It is said that there are autobiographical elements in every work of fiction. Every writer takes inspiration from his own environment and weaves a story in its reflection. No matter how alien a story is from his personal life, no writer can go completely beyond himself. The inspiration goes through feelings, experiences and perception of the author and takes impression from all of it before becoming a story. This is almost always the case with fiction. However, a very rare phenomenon is that a work of fiction is such a true reflection of an author’s real life and personality that the difference between the two blurs. Intezar Hussain’s novel Basti is one such work of fiction.

Intezar Hussain has left a rich literary legacy. One of his most critically acclaimed and popular works is Basti (town) which is today considered one of the finest Urdu novels. The story starts from a time long ago, “when the world was new and the heavens were pristine and the earth wasn’t soiled. When the trees breathed through centuries and the bird songs reflected ages…” a metaphor author used for his childhood and the peaceful world of semi-urban, pre-Partition India which was far away from the politics of great men and turbulence of great cities. This is Dibai, a small town in district Bulandshehr, in the very heart of the United Province of Agra and Awadh. Protagonist spends his beautiful childhood in Dibai with its quiet summer afternoons, trees, gardens, songbirds, rains and last but not the least, his granny who was a storyteller.

World of dreams vanishes in an instant and he finds himself in a new city, a new country and among new people. Lahore embraces the refugee in her arms and shares his grief, regrets and guilt. Thus starts a lifelong relationship between a city and a man. He finds solace in its days and contentment in its nights. They become friends and live through thick and thin. When the time comes and the city is exiled from itself, he embraces the city and shares its sorrow and fate.

The older generation have brought their bodies to the new country but left their souls behind in their homes and graveyards. They are unable to fully comprehend dramatic changes in their lives. In their time of life, they can’t conceive of a fresh start and prefer living in nostalgia. They can’t keep up with the changing times and dwell in the past. The havelis are gone. All they are left with is a bunch of keys, always kept safe in hope of returning one day. As the story progresses, the tragedy of many partitions within a partition unfolds and leaves the reader in deep sadness.  

Most commendable aspect of Basti is its social consciousness. Written in the aftermath of East Pakistan tragedy, it tells the sorry tale of the first twenty five years of Pakistan, through the eyes of a refugee. Lahore emerges as the theatre of political and social upheavals of the age. In the philosophical layers between the lines, Basti addresses the most important questions of its time, the clash of ideologies, the insanity of politics, dismemberment of a country and all of this over the corpse of common man.

There is a lot of resemblance between Basti and its author. The novel talks to you like Intezar Hussain, never loud or emotional but in a mild philosophical tone. It seeks meaning in little things of life. Basti is a hermit among novels. It never creates waves and never shocks the reader; there is a peaceful tranquility in front of the brutal storm called life. Just like in Intezar Hussain’s real life, romance is a silent shadow following the protagonist throughout the story but never takes over him. It’s a kind of love in which lovers don’t even know whether they are in love or not; just a lifelong relationship woven with childhood memories, affection, waiting and in the end, guilt.

Basti remains an enduring novel. The key to its greatness is its humanity and honesty. The differences have blurred; Intezar Hussain is Basti and Basti is Intezar Hussain. He can’t die until Basti survives.