By Mandeep Singh
I came across Intizar Husain’s ‘Basti’ in my third and final year of graduation in English Literature. It was a part of the subject called Partition Literature. However, upon reading it, I found out that neither does it allude to one specific event nor does it confine to any specific time. It is neither about the tragic 1947 India-Pakistan Partition nor the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. As the title suggests, Basti means a settlement that people inhabit. It gives a sense of home but also a surrogate home from where one may be uprooted again. The theme of homelessness is a continuous theme in the novel. “They had left their cities but carried their cities with them as a trust, on their shoulders.” Husain is not trying to reconstruct the historical narratives which may have got buried under the weight of time and forgetfulness. Instead, he is trying to construct the memory of pain which is often wounded, non-linear and fragmented. Basti narrates the epic tale of the suffering during the search for a “home.” It elucidates the pain of life which cannot be expressed in any logical referential framework. Henceforth, the novel takes the support of memory. Memories that often fulfil the purpose of an oasis in a desert by momentarily quenching the thirst for identity, something which the violent and volatile reality cannot promise, as the identity of any person and community lies in stability.
It is strange how memories are often shouldered with the responsibility of carrying our consciousnesses from the present to the past and the past to the present or even both sometimes. I believe that my grandfather was also a frequent visitor to the lanes of his rusted yet peculiarly fresh memories. He would delicately weave them under the soothing winter sun along with his only companion sitting comfortably on his lap in the garb of his six-seven years old grandson. He would always begin his stories with “Back Home…” and then would go on incandescently referring to one of the many homes which he once inhabited. And then, one day, he lost all his homes, one by one, due to the 1947 Indo-Pakistan Partition or the 1975 Emergency in India or the 1984 Sikh Riots. Obviously, back then, I had not read, seen, heard, or experienced the world enough to understand the poignance of any of these events. As a kid, all I knew was that my grandfather had multiple homes before he met me, but he was somehow uprooted from all of them. It fell upon my little shoulders to revolt against anyone who would try to do the same again. He was perhaps giving me responsibility, but, of a different kind. He was probably handing me the keys to his various homes which needed to exist in someone else’s memories. Otherwise, all his homes would demolish once again, from memories after his time on this planet.
Much later in my life, in a classroom full of Master’s students, I once again heard the words “Back Home…” from my Afghan Professor who was teaching us about Afghanistan Society and Politics. This time, I had some basic knowledge of identity and diaspora along with the borrowed memories from my grandfather. Henceforth, I could comprehend why my professor’s “Back at Home…” memories were vivid paintings and mutterings of her time with her friends and family, her favorite dishes, memorable trips, and wise proverbs and phrases in Dari, passed by her elders. For us, the students sitting in the classroom, Afghanistan was a graveyard of foreign powers, one of the most prolonged conflict, and a breeding ground for terrorism and violence. For her, it was her home where her friends and family still lived, her favorite dishes still existed, her favorite places still stood.
Like any other person, her identity is tied to her home which is much more than a battleground in her memories as well as in reality. It is always baffling to observe how certain parts of the world are categorized rather than being contextualized, especially in popular culture. More often than not, it might tell one about the culture of the perceiver than the perceived. In the last decade, one thing that has helped Afghanistan to rise above the stereotypes and stigmatization and make others connect with them or even root for them is the Afghan cricket team.
The journey of the Afghanistan International Men’s Cricket Team is what true dreams, grit, and determination are made of. A team which was formed in the year 2000 comprised a majority of players from refugee camps who originally started playing with sticks and plastic balls. From refugee camps to their qualification in the 2010 T20 World Cup, their journey has won the hearts and minds of all the fans of the game across nationalities, communities, religions, and faiths. This spectacle was once again repeated in the 2019 World Cup where Afghanistan played its first match against Australia in the UK where thousands of Afghan nationals living in diaspora congregated to cheer for their team. Likewise, when the Afghan Team was playing a test match against India in 2018, hundreds of Afghan students who were studying in Hyderabad, decided to stay back during their winter break, to watch their team play their first test match. “I completely teared up when I heard the national anthem; it is difficult to explain the feeling of watching your national team in whites,” said the 22-year-old Anees Haleem, who is doing his final year BA at the Osmania University in Hyderabad. Another fan said, “There are no problems among the tribes of Pashtuns, Uzbeks, or Tajiks. The problem exists among the fighters. Civilian people don’t have any problems.”
According to UNHCR India, there are at least 14,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers who are currently living in India. On top of it, there are almost 30 million refugees worldwide, of which less than one percent are resettled. In such a world, Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani origin writer, wrote in National Geographic in 2019, it is good to remind oneself that in the 21st century, we are all migrants. “Our species, Homo sapiens, did not evolve in Lahore, where I am writing these words. Nor did we evolve in Shanghai or Topeka or Buenos Aires or Cairo or Oslo, where you, perhaps, are reading them. None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time.”As we celebrate the World Interfaith Harmony Week, one may remind themselves to carefully and directly hear about the other from the other; the other who may look different or speak differently; the one who may not have the luxury to call a place their home; the other whose home may only exist in their memories now. One may be able to help someone feel at home, even if the feeling does not last, the memories of a safe and kind home may never perish. Acts of little compassion go a long way!