Circle’ and ‘The Wall’ dull and dreary and needlessly overstretched.