Rewriting history

April 3, 2022

Literary festivals present diverse perspectives on the world and carry political meaning into the present

Rewriting history

In post Covid-19 times, the new circumstances are transforming the customary artistic dynamic, pointing the way to significant approaches to understanding the contemporary context and the paths of the future. In the 10th edition of Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), its peculiarities were examined, and some of the intellectuals and writers discussed the specific issues at stake.

Lahore is a pivotal and emblematic city: multicultural and multi-religious, confronting the problems of territoriality and multiple identities. In Lahore there thrives an artistic milieu in which it is possible to articulate a critique of the modernist vision of history and of the cleavages between past and present, history and the future and the local versus the global. Through literary and artistic practice, the city has become a site for working out and articulating this critique, one which brings together diverse forms of writings, images, urban spaces, subjectivity, daily life, ideas of change, friendship and exchange.

It’s a cliché of literary criticism to state that writing the future through science fiction, for example, is a way of thinking about the present. Several years of trawling through years of the print archive have confirmed that writing from the past serves much the same function. The past may be fixed in a way that the future isn’t, but the present is a subject position from which we see both. Yet the other thing that trawling through the archives has taught is while it’s possible to find evidence to support established narratives, if you are forced to read everything then you’ll inevitably find counterexamples that will – at the very least – complicate your preconceived notions about what people thought at the time. This strikes the literary festival as being the point of studying historical sources: it provides case studies that reward contradictory interpretations, present different perspectives on the world and carry political meaning into the present by analogy.

It was a halting, haunted year. The pandemic may have ended but still required constant vigilance, inflicted mass tedium and ruined plans. Corporate publishing, however, continued to consolidate and an unprecedented number of storms shattered precipitation records over a small swath of the discourse. At LLF ’22, in the session titled Pandemic: Doctors’ Stories from the Frontlines, special assistant to the PM on health Dr Faisal Sultan mused over the unprecedented ways the pandemic brought people together, with the Britain-based author Roopa Faruqi of Bangladeshi origin. Dr Sultan highlighted the role played by literature in enriching the lives of the home-bound by keeping them company.

Faruqi, on the other hand, shared her experiences as a fighter and a survivor referring to her book Everything is True. “One thing I realised was that an individual’s grief was just a drop in the ocean when there was a flood of tragedies. Everyone’s sister, mother or a dear one lost life”, she surmised while recounting the untimely death of her sister due to cancer during Covid-19 days.

The novel is a remarkable technology, perhaps the best vehicle we have for the transmission of consciousness. 

Literary fiction loomed large on the scene at this year’s festival with the debutante Mira Sethi of Are You Enjoying? in conversation with Adnan Malik and the remarkable editor at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle. The book tends to teach some new vocabulary, although its subject would tempt even casual lovers of metaphor and abstraction and make Sethi exercise restraint in this regard.

The novel is a remarkable technology, perhaps the best vehicle we have for the transmission of consciousness. A shame that so often the insane, minor miracle of literature coheres only to bring before your eyes the most boring consciousness imaginable. One Thousand and One Nights is a book most likely to be described as a surreal landscape, keenly focused on the non-human environment and its degradations, and a prescient glimpse of near-future apocalypse. It is surely all of those things, but it is also, weirdly, an absurdist character study, almost nostalgic in its fixation on the endangered species of people who never turn away from the full magnitude of their situation, who have refused the ideological gratifications of their times. The rhythms of deluded catechisms creak with familiarity in Yasmin Seale’s translation of the great epic tale in Arabic and French. Seale, who was born in 1989 to a Syrian mother and a British father and brought up in Paris, translated Aladdin in 2018. In her session, she discussed at length Antoine Galland, the orientalist and archaeologist, whose version of the tales appeared in 12 volumes between 1704 and 1717, influencing and altering the Western perception of the Islamic world.

Osman Yousefzada can leverage his lyric sensibility to marvellous effect when he writes about people who matter to him, as happens in his debut novel, The Go-Between. The general abundance of autobiographical narrative in the book inadvertently reveals the trouble with his dialectical approach. His preferred method is one of synthesis and accretion, putting quotes and observations in fragmentary conversation with one another. In the novel, Yousefzada fractalises ideas and desires in a literal dialogue, an exchange between two people with differing perspectives and priorities. In The Go-Between, he is the sole source of intellectual tension and hesitant to commit to any stance without an excess of caveats and concessions. The resulting equivocation stalls his rhetoric. Rather than stating what he means, he errs on the side of caution and emphasises what he doesn’t. The use of fragments, too, feels better suited to the emotional gravity and interiority of his more intimate work. Such had been the mood of the rather intense session of the book launch by Osman Yousefzada and Alexandra Pringle that also shed light on the kind of domestic life women had had who migrated to Great Britain in the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

Manifesto is the form that eats and repeats itself. Always layered and paradoxical, it comes disguised as nakedness, directness, aggression. It’s an artwork aspiring to be a speech act – like a threat, a promise, a joke, a spell, a dare. While appearing to invent itself ex nihilo, the manifesto grabs whatever trinkets it can find. This is a form that asks readers to suspend their disbelief – like any piece of theatre, it trades on its own vulnerability, invites our complicity, as if only the quality of our attention protects it from reality’s brutal puncture. A manifesto is a public declaration of intent, a laying out of the writer’s views on how things are and how they should be altered. Once the province of institutional authority, the manifesto later flowered as a mode of presumption and dissent. But the manifesto can also be quixotic – spoiling for a fight it’s unlikely to win, insisting on an outcome it lacks the authority to ensure.

Habib Jalib’s firebrand poetry was no less than a manifesto for a revolution. In the session titled Mein Naheen Maanta, Jalib’s close associates Mujahid Barelvi and Aitezaz Ahsan narrated his poems in an attempt to contextualise them. They recalled how back in 1962 when Sheikh Manzoor Qadir drafted the constitution, Jalib recited: Aisea dastoor, ko subh-i-beayoor ko, mein naheen manta, mein naheen janta in a hall in Murree.

Without action, there can be no solidarity. Solidarity is not abstract or theoretical. It does not come into being simply through writing or speech. The other great insult of ethical acrobatics in our society is how rarely we are encouraged to stick a landing, to decide what we believe in and discern ways to live our lives in concert with those values. Burrowing into the effort of sprawling thought can feel laborious, but as Thich Nhat Hanh said, it’s nothing compared to organising. For that, one must turn to those who stick to the struggle, the cab drivers and the street merchants. No wonder then that Faiz wrote: Aaj Aur Aaj kay Gham kay Naam.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

Rewriting history