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2015: The year in words

Last year was long, unsettling and transitional. I have always welcomed change but being unsure about one’s future path is not too exciting.Have been a nomad for the past eighteen months. But I don’t want to start 2016 with complaints or regrets. During 2015, I finished two fellowships in Washington D.C. and then moved to Ithaca College […]

January 4th, 2016|Personal|0 Comments

Karachi Literature Festival: The great divide

Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/ Author with Izzeldin Abuelaish Photo by Sara Faruqi/ 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

A universe with four moons

By Raza Rumi

Neelam Ahmad Basheer is best known as a short story writer with a new voice in Urdu fiction. She has been writing all her life but established herself after she moved back to Pakistan from the United States during the 1980s. She spent a “lifetime” in the US married to a doctor who was not appreciative of her writing talents. And, we now know her better through the publication of Char Chaand (four moons) – a collection of autobiographical sketches and essays on her life, family and friends. Barring a few exceptions, few women venture to be as candid in Urdu writing as Neelam is in her new book. There is certainly no glorification, self-promotion or desperation to weave a halo around her persona. In fact, the author emerges as a vulnerable, melancholic and nostalgic character at the outset. The honest and self-fledgling tone of these sketches makes Char Chaand more than just a memorable book. It is in fact a testament to the tribulations of middle class women in private and public spaces and the kinds of struggles they have to wage to survive in a patriarchal society such as Pakistan.

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Neelam’s greatest and perhaps the most ever-lasting influence is her father late Ahmad Basheer, a revolutionary writer, journalist and film-maker who was widely respected in Lahore’s literary and journalistic circles. One gets to know him through Neelam’s loving recollections in Char Chaand, also the title of the leading sketch. The four moons here are Neelam and her sisters: the uber-talented Bushra Ansari, Sumbal, a singer and known TV persona now; and Asma who has made her name in performing arts (but is unforgettable for her legendary performance in the famous parody of Malika Pukhraj and Tahira Syed with Bushra Ansari). Neelam weaves the narrative as if it were a piece of fiction and recreates her inner sanctum where this well-knit family lives in a relatively more tolerant Pakistan. It is amazing to read that Ahmad Basheer Saheb insisted that his wife should be trained in classical music; and an Ustad was hired for this purpose. The four girls grew up with this set of highly cultured parents. Ahmad Basheer was also a radical man at home. Neelam recounts how she was forced to go out of the house by the father when she was a teenager to run errands and how petrified she was to travel alone in a bus. Remarkable for the urban middle class culture where unmarried girls rarely leave the house without a male companion. Neelam is brutally honest about her insecurities growing up with prettier and bolder sisters who are eccentric in their own ways. She tells us how quiet and responsible she was as the eldest them of all. […]

January 20th, 2012|Published in The Friday Times|0 Comments

“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.

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