March Issue 2012
Literati by the Sea: A Look Back at the 3rd Karachi Literature Festival
It was more than a celebration of the written word. The Karachi Literature Festival 2012 buzzed with the ‘wow’ factor when homegrown literary heavyweights rubbed shoulders with top writers from further afield, 140 in all, including Hanif Kureshi, Vikram Seth, Shobhaa DÃ©, and this year’s keynote speaker, William Dalrymple. Fiction, poetry, history, comedy, music, architecture, politics and geography weaved their way into this fledgling festival, now in its third year, and the only definitive Pakistani literary gathering conceived so far. Absent and missed in the English fiction genre were Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Nadeem Aslam (The Wasted Vigil) and Jamil Ahmed (The Wandering Falcon). The reasons for the latter’s absence was that he is frail and old.
At the opening night dinner, kudos was heaped on foreign missions, festival funders and founders for creating an intellectual and cultural gathering space for writers. While that evening bored authors sat around tables to hear speeches by earnest ambassadors, all was forgotten when the festival kicked off in the balmy creek-side garden of the Carlton Hotel the next morning, with the keynote speech by William Dalrymple and a performance by young Suhaee Abro and her troupe Nritaal.
KLF’s first day began with Superstar Writer: A Conversation with Shobhaa DÃ© and the genial Asif Noorani in a fan-packed ballroom. Resplendent in a magenta and orange silk sari, Ms. DÃ©, author of Shobhaa at Sixty, glowed with va va voom, as she shared her mantra to live life to the full, post 60. Her smiling, unselfconscious persona, minus any intellectual snobbery, endeared her to the audience, as did her claim that she never writes about depression, or the suppression and oppression of women.
The Shobhaa DÃ© talk was scheduled at the same time as the Is Art History Relevant? session, thereby prompting Niilofer Farrukh, the moderator, to say, “We’re competing with the glamorous Shobhaa DÃ©, but then art always ends up competing with glamour.” The session was off to a slow start but picked up with the Q&A segment which was engaging and, at times, even heated with audience members asking critical questions regarding the failure of the education system and the lack of artists’ collectives in Pakistan.
A session on Women Writing Women had Dr Marilyn Wyatt moderating the panel comprising authors Bina Shah, Maniza Naqvi and Nafisa Haji. Bina Shah stated unequivocally that when she writes she is very aware of being a woman, but for the most part the conversation focused on personal anecdotes and more general writing experiences. It was only when an audience member asked whether we are living in a post-feminist world that Maniza Naqvi admitted that the panel had been somewhat defensive and subsequently the three writers spoke more vocally about being women writers.
The atmosphere was edgy during A Conversation with Hanif Kureishi, moderated by Muneeza Shamsie. Hanif spoke like the brilliant cryptic wordsmith that he is, mainly about the themes of his works, issues of ethnicity, racism and fascism, as well as personal experiences of growing up in the reverse-colonial England of the ’50s and ’60s. His crusty tone and brusque persona may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but his efforts to convey that ‘identity’ is complex and ‘never a done thing’ may have hit a nerve. “It’s when you don’t need an identity is when you’re free, it’s not a problem for me anymore,” he said.
The other famous Hanif at the festival, Mohammed Hanif, endeared audiences with his self-deprecating humour and affability. The session, entitled Miracle Man, began with moderator Bina Shah asking Mohammed Hanifwhat it felt like to be a sex symbol — and that certainly put him at a loss for words. Later, when she asked him how he writes credible female characters as a male writer, Mohammed Hanif remarked that as the ‘token’ male reporter in the Newsline magazine office he learned a lot about women from his female colleagues, who had a great influence on him.
The first day’s afternoon session Indus Journeys: A Conversation with William Dalrymple, moderated by author Kamila Shamsie, was enlightening as Dalrymple recounted tales of how, as the only person writing narrative history outside academia, he has written several books from The City of Djinns, the book that launched him, to The Last Moghul and Nine Lives. Touching was a further description of his meeting with the inveterateDelhi-wallah, Ahmed Ali (Twilight in Delhi), who pined for the Delhi of ‘eunuchs, Sufis, pigeons and poets.’ Dalrymple’s pitch of seeing the world through religious spectacles and the parallels he drew between Eastern Christianity and Islam were illuminating, as was his fascination with the ‘end’ period of the Mughal Empire, recorded in his book The Last Mughal.
The evening of the first day’s programme presented Pakistani literary greats in Sher o Sukhan: Poetry Readings and Conversations with Iftikhar Arif and Kishwar Naheed, moderated by Raza Rumi, and punctuated with a serendipitous guest appearance by Intizar Hussain, who described Ms Naheed as the Rani Jhansi of Urdu poetry. A conversation in poetry had everyone mesmerised as the two poets volleyed in verse delineating the condition of the times we live in, aptly summarised in Arif’s words: “Aeons have passed but no miracle has arrived for an unfortunate people.” Earlier Intizar Hussain and Zahida Hina spoke on Pakistani Urdu fiction at Afsanay ki Batain: Readings and conversations with Urdu Fiction Writers.
KLF’s first day also saw Siddharta Deb, the author of The Beautiful and the Damned, and Mirza Waheed of The Collaborator fame mulling over their work on individual panels. Sanam Bhutto appeared at ease at a session featuring historian Ayesha Jalal and the terrorism conundrum was handed over to Ahmed Rashid, Maleeha Lodhi, William Dalrymple and Navid Kermani to sort out in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and the Taliban.
KLF’s second day was packed with sessions: From the emergence of Bangladesh to The Arab Spring, a retrospect on Partition, women’s rights, to reading Urdu classics. Hanif Kureishi appeared again with Alok Bhalla and Stefan Weidner to chat about literary criticism in English writing, and on a completely different note Salman Ahmed of Junoon fame launched his book Rock and Roll Jihad.
One of the highlights of the second day of the festival was the Satire/Comedy session. While the Banana News Network team was missing, Saad Haroon, formerly of Black Fish, and Ali Aftab Saeed of the Beygairat Brigade won over the audience with both their sense of humour and their honesty. Saad Haroon admitted that comedy in English could get away with more because people simply care less about it. And when Ali Aftab Saeed was asked if his brigade had ever received death threats he answered, “No, but we get a lot of friendly advice.” He also spoke of how unprepared he was for the instant popularity of Aalu Anday and had he known he would not have appeared on television with unkempt hair (“Ab mein apni pocket mein hair gel rakhta hoon”). Nadeem F. Paracha proved to be the perfect moderator for the session, since he made his own satirical quips throughout the session without taking attention away from the panelists.
From nostalgia for the Karachi of the ’70s, to taboo acts in elitist circles, to urban adventures in modern New York, Pakistani fiction writers in English spoke of the universal resonance of their work in Pakistani Contemporary Fiction Writings. The session was aural revelry as four stars of the English writing stratosphere read out extracts from their books in deep and dramatic tones. Debut author Ayesha Salman was the exception as she read from her first novel Blue Dust in gentle tones, juxtaposing fantasy and reality punctuated with philosophical questionings. The joys of reading aloud were described in turn by authors Mohsin Hamid, Shehryar Fazli, and H.M Naqvi, each of whom spoke of indulging in the luxury to see the effect on their final draft. “The cadences of language are part and parcel of my development,” said Naqvi. “I do it all day with what I’ve written, one reads with one’s ears,” said Hamid. They all agreed that reading out loud made their work new to them each time and the distinct cadences of each author’s tone and ennunciation was a novel experience for listeners.
Another popular session of the second day was Mediaspeak: How the Media Talks to Us. The panel comprised Jasmeen Manzoor, Mujahid Barelvi, Mehtab Rashidi and Shaheen Salahuddin and was moderated by Ayesha Siddiqa. Ironically, one of the complaints of the audience was that evening talk shows turn into shouting matches, but each time the panelists said something they disagreed with, the audience members would out shout them and cut them off. While Jasmeen Manzoor and Mujahid Barelvi were fairly defensive about their editorial processes and research, Shaheen Salahuddin admitted that sometimes the news reports, which are primary sources of information, are inaccurate.
A Conversation with Vikram Seth, moderated by Shaista Sonnu Sirajudin, professor of literature at the Punjab University, was a gem of a session. Sirajuddin tried to steer the conversation in an academic direction, asking Seth questions related to literary styles and structure. Seth, however, noticing that perhaps the wider audience may not appreciate a talk focusing solely on scholarly topics, slipped in anecdotes and jokes wherever he could. He was as engaging talking about rhyme structures as he was about his incomplete post-doctoral studies at Stanford and his family life in Delhi. And even with hundreds of people in the ballroom, he created a sense of intimacy between himself and the audience which was exhilarating for his innumerable fans that day.
The two jam-packed days of the third KLF featured a diverse line-up of events which showcased the past and present of the written word in Pakistan, and beyond, and also celebrated music, theatre and drama. It was a high tide of folk at the Carlton Hotel, throughout, and book lovers appeared in a constant flux as they managed their schedules and the auditory and cerebral overdose. Fresh air was injected intermittently into the hither and thither via tea and chips and other goodies in the garden. Murmurings about who was nice and who was not, in the author/celebrity world, were heard in post and pre-session conversations in the coffee shop, lobby, halls and gardens. But while we all know that it is the authors that make the festival, as well as a high quality of intellectual discourse, other elements go hand in hand — a good venue and a receptive audience is absolutely mandatory. Three cheers for Karachi and high hopes for an even more creative KLF next year.
KLF might have hosted discussions on heavy topics by literary heavyweights, but there were lighter (and cringe-worthy) moments throughout the festival:
– A woman asked Hanif Kureishi about what she deemed were misogynistic and anti-Pakistani sentiments in his novels. His classic response: “That is a stupid question.”
– Indian celebrity Shobhaa DÃ©, after claiming that she was a trailblazer, was reminded by Mohsin Sayeed that women writers in India, such as Ismat Chugtai and Quratulain Haider, had already written about taboo themes long before she did.
– An audience member cheekily requested Mohammad Hanif to write more books along the lines of The Case of Exploding Mangoes and to discontinue writing books like Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.
– The audience at the Mediaspeak session ganged up on Jasmine Manzoor, demanding to know why she always spoke in a screeching tone on television.
– When some people walked towards the end of Salman Ahmed’s session, he commented that they were an hour late. They were actually there for the upcoming satire session.
– During the book signing, Hanif Kureishi heard cries from female fans for an autograph but by the time he found a pen, he realised that the fans’ attention was directed towards Tapu Javeri. Feeling a bit snubbed, Kureishi turned to Javeri and inquired, “Are you some kind of rockstar?”
This article was originally published under the headline “Literati By the Sea” in the March 2012 issue of Newsline. Watch out for the latest issue of Newsline at newsstands across Pakistan.
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The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline