April issue 2010
Karachi seems to be in the grip of something of a cultural revival in the last few months. Book launches, exhibitions, readings and theatre festivals have enlivened the local scene and testify to the resilient spirit of this vibrant city. Karachi now boasts a music and film festival held against the odds every year and March 2010 marked the city’s first Literature Festival, which will hopefully become a regular cultural feature as well. The British Council and Oxford University Press teamed up to organise this landmark event. For two days, Karachi’s culturally-inclined residents were treated to readings and discussions on matters of literary interest in Urdu and English by some of the biggest names in Pakistani literature. The vibe and interest created by the presence of iconic poets and novelists, coupled with that of rising young stars, and the interchange of ideas and opinions between them, was inspiring to say the least. It was a rare opportunity to rub shoulders with the literary idol of one’s choice or simply hang around and soak up the atmosphere.
Despite the fact that it was held at the Carlton Hotel, which is far removed from the city centre, the festival was well attended with only standing room left at some of the more popular events. In fact, the sleepy Carlton Hotel had probably never seen such a buzz in its rather undistinguished career, as evidenced by the flustered waiters. The festival was organised such that two sessions, one in English and one in Urdu, were conducted simultaneously at different venues. The festival kicked off with readings by Aamer Hussain and Kishwar Naheed, respectively. Novelist Aamer Husain revealed something about how he constructs his stories. He also spoke about displacement — the experience of living in two places — a theme that is increasingly popular and relevant in modern Pakistani fiction.
Later that morning, the much loved Bapsi Sidhwa was present to read to and engage with her fans. Unaffected and refreshingly honest, she offered candid insights into her craft. She talked about how she introduced the character of a western woman in one of her stories, which is set in the tribal areas of the Frontier province. This was done to give a western readership someone to relate to — without such an interpreter these readers would probably be unable to respond to the story. Another endearing anecdote shared by the writer was about her mother asking her “What is the sweetest thing in the world?” The answer was not sugar or honey. “The sweetest thing is your matlab.” And this is what makes the world go round, says Sidhwa, who has bridged many divides in her career, between her own community and mainstream Pakistanis and again between local and western audiences. As Sidhwa put it, “Aisay hi dhanda hota hai.”
An interesting panel discussion titled Literature and Activism featured stalwarts like Fahmida Riaz, Arfa Syeda Zehra and Mohammed Hanif, and was moderated by Sunil Sethi, a guest from India. Fahmida Riaz spoke of the inherent seed of activism which resides within oneself and in a broader sense, activism can be found in almost all literature. But she also spoke of the need to define activism and restrict it to that. The conversation also turned to the use of humour as a tool in activism. Mohammed Hanif was his usual irreverent self and elicited laughs with his self-deprecating remarks when questioned about the use of dark humour in his critically acclaimed political satire. Syeda Arfa Zehra, a leading educationist, also spoke with considerable eloquence. Choosing to speak in Urdu, she mesmerised the audience with the melodic flow of her speech which touched upon women’s activism and the role of the moral minority.
The simultaneous launch of two works of translation, Naguib Mahfouz by Fahmida Riaz and Susan Abulhawa by Masood Asher, provided a platform to discuss the state of translations in Pakistan. While it was generally agreed that more works need to be translated into Urdu and vice versa, Ghazi Salahuddin made an interesting point. He maintained that the works of Pakistani authors penning their works in English were being enthusiastically translated into several languages. However, to the Italian or German reader, it makes no difference if the original work was in English or Urdu — he will know it as a novel from Pakistan.
Novelist and poet Zulfikar Ghose read out some evocative pieces from his considerable body of work. Amusingly, he told the audience of how he never wanted to talk. That’s why he wrote. He also spoke of the culture of festivals which sometimes deteriorates into TV talk show type situations. Renowned critic and poet, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who was visiting from India, treated audiences to his outspoken, authoritative style of speaking in a discussion on the state of the Urdu language. Later in the day, readings by authors like Maniza Naqvi, Sehba Sarwar and Sadia Shepard followed. A mushaira, including the likes of Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, Iftikhar Arif, Fahmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, Zehra Nigah and other big names, was another eagerly anticipated event. (Article continues below).
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Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.