Student Question

What is your interpretation of the title of Intizar Husain's novel Basti?

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The title of Intizar Husain's novel Basti is appropriate because the book deals mainly with the problems of settlement and of establishing a common land in which people from different religions and ethnic backgrounds can co-exist peacefully. The word basti can be translated as a gathering place, a place in which people come together. And this is precisely what Husain, through his protagonist Zakir, wishes to see established across the Indian subcontinent.

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Basti is an Urdu word that can be translated as a “common place” or “gathering place,” a shared space in which people from all walks of life can come together. This is the ideal that Husain, through his protagonist Zakir, wishes to see realized across the Indian subcontinent.

But as Zakir discovers, this is easier said than done. In the aftermath of the subcontinent's partition, large-scale violence broke out between Hindus and Muslims, leading to death and displacement on a massive scale. To this day, relations between India and Pakistan remain fraught, and the two countries have gone to war with each other four times, as well as engaging in various small-scale skirmishes.

Basti, then, could be said to represent an ideal to which the different religious and ethnic groups of the Indian subcontinent should aim. To some extent, this ambitious vision represents a return to Zakir's childhood, when, as a Muslim boy, he grew up in what is now Pakistan alongside Hindu children. Relations between Hindus and Muslims were relatively peaceful during Zakir's formative years, which ensured that he had a happy childhood.

To be sure, there were tensions, such as when the Hindu women would keep Zakir's family awake when they sing all through the night to the god Krishna to make him stop the rainy season. But such tensions never degenerated into the kind of violence that would one day follow the partition of India.

Basti, then, is not a hopelessly utopian ideal. It existed in Zakir's childhood; it is grounded in historical reality. Differences would still remain if this gathering place were ever to be reestablished. But those differences could reasonably be accommodated without recourse to violence as was the case when Zakir was a boy.

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