Conversations on creativity

December 4, 2022

The fourth Adab Festival was a rich cultural extravaganza that catered to diverse tastes

An insightful conversation between authors HM Naqvi, Saad Shafqat and Syed Kashif Raza.
An insightful conversation between authors HM Naqvi, Saad Shafqat and Syed Kashif Raza.


iterary festivals in Pakistan are often criticised for disproportionately focusing on all things apart from literature. Be that as it may, these extravaganzas serve as a catalyst for intellectual and creative discourse in a society plagued by a history of excessive censorship.

The fourth Adab Festival, which was held at Karachi’s Frere Hall on November 26 and 27, provided something for everyone, be it literary connoisseurs or those interested in other creative pursuits. A rich miscellany of book launches, panel discussions, performances and storytelling sessions catered to the diverse tastes of audiences who assembled at the otherwise desolate lawns of Frere Hall. The organisers couldn’t have selected a more suitable venue for the event. Frere Hall is not only a welcome testament to Karachi’s history, but the gardens surrounding the colonial-era building are readily accessible to everyone. It is refreshing to see conversations on creative ventures being brought into the public domain rather than confined to air-conditioned halls.

Sceptics have often asserted that such festivals tend to navigate the binaries between Urdu and English literature and focus little on regional and provincial languages. This year’s event conscientiously accounted for the contributions of regional writers – a rare feat worthy of appreciation. Critics also say that such festivals struggle to represent the diverse facets of literature. The fourth Adab Festival not only drew attention to our forgotten literary heritage but also turned an intimate gaze on new writing that reflects contemporary concerns.

Barring a short delay after the opening ceremony, the sessions began on time and were attended by a modest yet enthusiastic audience. The launch of Moni Mohsin’s The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, recently published in Pakistan by Reverie Publishers, was arguably the most popular event. Mohsin began the session with a complaint that most Pakistani writers hear about their work. “I came across someone recently who claimed that Pakistani writers create a bad impression about the country,” she said. “He told me that he avoids reading the works of Pakistani writers for this reason.”

Mohsin argued that writers aren’t responsible for creating a favourable image of the society. “They aren’t ambassadors or publicists,” she said. “They must document the truth and hold a mirror to the society.” The author asserted that fiction only matters because through it people get an opportunity to connect with the truth.

Mohsin’s novel is fundamentally different from the books she has written as part of the Butterfly series. “The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is a satirical book, but it isn’t a humorous one,” she said. The novel is about women who operate within the constraints of our patriarchal society but are well-intentioned feminists and valuable change agents who have been misguided by the vague promises made by cynical leaders.

Ruby R is about the acquisition of wisdom,” she added.

Mohsin recalled what the late writer Intezar Hussain had once told her at a literary festival several years ago. “He believed that two groups have emerged over the decades: women and the maulvis.” At first, she said, she thought that it was a rather paradoxical observation but later realised that it seemed logical. Hussain claimed that Pakistan’s dialectical dilemma was rooted in an inevitable clash between these groups. “I’m very heartened to see that the struggle between these groups has begun. What Intezar Hussain foresaw in Pakistan then is happening in modern-day Iran.”

The author also explored the ways in which Trump’s presidential campaign, the accusations of sexual harassment levelled against Harvey Weinstein and the global significance of the Me-Too Movement provided an impetus for the novel.

The English translation of Muhammadi Begum’s memoir A Long Way from Hyderabad: Diary of Young Muslim Woman in 1930s Britain was also launched at the festival. The author’s eldest daughter, Zehra Masroor, has translated the diary.

Speaking at the launch, journalist Zubeida Mustafa shared her observations on the book and its profound impact on her. “Trained theatre performer Shama Askari read the book to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Mustafa said. “It was remarkable how [Muhammadi Begum] was so perceptive at such a young age,” she said.

She argued that we often get to read a man’s version of historical events but seldom come across a woman’s outlook on history.

Responding to a question from the audience, Masroor said that her mother was fairly empowered and independent. “In 1935-6, my father returned to India, and my mother lived alone in Oxford and even travelled independently to a seaside resort in Spain,” she said.

Other books launched during the festival included Ayesha Baqir’s Beyond the Fields, Aitezaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan and Fouzia Saeed’s Tapestry: Strands of Women’s Struggles Woven into the History of Pakistan. Shama Askari also launched her book Hiroshima and Other Stories, an English translation of her father Ibn-i-Said’s stories that provide a South Asian perspective on the World War II.

The services rendered by esteemed littérateur Asif Farrukhi, who passed away in 2020, were commemorated in a panel discussion featuring Zehra Nigah, Noorul Huda Shah, Ameena Saiyid, Tanveer Anjum, Afzal Ahmed Syed and Fatema Hassan. The panellists spoke about Farrukhi’s contributions toward fostering Karachi’s literary landscape.

“Asif brought a literary festival to a city where the sounds of blaring ambulances were commonplace,” Shah said. “A doctor by training, he knew that the only cure for Karachi’s epidemic of violence were conversations of an intellectual and literary nature.”

An intriguing session highlighted the challenges involved in Urdu pedagogy in our times; another explored how crowd-sourcing can be used to improve Google Translate’s ability to provide English translations of Urdu words.

An insightful conversation between authors HM Naqvi, Saad Shafqat and Syed Kashif Raza focused on the complex processes involved in conceiving a novel. Raza spoke about the ways in which his work has been influenced by the unique voices of his trilingual characters and a “host of philosophical questions that irk him as a writer.” He discussed how his work revolves around depictions of reality as well as the notion of visibility and invisibility.

Shafqat argued that experience is “the raw material of a book.” He said that writers must understand their subjects intimately if they wish to document them for readers with some degree of accuracy.

“My two novels have been shaped by my experience as a medical practitioner,” Shafqat said. “My next work will deviate from the concerns I have explored in the past and focus on people who aren’t satisfied with their lives.”

Naqvi discussed how the first sentence of his first novel Home Boy “summoned the characters from [his] consciousness” and helped them emerge on paper. However, he said, he conceived the protagonist for his second novel before he wrote the first line.

“Characters organically develop their own personalities as the book is being written,” he said. “If I’m not viscerally connected to a book I’m working on, I start radically changing it. Anxiety about the direction of my work-in-progress, therefore, becomes almost self-corrective.”

In a separate session on Karachi’s literary landscape, four authors explored the origins and future direction of the city’s creative output in Sindhi, Balochi, Urdu and English. The session drew upon history as well as contemporary developments in the way the city has been immortalised through the written word to create a roadmap for the future.

The writer is a freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

Conversations on creativity