between tamaasha and jashn
Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) 2012 turned out to be a larger event than the two previous ones. What was more encouraging to observe was that it also turned out to be a better event. It appeared to be less about typical liberal hysterics and more about serious-minded debate. The inaugural speeches contained the odd classic line or two about simplistic scenarios where the Taliban could potentially have been more peaceful, had they only been readers of fiction. Such statements are conceivably vital in contextualising and marketing this sort of activity, but they were not a very common theme during the festival as a whole.
William Dalrymple’s masterfully delivered keynote address, describing his work on the first Anglo-Afghan war, hit just the right note in terms of contemporary politics, his brand of historical writing forming a nice bridge between the purely academic and the commercial, mirroring the sensibilities of the festival, and people not minding his mispronunciation of Kabul as Kabool overly much. The topics selected for the sessions were rather more varied in theme and somewhat more specific in focus this time round. The quality of discussion at some of the panels devoted to current affairs and politics, such as the one featuring Declan Walsh and Anatol Lieven on depictions of Pakistan by foreign journalists, or the panel on the emergence of Bangladesh, featuring Sharmila Bose and Brigadier A. R. Siddiqi, was quite sophisticated, compensating somewhat for the weakness of some of the sessions devoted to discussing fiction.
While one-on-one sessions with famous authors like Vikram Seth and Shobha De enjoyed an excellent response, panel discussions experienced mixed success. This was particularly true for the Urdu-language sessions, which felt extremely repetitive in the third year of the festival. In the 2010 programme, the space devoted to Urdu writing was as much as English writing, especially with the keynote address delivered by the renowned Urdu critic and writer, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Over the course of two years, however, Urdu seems to have been pushed to a more marginal status relative to the changed size of the festival, with languages like Pashto and Sindhi gaining a nod only through their brief, though delightful, representation in Mohammad Hanif’s session devoted to readings by authors writing in local languages.
Even the Urdu sessions that did take place were dominated by the same unimaginative topics that we have been seeing for a while, and with the panels comprising, with just a few exceptions like the Ibne-e Safi session, of the same core set of six or seven writers and academics that we meet at the festival every single year, unless we are fortunate enough to get a visitor from across the border. If one were to make the argument that the same Pakistani English-language authors are seen at multiple panels each year because there is hardly anyone else that big in that field, there might be some justification for it, although the festival has focused on plenty of new writers recently; but in the case of Urdu, surely...? Whatever interest they may have generated at the beginning, the titles of these Urdu-language sessions appear rather hackneyed and uninspiring by now — urdu ki soorat-i haal, afsaana aur shaa’iri, kal aur aaj, naya aur puraana, urdu ke parhne waale... Not only do such titles carry more than a whiff of diminishing confidence, they also contribute to the sort of general overview which is more often than not too vague to be helpful and also encourages speakers to stray in ever more tangential directions, talking more about social ills and politics than about art and poetics, with moderators making little or no effort to enlighten younger members of the audience about literary contexts.
Speeches tailored to make the audience feel guilty about neglecting their ‘own’ language often amount to little more than a dirge about its declining status, which is ironic considering that the organisers want the festival to be a ‘jashn’ instead, rather than a mere ‘tamaasha.’ If the latter is the intention, then surely everyone’s interests would be better served by endeavouring to increase the audiences’ understanding of classic and classical Urdu writers, with a realistic recognition of their different needs. At the festival in Jaipur this year, a moderator skilfully drew out Javed Akhtar to expound on the nature of poetry, how the ghazal differs from the nazm, value of literary criticism, ideological labels applied to poets, Mir and the process of writing poetry, and the poet’s own work and literary preferences.
Speaking of moderators, while some sessions were quite crisply moderated, such as the one where Kamila Shamsie drew Dalrymple out on his works in a knowledgeable manner, at some other sessions, it was rather apparent that the moderator had little idea about the author’s works or even his background. There were even a few instances, where the moderator just sat back and let the speaker get on, uttering hardly a word throughout the session. Ayesha Jalal’s session on Manto is an example of the latter, where while she used the time to present a series of very interesting and well-known anecdotes about Manto’s life; an active moderator may have drawn out the details of her own particular insight into Manto’s circumstances. Less so than last year, but there still appeared to be a trend where the choice of moderator (and also of co-panellist) seems to have been made on the basis of people being conveniently on hand, rather than being the most effective and having the relevant expertise. Certainly, some moderators, and even some panellists, appeared surprised at finding themselves on stage at particular sessions.
Perhaps, it is part of the culture to concentrate on prominent personalities — and acquaintances — rather than content of work for selection of speakers at these sessions. In Pakistan, perhaps it is a legacy from Zia’s era, that some people are invited to speak for their liberal credentials rather than for anything fresh or terribly relevant they may have to contribute to the debate at hand. At Jaipur, too, one could observe examples of a particular person being added to the panel for being an accepted Muslim voice. In a panel titled ‘After Bin Laden’, M. J. Akbar again and again derailed the discussion to talk about the issue of development among India’s Muslims and tolerance among Hindus, presenting the essentialist argument of the ‘Hindu mind is (as) secular’ and intrinsically ‘accommodating’, before proceeding to mispronounce Ghazaali as Ghazali, Ibn Taimiyya as Ibn Tamaeeiyya and Salafi as Salaafi, while talking about so-called trends in Islamic historical thought.
It is because of the marked improvement in the standard of many of the sessions this year that one hopes that the festival next year will be even better. If it is the addition of more foreign writers than ever before which heavily contributed to this enhancement in quality, then one hopes that we may get the opportunity to see many more such writers in Karachi next February. At the same time, this is perhaps one of the best platforms to promote Pakistan’s languages, and one hopes we will see a greater and better representation of their literatures. So many exciting themes await exploration — lexicography, specific poets, linguistic history and invitations to Saraiki scholars like Christopher Shackle and members of South Asian, European and American academia who have done good work on Pakistani literatures, even if publishers other than Oxford have published it.
“When our lives are written about in the English language, the books become best sellers,” thundered Pakistan’s rebel poet Kishwar Naheed at the Karachi Literature Festival. This was a session where I had the rather undeserved honour of introducing and talking to Naheed and the other master poet, Iftikhar Arif. She added that there was little emphasis on quality as the books you were supposed to buy at the airports for light reading were now ‘high’ literature. This was an oblique, yet unambiguous reference to the Pakistani writing in English. The two worlds — “native” and English — remain quite separate in a manner that Kipling had envisioned. English writing from Pakistan has received global attention and is celebrated at festivals across the globe. Yet how many Pakistanis have an idea of what it is all about? This is an uncomfortable question that we need to ask and perhaps keep on asking.
The Karachi Literature Festival has now evolved into a serious annual festival where writers gather and interact with thousands of readers each year. To be fair to the organisers, they have been mindful of the principle of inclusiveness from the very start. Asif Farrukhi, an eminent writer (who is my actual role model for his supernatural powers to write, edit and think with a full time job) has been organising the “regional” side of the literary ramblings at the festivals. Big names such as Fahmida Riaz and others are given due acknowledgment by holding sessions with them. Yet, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on the universe of English writings — both by Pakistanis and foreigners. This year, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, Anatol Lieven and several others attracted much attention by their readers, fans and critics. There were a few sessions on Urdu and regional languages’ literature but it was obvious that the attendees were not always the same.
As a young woman confessed at the festival, “I hardly read Urdu, but do you consider Initizar Husain a great writer?” Despite the shocking nature of this statement, I was hardly surprised. The apartheid that exists in Pakistan’s education system marginalises the local and the vernacular compared to the more market-oriented, global English. Aside from its potential “benefits,” English language, for some, remains an odious status symbol. A colonial legacy, a preserve of the postcolonial elites, and a stepping-stone for entry into the deliberately constructed, globalised monoculture.
But Khaled Ahmed raised the issue of how Urdu was also becoming redundant due to its idiom and the constraints on expression in contemporary Pakistani society. He lamented the fact that Urdu writers could not say many things, which the English fiction writers could express due to the inaccessibility of these works locally. Khaled is not off the mark here. Local literature is far more likely to attract the ire of state and non-state actors. This process started with Manto in the early years of Pakistan where he had to face several court cases for writing “obscene” literature. Today, Manto is arguably the greatest of modern Urdu storytellers. Not long ago Ahmed Bashir had to face cases against him for having attacked Mullahs and their shenanigans in his writings. Tragic as it was not many lawyers were willing to take the case and in fact one of the known senior left wing leaders remained ambivalent about helping Bashir. However, this has not impacted the creativity much as voices of resistance continue to map literature in Pakistani languages and there is no dearth of what one would rate as high quality literary output.
On the other hand, translations of Pakistani English writers have not yet appeared for local readers. Thus the vast majority of Pakistanis have little clue as to what Mohsin Hamid’s protagonist underwent in the US or what were the travails of Hanif’s Alice Bhatti. The gap widens despite the pushes and pulls of globalisation. The Karachi Literature Festival is ideally suited to play a major role in bridging these divides of language and cultures. Over the last three years, the festival has taken conscious steps to include local voices but there is a long way to go.
Fahmida Riaz, as a rare blend of the two worlds, asked Vikram Seth if he had read Qurratulain Hyder; and told Hanif Kureishi how she translated two of his stories years ago and loved his work. As writers’ moods go, she could not suppress her views when we met after the closing ceremony. Riaz used the rather strong term “cultural imperialism” for the overt focus on English. In one of the sessions earlier she mentioned how Orhan Pamuk always wrote in his native language but had good translators for a global audience. Riaz remains a romantic revolutionary; she even remarked that Sindhi was the local language of the place where the festival was being held.
Amid these perennial, unresolved debates Intizar Hussain was constructive and forward-looking. In various sessions, he opined that Urdu and regional literature was flourishing in the country and there was no need for despondency. Inspired by his deep understanding of the mythological moorings of our existence, he said it was too early to write off Urdu literary tradition in Pakistan. English writings could only benefit from this tradition and look up to it.
Raza Rumi was a moderator at KLF, 2012 and his writings are archived at www.razarumi.com
Entering the first session I attend at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012 (KLF) titled “Changing Paradigms of Literature: Urdu and Beyond”, Shobhaa De is tugging at my heart strings as I know she is in another part of the lit fest, adding the glam quotient to the festival and saying it like it is.
The session starts late like most of the sessions at the festival. In my hand is the programme of the two day festival that has just kick-started, promising 50 plus enlightening sessions. Talks, a mushaaira, a concert, film screenings (at another venue), author signings and more. As I skim through the programme, the session begins. KLF has arrived!
Bilal Tanweer, one of Pakistan’s young writers making waves, is the moderator. He is trying to make an excited audience settle down and signalling the hotel employees to not disrupt the session by stacking chairs that should have been stacked the evening before.
Dr Syed Nomanul Haq, a historian and academic, and main speaker for this session starts slow, unlike the festival which is off to jumpstarts from the word go. He picks up pace as he embarks on an engaging talk about how literature has to be more than activism. His words about how Faiz’s centenary ended up celebrating the “message” of jab taaj uchaalay jayein ge rather than Faiz’s poetics and the “silk” in Faiz’s poetry resonate inside me for the coming two days at the festival. While the KLF is certainly a promise to revival of the arts and literature and has become a hub of thinking minds, I personally felt it reeked too much of activism. Literature and that too in the current situational context of Pakistan cannot be separated from highlighting social issues. But blatant activism has found its way into the KLF. Perhaps KLF is juggling too many roles at the same time. What needs to be understood is that letting literature take its natural course would in fact highlight Pakistan’s issues in a more subtle but impactful way. Reintroduce literature and reading, and a society will progress effortlessly. For activism, other forums can and should be used.
In and out of about a dozen sessions over the two days, I am window shopping in a galore of inviting options. Even the purposeful walk from one session to another is a joy. People seem excited, and are talking in positive tones — about ideas and solutions, about writers of yesteryear and those of today. Writers, journalists, activists, literary critics are all in a single venue. The sight is almost pristine. How often do you see this in Pakistan?
This year’s festival had rare gems on book stalls. I found Al-Ghazali’s “Wonders of the Heart” and works of Sant Kabeer and Meera Bai translated in Urdu. Best buy for me was De’s “Shobhaa at Sixty” which I got signed by the diva in a star-struck moment.
Highlights of a few sessions that left me craving for more are in order. In “A Conversation with Hanif Kuresihi”, the writer lived up to my expectations — brilliant, witty and every bit as sarcastic and impatient as expected. “The process of writing is chaos. It’s boring. If only people knew how I suffer,” shared Kureishi. He made up for his acerbic words by reading an excerpt from his novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” and saying “If people read me, I am still very grateful”.
A delightful session was “The Re-birth of Ibn-e-Safi”, the prolific fictional writer who thought of themes much ahead of time. It was refreshing how his son Ahmad Safi, himself a short story writer, took ownership and pride in his father’s work. He revealed that a compilation of his father’s poetry was underway. Another session of the same genre was chaired by renowned Urdu novelist Intizar Husain. Titled “Reading Urdu Classics Today”, the session boasted of Iftikhar Arif, Zehra Nigah, Syed Nomanul Haq, Khalid Jawed and Asif Farrukhi, names that make literature buffs sit up. The dwindling number of people who today read Urdu literature and classics in particular, is dismally low. Re-introducing Urdu literature is a real challenge.
The session on “Kashmir”, though energised through heart-felt interjections by writer Mirza Waheed and the able moderation of Victoria Schofield among other panelists, had less attendance, as it coincided with the session called “Satire/Comedy”. But what left a mark on the audience was Waheed’s (himself a Kashmiri) comment, the gist of which was that Kashmir is always seen as a territory. Where is the human-centred angle when we discuss the solution to the Kashmir issue?
As for the “Satire/Comedy” session, it had to be one of the highlights of the festival. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, the witty left-winger columnist, found more than his match in the brilliant wit of both stand-up comedian Saad Haroon and Ali Aftab Saeed of Beygairat Brigade. Punch-lines like Haroon saying, “”Maya Khan is the best investigative reporter in relationships after Sex and the City” provided all of political catharsis and comic relief to the attendees.
Literature’s power was at its peak in the session “Pakistani Contemporary Fiction Writings”. Transporting the intently engaged audience to another world were Mohsin Hamid, H M Naqvi, Shehryar Fazli and Ayesha Salman, reading out excerpts from their books. The former two, in the deep and baritone voices, left an indelible mark. It took time to snap out of that session.
“Writing about Pakistan through a Foreign Perspective” was a session which literally had a near-stampede situation as so many people were trying to cram into a tiny room. Moderated by Raza Rumi, it had a sizable panel of foreign journalists. While the earnest sincerity of reporters like Declan Walsh touched a chord, it was the brazen comments of the Indian journalists that gave it an energetic luster. Alhok Bhalla, for example, said: “Indian media is both schizophrenic and hysteric when it comes to Pakistan.”
Vikram Seth from India was candid, relatable and pleasant. Seth’s session was a huge hit, as was the one with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who hopefully shall bring the Oscar home for her documentary film “Saving Face”.
All through the festival, I enjoyed observing the potpourri of people. The white-haired literati in pure cottons and kolhapuris stand along socialite glamorous women of Pakistan with streaked, re-bonded hair in gliterrati chappals. Media persons, politicians who for once are lost in the crowds, children and the elderly that are here walking slowly with the help of sticks, they were all here. But perhaps the most encouraging to me are the families that are visiting the festival. In 7 series cars or on rickshaws, they are here to give their children a taste of literature and books. For unless literature trickles down to the masses (and I use the terms “down” and “masses” squirmishly for a lack of better words), desired change through literature will remain a dream. In the years to come, the biggest challenge I foresee for the KLF is to make it more than an elitist soiree where everyone who is anyone wants to be seen.