Outside the view

November 8, 2020

In the wake of Covid-19, the first-ever digital edition of the ILF did manage to convene diverse strands of writing, with book launches, conversational dialogues, mushairas and panel discussions

With its free admission, a brace of prominent speakers, and percentage of well-known participants, the 7th edition of Islamabad Literature Festival 2020 (ILF 20), organised by Oxford University Press (OUP) responded forcefully to local detractors (critics) and dissidents (complicit sub-editors) who have depicted such festivals as little more than the avant-garde’s regressive conversations with its own coterie. In the wake of Covid-19 alias the corona virus pandemic, the tradition of holding this festival at informal spaces such as the Margalla Motel and Lok Virsa seemed to have either expired or thwarted. With the first-ever digital (online) edition of ILF, a relatively small selection of authors – but each generously represented – convened a distinct summary of diverse strands of writing in the closing months of the season, with book launches, readings, conversational dialogues, mushairas and panel discussions.

If one were to believe that the festival concentrated on a select number of living litterateurs whose work has had the most lasting impact and had challenged the status quo over the past fifteen to twenty years, it would be a facetious proposition.

The brief history of literature festivals in Pakistan would suggest that enlisting a team of eminent literature makers, including Intezar Husain and Zehra Nigah, among others, may lend special force to the resulting selection of authors. However, such a strategy has not been necessary in the present in order to establish the festival’s reputation. Rather, the festival should be respected for its tradition of curatorial independence, and for having little difficulty in attracting high-quality writers from diverse countries and across generations. One aspect of the literature festival 2020 that all spectators would find surprising was the exclusion of regional voices – ranging from those who are making innovations within the classic traditions of writing to the more familiar address of urban-based writers with their often mordant social consciousness.

Raheela Baqai, the Marketing Manager at OUP in her opening remarks, emphasised that all nine participating countries in twenty-odd sessions highlighted a remarkable range of different subjects. However, in every instance, conceptual traditions or broader cultural concerns took precedence over any other dialogue with the evolving practice of writing.

It was in the area of acquiescing that the festival used to fulfill its ongoing primary function of bringing to Pakistani audiences books and authors which they had not already been familiar with, the fact reiterated by Zehra Nigah in her keynote speech. “The role of the festival has been to acquaint the reader with the book.” Reflecting on the virtual edition of the festival, she mused that while Allama Muhammad Iqbal warned his readers of the onslaught of the machine age as a harbinger of destruction and violence, it is, however, due to technology that today people can connect with one another despite being continents away. However, she missed the throng of crowds, the activity and the hustle and bustle that such festivals augur.

Amjad Islam Amjad seconded Zehra Nigah, while in conversation with Tauseeq Haider, in that during a live literary session, the audience responds with applause, the gesture of a hand, the nod of a head but virtual sessions have taken that pleasure away. Reading out poems that he composed aplenty during the time of crisis and frustration, he struggled to untie the knots of creativity, in the session titled Saari Girhain Khul Jati Hain Eik Girhah Khul Janay Say.

Within modern literary history, Asif Farrukhi was a pioneering figure, one of the few authors who were able to pursue a rewarding intellectual career in his chosen profession. Of his many achievements, Farrukhi will be remembered best for his scholarship, and his role at Oxford University Press, where he had been responsible for the creation of one of Pakistan’s first literary events, Karachi Literature Festival, followed by Islamabad Literature Festival. In a befitting tribute to the late author, it was remarked: “They (his works) were not only metaphors of his thinking but were also works which challenged complacency with their strong iconic presence.”

Fehmida Riaz, until the very end of her life, continued to bust open taboos and provoke hedonistic urges, attempting to loosen the ties of our formidable inhibitions. One of the most compelling aspects of Riaz’s work was the way she used herself as a subject to draw the viewer in through a sense of intimacy. While remembering the late poet, Tahira Naqvi, translator of Badan Dareeda into English as The Body Torn and other Poems, recalled that for the late poet, it was all about discovering our own unexplored potential and the adventure that is our splendiferous body.

There is a sense of unstoppable time in Fehmida Riaz’s work. Her compelling language employed a highly developed and codified grammar that led to symbolic geographies, slowly revealing interior worlds that are both familiar and strangely foreboding. Whether of the self or society, she revealed inherent hierarchies of power and protection and her complex works, quite literally, led us into labyrinths of the mind and soul.

Even though Uzma Aslam Khan has been writing regularly over the past three decades or so, her profile is relatively subdued, with her work appreciated by a discerning selection of connoisseurs. Even though she has operated within the engine rooms of the literary world as one of its most intellectually informed writers, she has remained outside the view. This is largely because her craft is complex – consistent with her reputation as a sophisticated ‘cerebralist’ interested in the ambiguities of appearance and representation, and the root of function and form. In The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, she exposes relationships when she interiorises them, probing at identity and motives caught in the throes of a post-colonial scenario, from within the constraints of social structures. She continues to move towards the challenging psychological concepts associated with avant-garde culture. Her interest lies in distilling the formal properties of the individual within society, and she renders this relationship and its associated emotions as multilayered, presenting distinctive thresholds and structural analogies.

With its limited repertoire it, somehow, wasn’t too successful in focusing on the emerging, the untried, and the more pointedly experimental work within the evolving topography of international contemporary writing.

Khan admitted that it took her about twenty-six years to write her fifth novel and that it all began with an accident when she ended up pulling out the ‘wrong’ book off the shelf of a library while looking for something else. She came across a quote in that book by a British home secretary dating back to the 1930s referring to the Andaman Islands as the ‘Prison Islands’ or ‘The Prison in Paradise’. Later on, the Japanese also occupied the islands during WWII. Women who had been banished to the islands were either obliterated from the pages of history or were never included in them in the first place. This gave birth to Khan’s female protagonist, Nomi Ali.

While it took Uzma Aslam Khan twenty-six years to write her fifth novel, it took Anwar Masood – the veteran humorist – only five minutes to write his best-remembered poem in Punjabi, Bunain. He recalled getting shocked when a young girl aged four came running up to him in Chicago and recited the entire poem by heart. Masood explained that under-vest is a metaphor for the Western culture that doesn’t quite fit a Pakistani physique. On the contrary, it took him twenty years to write the final draft of the poem Mamta. Still, there are occasions when the poetic muse knocks at his head, in the middle of the night, and whispers, ‘put me on paper.’ Anwar Masood, best known as an Urdu (the national language) humorist, disclosed that he also writes in Punjabi (his mother tongue) and Persian (his medium of instruction).

Declan Walsh recounted his expulsion from politically volatile Pakistan in 2013 on the ground that he was found carrying out ‘undesirable activities.’ During the book launch session of his latest Nine Lives of Pakistan, earlier named as InshaAllah Nation, Walsh spoke at length why the book had been in gestation and production for a long time, and about how he meant to encapsulate his experience of working on behalf of The New York Times for nine years in Pakistan. He recounted how “these incredibly dramatic stories of nine individuals that he witnessed up close” constitute the content of his latest offering. “The people I chose to include in the book are the people who had been living on the edge of that period.”

Putting things into the right perspective, Sana Munir, one of the co-editors of The Stained-Glass Window: Stories of the Pandemic from Pakistan, exclaimed that the book is not a collection but an anthology – a medley of voices, mostly of women, who reflect on the pandemic. For them, the experience of writing was cathartic in the absence of any expert advice. The other editor of the book, Taha Kehar shed light on Huma Sheikh’s story in the collection, Gulmohar Tree, as one of the ‘most beautifully crafted’ stories in the anthology in which the author weaves the narrative around trees as she moves back and forth into time. The most significant part of this segment was perhaps the introduction to a new platform where aspiring writers and professionals could get their voices heard.

Aamer Hussein in conversation with Raza Rumi confessed that his early influences from Urdu literature definitely did not come from Urdu prose and fiction but from Urdu poetry, primarily from Ghalib and Faiz – the language he had only adequate acquaintance with and that too through the sound of it, as he grew up listening to Urdu and Hindi kalaam sung by his mother. And even though he had read Ghulam Abbas, Jamila Hashmi, Khalida Hussain and several others at university, it was not until he came across Pather Ki Awaz by Qurrat-ul-Ain Hyder (recommended to him by the author herself) that he decided to try his hand at Urdu prose. The Twain Shall Meet – the session, as it was called – charted Hussein’s long journey from English to Urdu during the years he was growing up in England interspersed by trips to India and Pakistan.

The complex enveloping visual and auditory environment of ILF ’20 was a woven synthesis of narrative content, the inherent conditions of the location and the video medium.

With its limited repertoire it, somehow, wasn’t too successful in focusing on the emerging, the untried, and the more pointedly experimental work within the evolving topography of international contemporary writing.

It was a festival of contradictions, binaries and seemingly incompatible methodologies. The abstraction and aestheticisation of complex political ideas was problematic, while the digital format was often distracting, leaving the viewer with the feeling that s/he had digested something that was undoubtedly worthy but rather absent of flavour.

Yet, for the most part, some of the authors were able to move past the strictures of festival’s claustrophobic structure. And that, perhaps, marks the success of the first-ever digital edition of ILF.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Coronavirus: First ILF digital edition manages to convene diverse strands of writing