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A twist in the tale

 

My Interview conducted by Abdullah Khan for Earthen Lamp Journal:

ELJ: Tell us something about your journey from being a civil servant to a journalist and then to a writer of non-fiction books.

RR: It has been a mad, chaotic yet edifying journey. I have been a civil servant in Pakistan and then with the Asian Development […]

Khushwant Singh: ‘The last Pakistani living on Indian soil’

My tribute to KS (first published in DAWN on March 30)

IT is difficult to evaluate the legacy of writer, journalist and an icon of our times Khushwant Singh who passed away last week after leading a full life that many would dream of leading. Singh was immensely popular in Pakistan. For the past two decades I have spotted his books — legit and pirated — at almost all bookstores in every city. His writings had an impact and inspired generations to emulate his incomparable style. His larger than life stature in India was equally recognised in Pakistan.

Singh was born in Hadali village (now in Pakistan), lived in Lahore and until his last never disowned his roots. Such was his worldview that Partition and the ensuing bitterness did not change his empathy for Pakistan. This is why many Pakistanis were his friends and he gave them due attention, respect and time. A photograph of his best friend from pre-Partition days, Manzoor Qadir (jurist and Pakistan’s law minister under Ayub Khan) was displayed prominently in his living room.

It was Singh’s stature in the world of Indian journalism that is perhaps unprecedented for its influential relationship with readers. As a critic of the establishment, Singh guarded his intellectual independence. His proximity to Indira Gandhi and a brief period of closeness aside, he remained a fierce commentator on all things political and cultural. Singh for example returned the honours awarded to him after Gandhi’s operation at the Golden Temple in the 1980s. Over time, his column ‘With Malice Towards One and All’ became a regular window of refreshingly fresh and iconoclastic commentary. Singh’s attitude to Pakistan was always irksome for the rightwing Hindus and often he would get hate mail, which was a source of amusement to his expansive spirit. Of course Singh came from a privileged background and things were easier for him compared to a lot of writers and journalists across the region. But he did give up a career in law and diplomacy to become a writer. And a prolific one at that.

RAZAKHUSHWANT […]

The art of short story

A review of Irshad Abdul Kadir’s recently published collection of short stories that I wrote for TFT

 

The gentle stories of Irshad Abdul Kadir have recently been published from India, adding another voice to the growing corpus of Pakistani writing. Kadir happens to be another of senior writers to have made a late entry in the world of fiction. Earlier, the beautiful, picturesque prose of Jamil Ahmad was introduced via The Wandering Falcon. Not unlike Jamil Ahmad’s story of ordinary lives invisible from the glare of mainstream media and discourse, Kadir’s stories are about the travails of common Pakistanis. A major dilemma with the characters in Clifton Bridge: Stories of Innocence and Experience from Pakistan is that they are neither aiming to espouse fundamentalism, nor thinking of planting bombs in their shoes, and thus remain marginalized in the global image of Pakistan.

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Kadir’s prose is simple and the structure of stories is taut, reminding one of the original art of storytelling when the frills of literary cobwebs were avoided to retain the originality of the theme and authenticity of a character. Luckily there is a wide range of characters in Kadir’s stories, and they are not restricted to upper-middleclass households or the domestic servants working there-in. Instead, together these characters weave the mosaic of contemporary Pakistani society with all its contradictions, ugliness and dynamism. From frustrated housewives to slum dwellers, and from large land owners to babus, Kadir uses little brushes and measured strokes to present a tale which is familiar and yet a discovery. A total of 10 short stories with every day themes enabled me to read the book in one go. In Clifton Bridge, the story that inspires the title, a family of beggars informs the view of the metropolis. Kadir’s portrayal of beggars living under a bridge is humanistic as well as fulsome, for it does not judge the dregs as the privileged classes tend to do across South Asia. Instead, Kadir gets under the skin of his characters and presents a tale of intra-group dynamics and how adversity brings its own strengths.

“Their first ‘home’ – a lean-to against the boundary wall of a cement factory came about when Rana joined the ragged duo. Peeru always remembered the first meal – boiled rice and lentils – prepared by her. She told him to call her ‘Amma’, and later enrolled him in classes at the factory mosque.” […]

A literary landmark

A review of the Islamabad Literature Festival for TFT

 

 


literature festival in Islamabad sounds a contradiction in terms. A city better known for politicos, babus and palace intrigues also patronizes the state run literary establishment. The bureaucratization of literature has only stunted the growth of a literary culture in the capital. Oxford University Press (OUP) and its partners broke the conventions by organizing the two-day festival showcasing segments of Pakistani literature both in local and English languages. The greatest success of the event was the massive participation of people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

 

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The Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was inspired by the annual event in Karachi, which has already set a benchmark for such multi-lingual events. Of course, the critique even this time was along the similar lines: that these festivals only cater to the English-speaking world and the ‘liberal class’ as someone confided in me during a break. Having said that there were sessions on Pashto and Punjabi poetry and many discussions on Urdu literature with luminaries such as Intizar Husain, popular writers like Mustansar Husain Tarar and Amjad Islam Amjad. The unassuming and mild-mannered Kamila Shamsie also joined in from the UK.

The most heart-warming aspect of ILF was the interest it generated among the students and young men and women. Halls were packed with university students and young professionals. For the first ever literary event taking place without state patronage this was quite a feat.

The organisers of the festival kept me busy throughout. On day one I hosted a session with the Left activist and LUMS academic Dr. Taimur Rehman on the class structure in Pakistan. I was quite surprised to witness huge attendance at the session. Taimur, an affable and enthusiastic conversationalist made rather insightful remarks on the way Pakistan was changing. He talked about his book and also the central role of caste in understanding how class as a construct exists in South Asia and the areas that comprise Pakistan. During the session he also challenged ‘Naya Pakistan’and explained to some of the youth how corruption as an issue could not be viewed in isolation and was a product of the class system. In a response to a related question Taimur assertd that “politicisation of corruption” was done during the various military regimes,” and thus the corrupt political system and corrupt politicians was a narrative that had gained much traction in the country (to the extent that the politicians were using it against each other). […]

Finally Pakistani state honours Manto

“Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie buried all the secrets and mysteries of the art of story writing. Under mounds of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater story writer – God or he.” (Manto’s self-composed epitaph)

The decision of Pakistan’s civilian government to accord the highest civilian honor to Saadat Hasan Manto comes as a minor, though significant, attempt at our national course correction. It took fifty seven years and a light year of denial for the state to recognize the worth of our great writer and commentator. Even though Manto dreaded the idea of a posthumous award, the conferment of a top state honour is a debt that Pakistan’s anti-intellectual and repressive state owed to the genius of our times.

Saadat Hassan Manto was born on 11 May 1912 in united Punjab’s Ludhiana district. In a literary, journalistic, radio scripting and film-writing career spread over two decades, he produced at least 250 stories, scores of plays and a large number of essays. He also worked with the All India Radio. Perhaps the best years of his life were spent in Bombay where he became associated with leading film studios. Manto also wrote a dozen films, including Eight Days, Chal Chal re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib. The last one was produced into a movie after he moved to Pakistan in January 1948.

After 1947, Manto was shoddily treated by the new state of Pakistan. This towering writer had become a sensation even before his migration to Pakistan. Manto’s scathing irony and the proclivity to subvert conventional wisdom was already well recognized. But it was the senseless and horrific violence of the partition which gave a new dimension to his writings, and made him both into a story-teller par excellence and a social historian of immense depth and variety.

In Pakistan Manto was tried for ‘obscenity’ and the right wing launched a full-fledged campaign against him. It is a bitter irony of our confused society that in 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has entertained petitions from an Islamic party representative and a former judge against television channels airing Indian programmes and thereby spreading ‘fahashi’. Manto’s chilling story “Thanda Gosht” – a no-holds-barred indictment of violation of woman’s body and desecration of humanity invoked the ire of puritans. It is a separate matter that the story has gained global traction and acclaim.

As Ayesha Jalal says Manto was ‘vulgar’ because what he saw in his surroundings was vulgar to him. It was the environment that caused him to attain that degree of directness in his writings. Manto was faced with over half a dozen charges of obscenity, three of which occurred before Partition and three after he moved to Pakistan. Even out of these, the court found only two stories in which he had transgressed the law and was liable to punishment. It would be unjust to call a writer’s work obscene just on the basis of two stories. But then we are good at defying logic. […]

“Love is not yet a taboo in Pakistan” – Mohammad Hanif

By Raza Rumi:

In a few days, Mohammad Hanif’s new novel will be available in Pakistan. Last week, I met him at his house in Karachi. The grand dame of Urdu literature, Qurratulain Hyder, used to make fun of people who would ask writers what were they writing about. “Are writers cooks that they should be subjected to senseless questions,” she remarked in one of her essays. With this sentence lurking somewhere in the corner of my mind, I was most hesitant to ask Hanif questions about his new novel. In any case, Hanif is not known for responding to inane questions either. We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes.

We found ourselves locked in this battle: me not wanting to ask; and Hanif avoiding to pontificate about his latest book. Awkward? No. Funny, Yes

Dressed in a flamboyant pair of shorts and a funky T-shirt, Hanif and I spoke about everything under the sun. He had been to an Iftaar party in North Nazimabad and a part of him was terribly inspired by the event. This was the ‘roza-kushai’ (breaking the first time fast) of a child and a wedding hall was the venue for a lavish Iftaar. He cited the discussions he had with a ‘buzurg’ (an elder) and quoted him. Writers play with their memories and recreate them in a most innovative manner. Thus the delightful tales of the elderly gentleman’s commentary on Karachi, its random violence, literature and society was most amusing.
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Writing fiction

I loved Guardian’s feature on Ten rules for writing fiction.

Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look ing […]

February 28th, 2010|Personal, World Literature|0 Comments