The city sleeps with the lights on

April 4, 2021

The 12th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival, Imagining New Frontiers, held in virtual space, was an excursion away from the normal distrust of modern life towards a fantastic place that still exists within us all

What are literature festivals good for? What is the aim and purpose of holding a festival of this nature, under the all-inclusive, generic banner of literature, every single year since its inception twelve years ago? One answer among many is to provide a platform to creative minds and intellectuals to speak their minds. The other is to give writers, authors, and scholars the opportunity to exercise their birthright to ‘freedom of expression’, as reiterated by Asim Abbasi. He proclaims: “Freedom of expression is the ability to tell our stories honestly. The storyteller tries to figure out some kind of authenticity to the story he’s telling, whether writing fiction or making a film, etc. That comes with having an honest conversation – the ability to critique whether it’s the nation or morality.” The 12th edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) 2021, Imagining New Frontiers, held in virtual space, was a polyphonic parade of voices: musings, reminiscences, laughter, sweet whispers and wisecracks – an excursion away from the ordinary logic and normal distrust of modern life towards a fantastic place that still exists within us all.

In his strait-laced keynote monologue on The Future Frontiers, Vali Nasr condescended that new frontiers that the world and the region would be facing represent an important theme because some very important structural shifts have happened in the world over the last three or four years. According to him, the regional structural shifts have put all of South Asia in a new context. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US emerged as a dominant force internationally. A global economy emerged and was responsible for the integration of all international economies into a single global market highly dependent on the export of industrial goods to the West – to Europe and to the US. We are now seeing a change in that structure; that change is associated with the rise of China.” As if reading out chapters on the making of modern history, he warned, “China had the opportunity to grow at an exponential rate when after 9/11, America’s attention was focused on Eastern Europe, and later, on the Middle East and on war against terrorism, fighting Al Qaeda, the ISIS, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so forth, below its geo-political radar to gain the status of a super power. It is now the second largest economy building Asia along with itself, and in a position to exceed the West in its economic might. We are entering a period where both the US and China look upon each other as adversaries.” This sounded as something less to do with literature and more with the political agitprop.

As the ball rolled on, Victoria Schofield – a KLF regular – confided in Farah Durrani about her camaraderie with Benazir Bhutto. In her rather powerful and poignant account of an emotional journey through Pakistan’s years of political turmoil and the critical upheaval in the former prime minister’s career, Schofield glides through the years like a sparrow watching it all happen from the parapet. “Friendship is something one cannot afford to undervalue in today’s world especially a friendship between people of different cultures, different upbringings, different faiths”, confesses Schofield at the book launch session of Fragrance of Tears: My Friendship with Benazir Bhutto. She completed the memoirs of her unusual friendship with Pakistan’s Iron Lady during the pandemic because she felt she almost owed her one. “I knew no one when I first came to Pakistan in 1978… she introduced me to the country. Now I have several homes within Pakistan. It was hard to write this book because I was going back 40 years.” Mulling over what it took to piece it together, Schofield discloses, “Being a journalist, writer, researcher and historian, I had the habit of keeping things – the challenge was to define them and to draw upon them particularly while writing the early chapters of the book, starting with our friendship in Oxford in the chapter that I’ve called Our Salad Days. To write the second, third and fourth chapters, was an even bigger challenge - while I was in Pakistan attending Benazir’s father’s appeal against the death sentence in the Rawalpindi Supreme Court.”

“All these props and supports of communication that we take for granted did not exist back then. I was writing to my parents, and those letters I’d been able to find. Our communication was restricted to hand-written letters; even telephone calls were expensive.” What drew Schofield to Benazir, in the first place, was “that she was very charismatic. She was easy to know; not aloof at all. Our friendship had a double edge – we found we were in the same college – Lady Margaret Hall. It was after learning about Benazir that Malala Yousafzai decided to study at the LMH. So, that was a common bond. She was already a member of the Oxford Union. (There weren’t too many women in the union, and it had had only two female presidents in the past).” With many of the earmarks of a political platform, Schofield tells us to stop our partisan bickering and call “a spade a spade”.

Interspersed with the most candid conversation one could possibly expect of a literary session, Mirza Waheed and Hira Azmat disappointed with questions about the pandemic and its effects on children, asked in a puerile tone. While juggling two identities together -one of a parent, the other of a writer - Waheed admitted being angry about the way children are being talked about in the press, the media and TV. “They are anxious and stressed because they are intelligent young people.” Towards the end of the session named Tell Her Everything – his last book that he talks the least about – he lists up the authors who he had read during the pandemic, such as Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Alice Albina, Jamal Mahjoub’s The Fugitives – slightly outside the Western scheme of publishing - and the Kashmiri writer, Farah Bashir’s Rumours of Spring – “a beautifully done, sharply written portrayal of years from adolescence to teenage spent during the occupation in Kashmir.”

Meher Afshan Faruqi never fails to impress with her erudition, like her father. In the session titled, Ghalib: A Wilderness at my Doorstep, she continued to surprise us with the uphill task she had undertaken as a researcher, travelling between Charlottesville in the US where she is based and New Delhi where she carried out the research, to unfurl and unravel a vast cache of poetry rejected by Ghalib himself. “I had no intention of writing this book – I’d been teaching modern Urdu literature and had compiled a Modern Anthology of Urdu Literature in two volumes. I wrote a paper on Ghalib much appreciated by people. It was amazing to discover that Ghalib had rejected a major part of his kalaam. To find the answer, I had to struggle a lot. By the end of it, I had collected so much material that it could not be contained in a single volume. So, I decided to lay the ground for the reason behind this decision to reject in the first volume while, in the second, I looked at the nitty gritty of ghazals, their translation, and explained why he rejected what he did.

“Ghailb’s first diwan dates back to 1816. The most astonishing fact about it is that the colophon is non-existent. The common conjecture was that the kalaam might be a fake. The query is who on earth had the time to forge it, copying Ghalib’s khat in all its intricacy? The story behind it is also very interesting: It was found at a kabaari’s shop who sold it to someone. Someone else bought it and authenticated it. It was taken to Rampur where Maulana Arshi’s sons, Akbar Ali and Shehzada ended up publishing it. It was probably sold for 2.5 rupees. It disappeared in 1969, the year of Ghalib’s death centenary. I went to the Ghalib Institute (read Academy) in Nizamuddin East, and started looking up the qalami diwan collected by Kalidas Gupta Raza. The director of the institute came to me and said he had a mysterious manuscript in his locker, and if I would like to take a look at it. Lo and behold: It was Ghalib’s diwan, lastly seen by Maulana Arshi of Bhopal in 1942, and absent from the scene since. It wasn’t bound though.

“Later on, while in the US, I received an email from one Shahid Sattar who came to visit me, and very generously, shared with me Ghalib’s second diwan Nuskha-i-Hamidiya from 1821, full of notations, corrections and accretions.”

While Iftikhar Arif deliberated on the fact that he has always been afraid of getting his books published despite the fact that he’s not perturbed by how the reader would receive them – (he was 40 when he had his first book published; Joan Elia was 60 when he made a debut) talking about Bagh-i-Gul-i-Surkh, Osman Haneef, author of The Verdict felt secure and safe living away in England in being able to write freely and getting published.

Inaam Nadeem, translator of Amritsar Aa Gaya Hai: Bhisham Sahni kay Hindi Afsaaney, sounded much distressed to discover the level of ignorance and estrangement on our part with Hindi writers to the extent of alienation. “We know writers living in America writing in American English or those coming from other parts of the globe whereas in case of India – our neighbour – we know little. However, there are more translations being done today than before.”

What compelled him to turn to Bhisham Sahni was his introduction to his magnum opus Tamas, published by Ajmal Kamal. He’d been reading on Partition, and of course, Manto and Qurratulain Hyder topped the list, he confessed that among the books on Partition read by him, he found Tamas, by far, the most forceful despite its slim volume. “If you take the Hindu literature produced in India on Partition until the publication of Tamas, Jhoota Sach was considered to be the best but the reality of the divide had not come across as successfully as this time. Then we knew of his elder brother, Balraj Sahni, and watched him in Do Beegha Zameen, Garm Hawa, etc. Prior to Tamas, I could not read the Devnagiri script, and had read only a couple of short stories by Sahni translated into Urdu. While I was in the US, a friend of mine, who was a Hindi poet, would come by every evening on a visit. He proposed that I should teach him the Urdu script while he would tutor me in Devnagiri. But behind every single effort I made towards translating was Asif Farrukhi’s generous hand. He’s the one who initiated me into translating Sahni’s short story Cheel for Duniyazad. The practice continued, and wherever I could find his stories, I would translate them. I’ve also translated his play, Kabira Khara Bazaar Mein.”

What makes Yasmina Khadra so empathetic towards mankind despite his engagement with subjects like terrorism, violence, and genocide? Bina Shah tries to explore the mind of the former Algerian military officer, Mohammad Moulessehoul, whose nom de plume, Yasmina Khadra, catapulted him to fame during the session titled Pen and Empathy. “I was born in the Algerian Sahara into a Bedouin tribe in an extremely pious community. I was raised on the virtues of generosity and human charity. If you don’t love human beings, you don’t love God. I was only nine when I was sent to the army by my father, soon after the Algerian Independence. I retained my humanity during all those years. The demon and the angel both dwell inside us and these two entities are constantly fighting inside us. Who will be the winner?.. the one who is wiser.

“Freedom of expression is the ability to tell our stories honestly. The storyteller tries to figure out some kind of authenticity to the story he’s telling, whether writing fiction or making film, etc. That comes with having an honest conversation – the ability to critique whether it’s the nation or morality.” 

“I was a soldier in the army, and we needed authorisation to write. Once that was granted, we still had to go through military censorship. I could not write under this constraint. For me writing is about being free; so that we are able to say exactly what we think, and to be sincere to those who read us. I had already written six books under my real name. It was my wife who gave me the courage to write clandestinely under her name. In one of my books, I have acknowledged that by writing: Whenever I see a couple, I don’t see a man and a woman; instead, I see a mother and a spoilt child.”

In the rather intense session on South Asian English Literature: New Directions, disparate voices airing from three different sources – Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh – were heard ‘rising up and rising down.’ Mehwash Amin surmised that as far as poetry was concerned, she saw a structural change ever since she had started to write under the vigilant eye of Taufiq Rafat and Kaleem Omar. “There’s been a loosening of structure and a certain fluidity but the inclusion of Urdu words in English verse is a new-fangled phenomenon. It might be because the writers today are reading up more of Urdu text or they wish to hark back to their roots or there is some kind of an attempt to decolonise the English language.”

Women writers are gaining visibility being much more direct. “The poets before would include very clear references to place. For instance, Rafat would obviously write about his feelings but often with reference to Lahore or to Punjab plains. Likewise, Karachi was an essential backdrop in Maki Kureishi’s poetry. That structure has either shifted or melted into a global voice including the Diaspora voice. And then there is alternative literature – when you shift away from the status quo and try out something totally different. We have people like Annie Zaidi and Kavita Jindal from India, Musharraf Faruqi from Pakistan, Bakhtawar Azam and Kehkashan Khalid ushering into their writings an alien dimension or a dystopian future. Thirdly, the emergence of graphic literature is a new dimension. For example, Mohammad Khalid Afzal’s stories translated by Bilal Tanweer rendered into a graphic story by Omar Ibrahim. Similarly, Musharraf Faruqi has come up with Pak Titans being taught at schools now.”

Namita Gokhale, while deflecting from the earlier premise that focused on South Asian ‘English’ literature, ended up declaring that the best writing in India is happening in the Indian languages. “Most countries in South Asia are bilingual. Therefore, any conversation about South Asian literature would be incomplete without knowing the history of the languages that underlie it. They use these languages interchangeably and for different purposes. In India, we have 21 national languages, apart from dialects, mother tongues, etc. English literature born in each region carries the texture and flavour of the local language. For example, when Bengali writers write in English, they have their own rhythm, and write with a different urgency with recognisable influences.”

Gokhale further asserts, “I do believe that the best writing in India is happening in the Indian languages. Translations are making this literature increasingly available to the English-speaking readers. South Asian English literature is an important bridge because of its social and economic status in the hierarchy but we cannot miss the influence and impact of other languages on it and vice versa. There is an interplay going on. Somebody at the Jaipur Literary Festival said: The new generation of Hindi readers aspires to read and write in English but it continues to dream in Hindi. There is, on the one hand, a host of bestselling writing in English by writers who themselves are bilingual and who write in a simpler vocabulary. Their works foster a different literary narrative and a different dream. Then there are mainstream English writers who write for international and Indian readers. Writers have to negotiate so many contradictions, and that’s probably what makes our lives and literatures richer.”

By reinterpreting historical periods or events through their writings, contemporary authors contextualise them and create a new framework for reassessing their significance. Such a conscious act of historical memory lies at the centre of Iftikhar H Khan’s The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim Historian. For the US based author, this excursion into history involved an actual pilgrimage. In this spirit, the book – part travelogue, part history – functions as a complex text about epistemology and the history of cultural forms – an archaeological site at which to unearth the hidden premises of understanding and perception. In the session devoted to the book, Malik confided: “Since my childhood, I’ve been reading up on sites and cities that have so much history. Whenever I would go to these places to deliver lectures or to research for my new book, I would end up writing articles as easy to read – nothing scholarly or scholastic. I collected those articles and thought they should reach out to people who are not historians or academics in the strict sense of the word. The other reason was I am truly worried that many of us do not care for our historical heritage in the Muslim world, and that pollution, urbanisation and population explosion pose a threat to these historical monuments. I thought I should introduce this heritage to younger Muslims whether they are living in Pakistan or elsewhere. The third reason was that I was inspired by colonial studies. Whenever it comes to civilisation, people often talk about the transatlantic region (in terms of culture, art, literature, architecture) referring to the West and Europe. Some of it is linked to Orientalism – the Orient which is not so cultured and civilised. I thought I should challenge that and write about the cultural, artistic, intellectual heritage of the non-West. The culture clash and conflict that has become so prevalent since the ’90s, and especially after 9/11, I thought I should bridge it up. The fourth reason could be my studies of the Muslim Diaspora: the presence of Tartars in Helsinki and some of their remaining community in Poland suggest that Muslims are happy even in places like Finland; then the Muslim connection with Italy, especially with Sicily; the 800 years of Jews and Muslims in Spain and Portugal. I wanted to defy and challenge this binary approach between the East and the West as two mutually exclusive domains.”

Astrid Svenson on the panel spoke that historians say that every book of history is autobiographical in the choices that it makes but most historians rarely make that process explicit unlike the anthropologist, the sociologist and the social scientist. There are a few exceptions where the personal and the historical are interwoven like Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes, which is about the 20th Century starting with the year he was born.”

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

The city sleeps with the lights on