Published in The Friday Times

As Indian TV channels broadcast stories on Pakistan’s domestic infighting, and rumours of a new coup d’ etat, my less perturbed alter-ego is calmed by Agra – the run down city that was once the capital of the Mughal empire. I have spent three days with a delightful group of South Asian writers, poets and academics who have congregated to celebrate the SAARC writers’ festival organised by Ajeet Caur, the legendary Punjabi writer whose love for Lahore has not waned despite the iron curtain erected sixty one years ago. Caur has been managing the Foundation of South Asian Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) since 1992 and single-handedly she has challenged the many geographical and political barriers that have been erected. FOSWAL is now a platform for writers and poets on the margins of power-drama, lighting little lamps of hope. (picture above left : SAARC writers with Pakistani delegates Ustad Akhtar (middle), Parveen Atif (second from left) and Zahid Nawaz (extreme right)

I had been reading Caur’s earthy, profound stories for decades, and always wondered if I would ever meet her. Therefore, receiving an invite from her a month ago, was a long cherished wish come true. In a few, scattered and sparkling conversations she told me how she had found me through my writings urging for Indo-Pak amity which, in the words of my cynical friends, are dreamy rants asking for the impossible. This March, the gods overseeing visas and border crossings were not too cantankerous. So I made it to Delhi the day before the conference was due to start.

After spending a night at the serene, sparse International Gandhi hostel, located near the Samadhi of the Mahatama, we reached Agra. Delegates from Pakistan included two Punjabi poets, a young writer Nayyara from Karachi and the seasoned story writer Parveen Atif. Ustad Akhtar Khan, dressed in an achkan and payjama was also a travel companion. The Ustad, who could not remember his phone number, has a voice that glows with divine flashes – of love and humanity. During the festival he joined another artist to present a Bhagat Kabir-Amir Khusrau musical ensemble. Eminent writer and Chairman Academy of Letters Fakhar Zaman, also participated in the event.

This year, following the rancour generated by the Mumbai killings of November 2008, the theme of the conference was literature and terrorism. The sessions dwelt on the importance of poets and intellectuals in resisting the menace that collectively haunts us. During the first day, despite the occasional indulgence in the blame-game, especially by an Afghan poet wearing dark glasses, there emerged a consensus that terror, terrorism and militancy were shared and collectively owned as processes. It was also stressed that there was no singular cause nor was a single state responsible for the situation.

I have to sadly report that the local journos on the sidelines resorted to the popular media mantra on Pakistan as the ‘hotbed’ of terrorism. Such sweeping statements were isolated, cacophonous rumblings, for the poets know better. The ones from Sri Lanka praised the Pakistani policemen who saved their lives; the Indians referred to dialogue and the Bangladeshis wanted to reclaim what they shared with Pakistanis and Indians, for the tales of loss were monumental and drowned what has been achieved in the name of nation states.
On day two of the event, my paper, ‘Silhouetted silences – contemporary Pakistani literature in the age of terror’ was well received. However, the challenging part, after my paper, was to dispel the impression that I was a fiction writer, an academic, a hack or whatever for the identity game always makes me feel limited and boxed in.

In my paper, I attempted to explore whatever little has been written since Pakistan has been bleeding in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan. The dilemmas of Pakistani writers not to be identified with the unpopular and imperial policies of the United States have inhibited direct statements. But the eerie silence is now breaking, I said. Nothing could better illustrate this trend than a Pashto poem How could I be silent by Iqbal Hussain Afkar.

That my land; A paradise,
My lovely heavenly garden,
Is struck by strife and wiping me out,
I’m turning into dust and ashes,
Friends! How could I be silent!
Speak! How could I be silent!

Ajeet Caur later rebuked me for mentioning The Reluctant Fundamentalist in my paper. She rightly said that the audience for books in English from Pakistan in the main comprised Western readers and those who were already aware of the complex issues and nuances that define our age. I tried to explain my choice of citations and quotes, as Ajeetji and I faced the adroit camera of Gauhar Raza, the filmmaker, and debated literature and its value when the world seemed to be falling apart. (Picture right: Author with Ajeet Caur)

During the festival, Gauhar Raza showed his film on Bhagat Singh, the hero of the independence movement and the Punjab who laid down his life in 1930. The film entitled Inquilab traced Bhagat’s life and passions, ably guided by the book authored by Irfan Habib. The film was neither sentimental nor hyped with platitudes. It evoked an era of ideology and hope in a matter-of-fact style. Both Irfan and Gauhar were like that too: understated, refined intellectuals with a rather wry sense of humour. The same evening we strolled in the lawns, fresh with spring flowers, at the Grand Hotel Agra, lamenting the loss of sense and laughing a little at ourselves – the subcontinent’s Muslims.

On day three, established Bangladeshi writers, Selina Hussain, Nasreen Jehan, Mohammad Samad, and Khonkader Ashraf Hussain, recited poems that spoke of love, of discovering peace within us. A surprising poem from an Urdu poet-journalist from Delhi, Waseem, addressed the audience during the unpacking of the sadness that the poor mother of Ajmal Kasab, an accused arrested after the Mumbai killings, must have experienced after her son had been arrested and her small house in a Punjabi hamlet became the centre of global attention. Poets succeed where news-journalists fail us.

I have to sadly report that the local journos on the sidelines resorted to the popular media mantra on Pakistan as the ‘hotbed’ of terrorism. Such sweeping statements were isolated, cacophonous rumblings, for the poets know better. The ones from Sri Lanka praised the Pakistani policemen who saved their lives; the Indians referred to dialogue and the Bangladeshis wanted to reclaim what they shared with Pakistanis and Indians, for the tales of loss were monumental

Ajeet Caur has expanded the definitions of South Asia by inviting delegates from Myanmar and Afghanistan. A few amazing poems from these countries made the festival especially memorable.

At the end of the festival, several resolutions were passed condemning terrorism and restating the role of conscientious writers and intellectuals in troubled times. The media persons were fishing for answers to political questions at the press conference on day three. We told them that we were neither politicians nor spokespersons for state and military industries. They nodded in half agreement. It was clear that Pakistan was a matter of concern for all regional countries: the anguish of Swati children and women was shared by all, and so were the travails of common Pakistanis. As Jasbir Jain from India said, nation states propel violence, and one could not but agree. Jain was categorical and forthright about the socio-economic violence within India and how it had generated what is known as terrorism. Pakistan is not alone in these times of crises: its friends and well-wishers are many, as in the comity of writers.

I am preparing to leave Agra. As I write these lines, I am overwhelmed by Ajeet Caur’s affection, distraught at what is happening in Pakistan, and I think whether Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, could ever have envisioned that his beloved capital would turn into a venue for deliberating regional peace three and a half centuries later.