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Book review: Poetic resistance to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s murder

As a young student I obtained a tattered copy of ‘Khushboo ki Shahadat’ from an old bookstall in Lahore’s Urdu bazaar. This was the mock glasnost era of General Zia-ul-Haq when he had allowed a handpicked legislature to function under his authoritarian control as Chief of Army Staff. In those days we grew up with polarized notions such as democracy cannot function in Pakistan and thus dictatorships were essential; or that Bhutto was the greatest leader Pakistan had but he asked for his death at the hands of a tainted judiciary. Thus Bhutto was a mythical figure hated by Zia’s cronies, of which there was no shortage in that era, and loved by his “ignorant, treasonous, and misled supporters”.

So you can imagine that picking up a collection of poems regarding the death and martyrdom of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was not an easy feat for a confused middle class teenager. As I brought the book home and started to read the poems, my first impression was that of the deep commitment and bond the poets were sharing with their readers for a fallen hero who was not even accorded a decent burial in his village somewhere in the Sindh province. Of course this was also the province that resisted Zia valiantly and bitterly and continues to challenge his hypernationalism, which ironically was popularized by Mr Bhutto during his turbulent career.

My copy of the collection is still buried somewhere in the heaps of books that will not be read given how fast Pakistan is turning into an anti-knowledge and anti-culture land of zealots. But as they say, great literature rarely goes into oblivion; and so this volume of poems has been published several times under the three beleaguered PPP governments. More importantly, the celebrated academic and translator Alamgir Hashmi has edited a volume of translations and had it published as “Your Essence, Martyr; Pakistani Elegies”. The extraordinary creative outburst at the time of Bhutto’s judicial murder in April 1979 appears and reappears; it is a wandering ghost of history. Bhutto’s legacy, controversial for sowing the seeds of contemporary Islamism and jingoistic nationalism, as well as his stellar refusal to bow down before the military dictator, lives on. […]

August 24th, 2013|Arts & Culture, Poetry, Published in The Friday Times|0 Comments

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

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]. […]

Karachi Literature Festival: The great divide

Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com The third Karachi Literature Festival concluded recently. I am posting a short piece of mine which was published by the News on Sunday. Another report that I wrote for TFT can be found here. Faiza S Khan’s review is most interesting. Another review by Umair found it sterile and comments on the technocratic discussions that took place on ‘national’ issues. And a comprehensive round up at DAWN’s Books & Authors magazine here.

“When our lives are written about in the English language, the books become best sellers,” thundered Pakistan’s rebel poet Kishwar Naheed at the Karachi Literature Festival. This was a session where I had the rather undeserved honour of introducing and talking to Naheed and the other master poet, Iftikhar Arif. She added that there was little emphasis on quality as the books you were supposed to buy at the airports for light reading were now ‘high’ literature. This was an oblique, yet unambiguous reference to the Pakistani writing in English. The two worlds — “native” and English — remain quite separate in a manner that Kipling had envisioned. English writing from Pakistan has received global attention and is celebrated at festivals across the globe. Yet how many Pakistanis have an idea of what it is all about? This is an uncomfortable question that we need to ask and perhaps keep on asking.

The Karachi Literature Festival has now evolved into a serious annual festival where writers gather and interact with thousands of readers each year. To be fair to the organisers, they have been mindful of the principle of inclusiveness from the very start. Asif Farrukhi, an eminent writer (who is my actual role model for his supernatural powers to write, edit and think with a full time job) has been organising the “regional” side of the literary ramblings at the festivals. Big names such as Fahmida Riaz and others are given due acknowledgment by holding sessions with them. Yet, the emphasis, for obvious reasons, is on the universe of English writings — both by Pakistanis and foreigners. This year, Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple, Hanif Kureishi, Shobha De, Anatol Lieven and several others attracted much attention by their readers, fans and critics. There were a few sessions on Urdu and regional languages’ literature but it was obvious that the attendees were not always the same.

As a young woman confessed at the festival, “I hardly read Urdu, but do you consider Initizar Husain a great writer?” Despite the shocking nature of this statement, I was hardly surprised. The apartheid that exists in Pakistan’s education system marginalises the local and the vernacular compared to the more market-oriented, global English. Aside from its potential “benefits,” English language, for some, remains an odious status symbol. A colonial legacy, a preserve of the postcolonial elites, and a stepping-stone for entry into the deliberately constructed, globalised monoculture. […]

February 20th, 2012|Arts & Culture, Published in the NEWS, Urdu Literature|1 Comment