World Writers

Books, bombs & mangroves (on the fourth Karachi Literature Festival)

7 March 2013

In its fourth year, the Karachi literature festival (KLF) has become a public event that brings together the cosmopolitanism and the fissiparous identities of Karachi. One of the greatest consolations of today’s Pakistan is the quiet yet formidable growth of this festival as a cultural marker. Such has been its influence that Lahore – otherwise deemed as the cultural centre of Pakistan – has now kicked off its very own literary festival.

The fourth KLF was a bigger event than its past lives. The list of organizers and partners has also grown over the years, but the credit for weaving it all together belongs to the indefatigable Ameena Saiyid, MD Oxford University Press. Little wonder that the world continues to recognize her contributions, as Saiyid was recently conferred the Knight of the Order of Arts & Literature by the French government.

KLF attracted thousands of people from Karachi, and beyond. This time, I noticed that the majority of the attendees were from the younger generation, with a large number of schoolchildren involved in a parallel world of books, storytelling, art and simple fun activities. Of course, a liberal bubble is always deceptive, and on day two the tragic incident in Quetta – which killed and injured hundreds of Hazaras – shook the participants. Despite the action packed days, the Hazara killings loomed large and most sessions articulated a strong condemnation of the ghastly massacre.

The festival started with another, albeit lesser, tragedy. Gulzar ji, the celebrated Indian poet, lyricist, and filmmaker, decided not to attend KLF after his brief sojourn in Lahore and his birthplace Dina. Prior to KLF, I had been most excited about conducting a session with him and another formidable talent, Vishal Bhartwaj, the avant-garde Indian filmmaker. The last time I had met Gulzar ji was at Ghalib’s birthday celebrations at Delhi, where I walked with him like a shamelessly smitten fan. Ameena Saiyid read out Gulzar ji’s letter in which he had apologized for his absence by saying, “Mujh se naraaz na hona” in his simple and evocative style. The wretched Indo-Pakistan politics continues to haunt cultural exchanges. Perhaps it was the post Afzal Guru scenario played up by the so-called security experts, or his emotionally draining trip to his birthplace that rendered him incapable of further staying in Pakistan. Either way, it was the curse of history that kept us all away from listening to Gulzar ji. Apparently, he composed this couplet upon his return to India, in a spirit of defiance: “Shehr-e-Pak mein agarche ghar banana mana hai; qabr ik basana chahoon main wahan toh kyun nahi” (Even though it is prohibited to build a house in a Pakistani city / I could wish for my grave to be built there).

KLF, otherwise, kept me pretty occupied with an eclectic variety of sessions, some of which I moderated. The first one was with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s about his new book; ‘Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian scientists speak out.’ Hoodbhoy has compiled this book with this question which he reiterated at the KLF: “Are we safer today than before we acquired the nuclear bomb?” Sadly the answer can only be in the negative as Hoodbhoy reminded us all. This was a spirited session with a huge, enthusiastic audience, endless questions and a generous dose of Hoodbhoy’s wry witticisms. To one of my earnest questions, he asked me to hold on and told the audience how telling it was that Dr. Qadeer Khan (who flaunts the fatherhood of Pakistani bomb) had joined hands with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Having spoken at an earlier book launch in Islamabad, I found the difference between the two audiences staggering. In the patriots’ capital, many hyper-nationalists undermined Hoodbhoy’s worldview, but most at KLF agreed with his position[s]. (more…)

Books in the times of jihad

20 December 2012

sibf2After a hiatus of nearly a decade, I found myself in the United Arab Emirates, also popularly imagined as ‘Dubai’ in Pakistan. I was traveling with a group of Pakistani writers, poets and photographers to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). I had been visiting the various UAE airports in transits over the last many years but never knew how this country, prospering with petrol dollars and supported by hardworking South Asian labour, had turned into a kind of modern paradise of consumerism, success and gold. More importantly, the UAE is now a melting port of various nationalities and cultures – a bit of a contradiction, given the puritanical reputation of Saudi Arabia and the historical narrations of Arab supremacy over the non-Arabs.

It was both exciting and disconcerting: displays of capitalist victories, thousands of poor South Asian workers, yet the promise of services, multiculturalism and some measure of tolerance. Perhaps these changing dynamics of the Emirati society are linked to events such as SIBF – a huge, multitudinous, undertaking involving 140 international publishers, agents and related crew, and for the first time, writers from South Asia. Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qassimi, is a unique Arab ruler for his interest in books and investments in publishing industry are rare traits in an Arab monarch. I trust that the Sheikh holds a doctorate and is an avid reader himself. I could not help wondering if he would have some positive influence on our ruling elites, whose relationship with books is far from enviable. The SIBF was held at the humungous Sharjah Expo Centre – a post post-modern building, with an amorphous architectural identity, but lots of space accommodating over 600,000 visitors of nearly all the nationalities that live in the UAE. South Asia and Pakistan received a special focus, and a brilliant ensemble of Pakistani writers attended the 10-day long festival at different occasions. (more…)

Book review: An ambitious undertaking

19 December 2012

Pankaj Mishra’s new book is an ambitious undertaking. “From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals who Remade Asia” traces the lives and works of three Asian intellectuals who were at the forefront of several resistance movements in times when colonists had occupied countries and exercised almost absolute intellectual power.

It is a fascinating narrative, which challenges the Eurocentric version of ‘the truth’ and claims “the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of Asian and European empires”. Mishra focuses on Jamal-al-din al-Afghani (1838-1897), a renaissance figure who was a formidable critic of the Western intellectual ascendancy, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), a thinking journalist who was a proponent of Confucian ideals, and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), an epitome of the great Bengali renaissance and the awakening of Indian consciousness.

Thus Mishra constructs a powerful account of how white men once “conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible”. Mishra’s personal identity has gradually espoused the cause of internationalism. He lives in the West and travels to the East as an ‘insider’ thereby picking up the threads of societies in transition which most Western writers are unable to fathom. Al-Afghani, for example, argued for intellectual resistance to the hegemony of the West, which unfortunately has been distorted to the extent that today rationalized use of violence has entered the battle of ideas. The Muslim world has a lot to learn from al-Afghani, whose legacy has been squandered over time. In a way, Mishra’s book comes as a major source of reviving the public debate on today’s ‘Muslims versus West’ real and imagined conflict. (more…)

“What the heart is like” – a poem by Miroslav Holub

9 December 2011

Today, my friend Khalid Mir told me rather casually that he had been reading poems by Miroslav Holub. I had heard his name; and when K sent me this poem, I could not resist posting it here. Have read it again and again. For sometimes, I tell myself similar lines – of course in a highly unpoetical fashion. Yesterday,  I tweeted this verse from Ghalib: “Meri kismat meiN gham gar itna tha. Dil bhee ya rab kai diye hote“. Indeed many different ways to understand the heart and the one below is unique for its gritty imagery as well as playfulness.

Officially the heart

is oblong, muscular,

and filled with longing.

 

But anyone who has painted the heart knows

that it is also

 

spiked like a star

and sometimes bedraggled

like a stray dog at night

and sometimes powerful

like an archangel’s drum.

 

And sometimes cube-shaped

like a draughtsman’s dream

and sometimes gaily round

like a ball in a net. (more…)

More on Fahmida Riaz

30 March 2010

Thanks to Isa Daudpota  who sent me the text and the translated poems after he had heard Kamila Shamsie talk about her..

Fahmida Raiz, who graduated from Sindh University and married in 1965, has published several volumes of poetry. During the Martial Law regime she was editor and publisher of the magazine, Awaaz. In all, fourteen court cases of sedition were filed against the magazine, one of which (under section 114A) carried a death penalty. She escaped to India whilst on bail, with her husband and tow children, where she lived for seven years. She worked as Poet-in-Residence at Jamia Millia, an Indian university, during this period.

She has translated Erich Fromme’s Fear of Freedom and Sheikh Ayaz’s poetry, from Sindhi into Urdu. Since the restoration of democracy she has returned to live in Pakistan and served as Director General of Pakistan’s National Book Council in Islamabad when Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party was in power. (more…)

Saadat Hasan Manto – part II

24 January 2010

After partition of India Saadat Hassan Manto arrived in Lahore sometime in early 1948. In Bombay his friends had tried to stop him from migrating to Pakistan because he was quite popular as a film writer and was making reasonably good money. Among his friends there were top actors and directors of that age—many of them Hindus—who were trying to prevail upon him to forget about migrating. They thought that he would be unhappy in Pakistan because the film industry of Lahore stood badly disrupted with the departure of Hindu film-makers and studio owners. But the law and order situation post-partition of British India was such that many Muslims felt insecure in India, just as many Hindus felt insecure in newly created Pakistan. That was the reason that Manto had already sent his family to Lahore and was keen to join them. Manto and his family were among the millions of Muslims who left present-day India for the newly created Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan. (more…)

Saadat Hasan Manto- Writer of Stark Realities

23 January 2010

(Courtesy Iftikhar Chaudri) Saadat Hassan Manto (May 11, 1912 – January 18, 1955) was a Pakistani Urdu short story writer, most known for his Urdu short stories , ‘Bu’ (Odour), ‘Khol Do’ (Open It), ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat), and his magnum opus, Toba Tek Singh’. Unfortunately having spent life on both sides of the border he was portrayed as an Indian writer in Pakistan and in India he was portrayed as a Pakistani writer. But truely he was a writer of the subcontinent above distinctions of coutry or religion.
He was also a film and radio scriptwriter, and journalist. In his short life, he published twenty-two collections of short stories, one novel, five collections of radio plays, three collections of essays, two collections of personal sketches. (more…)

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