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Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels and has recently been named one of the best young British novelists by Granta. When did I first hear about Intizar Husain’s Basti? I can’t possibly answer that. Even for someone who grew up reading English almost exclusively it was impossible not to know that Basti was one of the great novels of Pakistan. It was on my ‘must read’ list for years but the stuttering slowness of my Urdu reading meant that it was only when the English translation arrived on my doorstep a few months ago that I actually sat down with both Urdu original and English translation side by side, and plunged in. How strange to discover it started in the days of the Raj! I’d always thought of it as a novel about 1971. But it was that too. How was such a thing possible? How could any novel, let alone such a slim volume, carry within it the story of both Partitions — that of 1947 as well as 1971 — without becoming entirely weighed down? But of course, I quickly remembered as I read on, it is the particular genius of the greatest of writers to find ways to change our concept of what a novel can do between its bindings. Such a writer is Intizar Husain; such a novel is Basti.


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