Zia Mohyeddin column
The Karachi Literature Festival showcases Pakistani authors and poets with a sprinkle of international authors to jazz up the mix
By Huma Imtiaz
Exploding bombs, Taliban head honchos being found under every rock and endless power cuts that leave one infuriated: Karachi really hasn't been in the news for all the right reasons lately, and with the scorcher that March has been, one senses that 2010 may not be Karachi's year.
So amidst all of this, it was rather nice to be sitting in a sufficiently well air-conditioned room at the Carlton Hotel in Karachi, watching Pakistani-born author, journalist and documentary filmmaker Sarfaraz Manzoor talking about his one true love: Bruce Springsteen.
What was even more surprising is how literature-starved people in the country are, or maybe there's a fan club called "Everybody Loves Mohammed Hanif." Two years after the release of his novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Hanif managed to successfully pull in a full house for his own session. The only ones to rival his success, as a crowd-puller is designer duo Sana and Safinaz, who manage to bring traffic to a standstill in the city every time they decide to hold an exhibition.
A joint venture of the Oxford University Press and British Council, the Karachi Literature Festival brought together a mix of English and Urdu authors. One should also be grateful that most models consider Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist as their favourite book; else the festival would've been overrun by the fashionistas. Bapsi Sidhwa made an appearance, as did the wonderful poetess Fehmida Riaz, who, when she recites poetry, brings the magical world of words into the room with her and brings her poem to life with her powers of recitation, fumbles and all.
According to Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director of OUP Pakistan, "it's been very exciting, the reaction has been incredible, and we've had a large number of guests."
But why hold it at Carlton Hotel, one wonders, which is cut off from the rest of the city. Security concerns or was it a better venue? Ameena Saiyid says, "It's a bit of both. The hotel is very comfortable, they gave us great rates and they also have good security measures in place."
NDTV's Sunil Sethi is all praises for the event. "What is exciting is meeting the younger lot of Pakistani authors who are writing in English such as Husain Naqvi (of Homeboy) and Sarfaraz Manzoor (Greetings from Bury Park). Sunil, who was brought up in Amritsar, said it was "a dream come true" to meet people like Fehmida Riaz. "As a North Indian who was brought up reading Urdu literature, this has been a great event, meeting the people here and listening to the arguments that were made and discussed during the tribute to Quratulain Hyder, it's been a great experience."
What was really the highlight of the event though was finally seeing Mohsin Hamid in action, who had been visiting the city after a break of several years. Moderator Sunil Sethi managed to pin down Hamid into answering questions about "the rapid and shocking decline" of the characters in his books, Mothsmoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid light-heartedly remarked, "Writing good fiction that's happy is harder than writing good fiction that's sad -- I took the easy route!"
Speaking to TNS before his session, Hamid pointed out what Pakistan really needed: a commercial publishing industry. "We should be able to have a Pakistani agent, a Pakistani editor, have a Pakistani publisher, and have a domestic market. We don't have a supply chain to the shop. That's what we need, we have the writers, and then there'll be a space for those who are upcoming Pakistani authors."
While one can hope that Hamid's wishes one day become a reality, an aspect of the festival that one found rather odd was the last event of the festival: South Asian English literature: Its Role and Challenges Today. As Pakistanis, it's hard enough avoiding the clichés peddled about the country, one fails to understand why they must be flung about when it comes to literature as well, especially in front of a local audience that is predominantly South Asian. The session soon diverted from its original topic after Hanif remarked, "the only time identity was an issue with me was when I said I was from Okara, and people said no you're from that village, then I came to Karachi and settled here, except then I had to hear remarks like 'oh your Urdu isn't great," leaving the crowd in fits of giggles.
Author Sadia Shepard shared her experiences with her agent, who asked questions such as, "can't you add more dust?" and "this needs more colour" when reading her book. One feels that anecdotes like these are what the audience would've enjoyed far more as opposed to questions about identity and immigration.
So where do the organisers see the event going next year? According to Saiyid, "It'll be a little bigger, better organised, and instead of two, we'd like to have three sessions at a time, so that we can have more authors as well, especially more non-fiction authors."
While one must commend the organisers for managing to hold the event, one wonders who came up with the list of the moderators. When moderators like Asif Noorani and Muneeza Shamsie, both authors themselves, forget the names of the books, whose authors they're introducing, or attempt to infuse humour with jokes so bad one is forced to gasp in horror. It's time to rethink the author-moderator pairing.
One also hopes that the festival is held in a cooler month next time around, it really is quite hard to feel festive when one is trying to find the best spot near the air-conditioner, wearing the flimsiest lawn jora they can find and praying fervently that a backup generator is working.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
A meeting with Shah Hussain recounted in a dream
By Nadir Ali
The tenth century (Hijri) was a bad time. There was turmoil in the kingdom and Suba Lahore was worse. Young King Akbar himself came to Lahore to control the spate of rebellions. People believed this was the last century before doomsday. In such times, people turned to their saints and bhagats. They were singing Shah Hussain's songs in Lahore and Kasur, as they sang Farid in the times gone by. Maulvi Chishti from Lahore had written to my mentor Maulvi Faiz Meeran, "There are over 100,000 followers in Lahore and Kasur alone. The Hussainias are a strange creed of both Hindus and Mussalmans."
"Go to Lahore Nadir Ali! There you may find answers to your fevered quest."
There was also a famine in the land. Summer rains were scanty in the last three years. The land was thirsty and the people were hungry. Though there were shahi tandoors in Lahore and even in the new city around Gujrat Fort, where they said you could get two rotis for a paee. I was not going to waste no paees. My quarter rupee worth in paees I carried in the secret pocket of my inner shirt. I carried my bajra cakes that neither rot nor stale.
I took the route away from Gujrat and Shahi Sarak. I crossed the chandal at Ram Nagar and then headed south-east. I walked seven days. Nights of Phagun were cool and days too warm to walk for long. Eight koss was all I did in a day. I could do sixteen but I took it easy and on the seventh day was crossing the River Ravi over the boat bridge. The ramparts of Lahore Fort were visible and my heart was pounding with excitement. "Will I see Shah Hussain face to face?" I carried a letter from Maulvi Faiz to Maulvi Sharif Sabri, the imam of Abu Bakr Mosque, where Shah Hussain lived in a hujra.
Near Taxali Gate, stood the mosque of Abu Bakr. I asked my way, but did not need to. The mosque was close to the river bank! I kissed the steps of the mosque, where Hussain must be walking up and down! Somebody kicked me, "Hey you heretic, are you Hindu or a Mussalman? If Hindu you have no business and…" "This is 'God's house", I said, "and I am a poor homeless traveller! I also carry a letter to Maulvi Sharif!". "Leave him Hafiz Suleman. This yokel would know nothing better. He may be a notary of Shah Hussain".
Maulvi Sahib told me he no longer lived in his hujra. "Go ask for Nooran's Kotha in the Shahi Mohalla next door." There was a cluster of huts and a haveli or two, just outside Taxali gate, between the mosque and the city wall. I asked my way there that afternoon. "Up the stairs sonny! You can hear the Sarangi!" And then the whole world lit up! Nobody had to tell me it was Hussain! There was a magical spell! He sang:
Charay pallu chunri nain rondi day
Kat nah janan punian dosh daini
Avan avan keh gia mah baran
Kalay harnan char gion Shah
Hussain day bannayn
(The four corners of my scarf are soaked in tears
He promised he'll come but all seasons passed – waiting!
My cell is so dark and friends have gone away!
You lustful black deer you grazed away Hussain's field")
Everyone was crying, but there was beatitude on Hussain's face. I had heard the news near Shah Dara Bagh. They had hanged Dullah Bhatti, a follower and friend of Hussain yesterday. The whole region near Lahore was abuzz with rumours. They had arrested Ali the kotwal of Lahore who supervised the hanging. Dullah had heartily abused the king at the time of hanging and the kotwal quoted every word verbatim in the letter to the king. King Akbar had asked for the report. I had so much to tell, so many stories when I get back to my village! How the kotwal was pegged through his backside on the orders of the king!
"Nooran give the lad some food, he seems hungry," said Hussain. "Master you too should eat, you have not eaten since yesterday," replied Nooran. I fell on Hussain's feet and touched them with my eyes. "Lord I have a letter from Maulvi Faiz". "He has not been found out yet? That Chishti -- Nizami Kafir is still misleading his flock?" asked Hussain. Hussain was fond of Maulvi Faiz and the audience was suitably impressed with my connections. "Come on lad, let's leave this wretched city!" "Where to master? The city is full of spies. They mention and ask about you everywhere". "I never offered the Farz prayers. Let me follow the Sunnat and die at sixty-three!" Everyone sighed and cried! "Let us go lad. You will breathe easy in the countryside! This city of mine suffocates me now". A very handsome young lad came up. "Madho is here!" He looked so much like Hussain, but a face that you could not turn away from. "Come on evil doers, let us go!" We followed him six or seven of us. People stood up in their shops and salaamed, but there were some suspicious people following. "The king's spies are lurking everywhere," whispered a companion of our group.
We reached Nathoo, the village chief's daira in Baghbanpura. "Master we know you are in mourning, but we are faced with famine. It is Phagun already and there are no rains. "Feed these seven hungry people, and then I will go pray for rain," said Hussain. They gave us food and drinks. "Thank God the master smiled," a companion whispered and lo and behold, there was rain! We all moved inside. They lit the mashaals. The musicians were there too. The master started humming and then danced and sang:
Din char chogan maen khel khari, vekhan kon jittay baazi kon haray
Ghora kon ka chak chalak chak chalak chalay, vekhan goy maidan
maen kon haray
Is jiu par baazian aan parhin,
vekhan goy maidan maen kon
Haay haay jahan pukarta hay,
samaj khel baazi Shah Hussain piaray
(For a few days plays this game of polo, let's see who wins who loses!
Whose horse moves fast and tricky and who bravely puts his hand in the game!
We have to endure these games over our hearts, let us see who loses the ball game.
The people cry out in anguish, understand the game and play dear Hussain)
"There are some people lurking around the house Chaudry Nathoo!" a man rushed in and said. "Let them be!" said Hussain. "Master stay, we beseech you. We shall guard you with our lives." "I want to leave this wretched city, bury me across the Ravi. Out! Out! Out of this cursed city! Let us go boys, back to Shahi Mohalla. The fallen are better than the elevated. They hanged Farid Bhatti and Dullah Bhatti. Neither Baba Farid nor Baba Nanak wanted to live in this city. Why did Nanak say 'Lahore shehr sava pahr zehr qehr' (Three hours and fort five minutes in Lahore -- make one feel -- mortally poisonous.)"
The inevitable happened! As we returned to Taxali gate, ten men pounced upon Hussain and two armed men caught each one of us. We raised hue and cry. Hussain was thrown from the stop of the second story. The armed men melted into the night. Shah Hussain died instantly. "They have murdered the master! To the fort!" The cry went up in the city. There was a sea of men surrounding the fort in the morning. They were singing the songs of Hussain, "I too want to go to the abode of Ranjha. Come somebody go with me!" The earth shook with people's slogans. In the afternoon a man came on the high rampart of the fort. "Hear this! Hear this! There is a report from the King's Court. Shah Hussain was dancing drunk and fell from the balcony and died!" The people said "The king is a murderer! The kotwal is a murderer!" This rang in my ears for days.
Karma and memory never leave you. I am born as a monkey in my seventh rebirth. It is better than being an ass, as I was in the twentieth century. It may be that I am reborn as a human again. Though I am not sure I want that. I have a better life and am more spiritual than humans! Be an ass or a monkey, but you will suffer if you are caught by a man! In all my rebirths the memory remained. In spite of my obsession with the female gender, I was always focused on Shah Hussain. As an ass I ran to Baghbanpura and a man living near Hussain's tomb caught me. They were building over the graveyard. Encroachment, "kabza', was the byword. As a monkey I had some fun, let me confess. I feel sorry for humans. They monkey around all life and never get anywhere. "The kings are murderers The kotwals are murderers!" I would rather say "Murderers are kings!" I hear Hussain say "Leave Lahore, you cannot walk nor breathe in this city! Go away, Nadir Ali, you monkey from Gujrat! Go away before you are run over by a car!"
I woke up and laughed. What eons I dreamt away. Read Carl Jung and you will dream rebirths. Read Freud and you will know the reality of all dreams. The essence of dreams and waking life are words that tell what we desire, what we do and what we may pretend. "The king is a murderer! The kotwal is a murderer!", still echoes in my ears.
Across the border
Walk along any busy street in Mumbai in the evening and within a few hundred yards you would hear amplified devotional singing from a temple. The main doors of most temples, which stand in between shops, are wide open and you can see some of the casual worshippers walking in and out of the courtyard where a lone singer (or a group) is singing bhajans -- mostly off-key -- with his eyes closed.
In the big cities of India it is not the harrowing contrast between the rich and the poor which strikes you -- we have a similar scene -- but the extraordinary manifestation of artistic activities which are not just confined to the ballrooms of seven star hotels. Poetry readings, exhibitions, happenings, art installations, dance and drama is to be seen throughout the year. But it is music which dominates the scene. The raga-based music is still considered to be the highest form of fine arts.
There are many myths about the origin of music in India. The one I heard this time is perhaps the most enchanting -- and it is worth repeating. The creator, Brahma made the universe. He created the mountain ranges, the thundering waterfalls and the giant forest trees, as indeed the nimble deer, the colourful peacock and the exquisite flower. He filled his creation with beauty and charm and splendour. But he was sad. His consort, Saraswati, found him in that mood and she asked the reason for it.
Brahma said, "It is true that I have created all this wonder and charm, but what is the use? My children, the people on earth, simply pass them by; they do not seem to be sensitive to all the beauty around. All my effort seems to have been wasted on them".
Saraswati took the hint and said, "My Lord, you have created all this beauty and splendour. Please allow me to do my share in the great work. I shall create in our children the power to appreciate and get uplifted by them. I shall give them music which will draw out of them the capacity to respond to the wondrous beauty of all creation." So saying the great Muse gave us music in the hope that man would understand something of the Divine in his manifestation.
The point that is made in this myth is well brought out in the story which I heard from that magnificent story-teller, R.K Narayan, during a taxi ride in London.
Tansen was a great musician and Akbar was very fond of music. One day when Tansen was in a particularly good form, Akbar said to him, "Tell me, what is the secret of this sweet concord of notes which transports me to Divine regions? I have not heard any one else do it".
Tansen bowed and said, "Sire, I am only a humble pupil of my master, Swami Haridas. I have not mastered even a fraction of the master's technique and grace".
"What?" the great emperor cried, "is there anyone who could sing better than you?"
"I am but a pigmy by my master's side," said Tansen.
Akbar was greatly intrigued. He wanted to hear Haridas, but the emperor though he be, he could not get Haridas in this court. So he and Tansen went to the Himlayas where in his own ashram dwelt the swami. Tansen had already warned Akbar that the swami would not sing except at his own leisure.
Several days they stayed at the ashram; yet the swami did not sing. Then one day Tansen sang one of the ragas taught by the swami and deliberately introduced a false note. It had almost an electric effect on the saint. He turned to Tansen and rebuked him saying, "What has happened to you Tansen, that you, a pupil of mine, should commit such a gross blunder?"
He then started singing the piece correctly. The mood enveloped him and he forgot himself in the music which filled the earth and heaven.
It was a unique experience. When the music stopped Akbar turned to Tansen and said, "You say you learnt music from this saint and yet you seem to have missed the living charm of it all. Yours seems to be but the chaff beside the soul-stirring music."
"T'is true Sire," said Tansen, "It is only true that my music is wooden and lifeless by the side of the living harmony and melody of the master. But there is this difference; I sing to the emperor's bidding, but my master sings only when the prompting comes from his innermost self." Akbar was speechless.
Narayan finished the story with a few chuckles, I asked him if he had ever come across a musician of the quality of Haridas. "In Northern India, no," he said, after a thoughtful pause, "the singers, don't sing, they perform."
At that time, 40 years ago, I thought Narayan, born and brought up in Madras, was biased. I think now that what he said was not entirely untrue.
Classical music in India is no longer the preserve of the few, but has it gained in quality? I rather doubt it. Concerts are now held, with much greater frequency, in huge halls seating two to three thousands people. The average listeners -- and they are in a huge majority -- expect from the musicians only what they want; they are satisfied with what is superficial. To keep them in good humour, the professional musicians, even the great maestros, are led to compromises. Also the northern Indian musicians are hungry for applause (musicians of the Karnatak school do not seem to be quite so greedy) and so they resort to tricks of the trade: (a banter with the percussionist, and concocting complicated tihaees) in order to excite the audience. The result is a performance which is banal and mechanical.
Connoisseurs of the art of music who want to listen to a slow and soulful exploration of the essence of a raga are invariably, disappointed. The effect of the democratisation of music is that the standard of music is now left almost entirely to the mass audience. No wonder the famous conductor Sir Henry Wood (of the proms fame) said, "Music is no place for democracy".
Many more theatres have sprung up in Mumbai -- and not just in Mumbai. The Sangeet Natak Academy's theatre in Lucknow where I performed recently is as good as any in the western world, better, in fact, than many. It has not only a large stage with excellent acoustics and wholesome lighting equipment, but appropriate backstage facilities with well-fitted dressing rooms and ample space in the wings. It is a theatre any professional company would love to perform in.
There are now many excellent theatres in India. I wish I could say the same about some of the productions that are mounted in these venues.