March Issue 2016
Reading, Reacting, Writing
Even before it started, the seventh edition of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) was beset by bad news. The firebrand actor Anupam Kher was embroiled in a visa controversy, for which he and the Foreign Office took turns blaming each other, and then actor Nandita Das too pulled out, citing illness. Far more tragically, literary giant Intizar Husain, who was scheduled to participate in the event, passed away just three days before it started. Still the show went on.
The opening ceremony appropriately commenced with a one-minute silence for Husain. Organisers Ameena Saiyid and Asif Farrukhi recalled their memories of Intizar Husain and spoke of his support and encouragement of KLF.
One of the keynote speakers, Urdu poet and author, Fahmida Riaz spoke about the environment of intolerance that had engulfed Pakistan and India. She observed that for the past few years, just before the festival begins, it is overshadowed by a tragedy, referring to the Quetta massacre of Shia Hazaras, the APS incident and the attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda. She also bemoaned the deaths of Intizar Husain and Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, pointing out that both belonged to beleaguered communities — the former a Shia Muslim and the latter a Christian woman.
The other keynote speaker, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, gave a critique on ‘The age of unreason’ in both India and Pakistan where rational thinking and the scientific approach are under threat from right-wing zealots. He also spoke about his recent visit to India and the prevailing environment there. “It is only through an enlightened society that we can hope for the intellectual advancement of society. Art and literature can bring about human oneness. As long as we have literature festivals, there’s hope,” said Hoodbhoy.
The third gender and other minorities
One of the topics introduced for the first time at KLF was that of the third gender. For two sessions on the subject, ‘The Dilemmas of the Transgender’ and ‘Transgender Rights: Do They Have Any?’ the Indian transgender rights activist and celebrity, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi had been specially invited. Her flamboyant personality and wit kept a packed audience spellbound and narrating episodes from her life, she highlighted the issues and isolation faced by the transgender community in India.
Just as in her book, Me Laxmi, Me Hijra, nothing was taboo during the discussion; be it sexuality or sexual orientation, stigma, life choices, morality and other prickly questions raised by the moderator, Arfa Sayeda Zehra. There was frequent repartee between the two, punctuated with a lot of `I love you’ and `I love you too’s’, whenever the debate turned into an argument. Despite the sensitive nature of the subject, Laxmi made the discourse on her struggles, activism and achievements not just enlightening but enjoyable as well.
‘Transgender Rights: Are There Any?’ on the second day of KLF, included Reema Abbasi in the panel along with local transgenders, Bindiya Rana and Kim. Moderated by Khawar Mumtaz, more or less the same insights and issues were shared as on the first day. However, Bindiya Rana and Laxmi both pointed out that although Pakistan was the first in giving transgender community their rights and recognition, India not only followed the example, but took it to the next level — by drafting policies for the implementation of those rights. Bindiya Rana also narrated her own struggles, including standing for local elections and surviving attempts on her life.
Unfortunately, during both sessions, some insensitive members of the audience asked a few improper questions — to which Laxmi retorted with equally strong barbs, putting them in their place.
“They [minorities] have a right to be here. They don’t need anybody’s permission or anybody’s meherbani. It is their land and has always been their land,” said John O’Brien, a Catholic priest, during a very interesting session titled ‘The White Stripe on the National Flag.’
With a packed hall and constant applause when statements were made in favour of minorities, or the faults of the majority were pointed out, this session was possibly the most interactive. Heated discussions took place, and emotional anecdotes were narrated by minority members of the audience.
O’Brien, Shaheen Atiq-ur-Rehman and Sono Khangarani were the three panelists who stole the show and hit all the right notes with every word they spoke. They resonated with the audience, unlike French writer Oliver Truc who spoke about minorities in the West for about two to three minutes and then proceeded to sit in silence for the rest of the session.
“Christians are looking for equality, not protection,” O’Brien told the audience. Shaheen added that the majority is to blame for the treatment of minorities. “It is because of people like you and I, who fail to take the initiative and remain silent, that minorities find themselves in so much distress today,” she said.
The session took a brave and open route in the discussion of the blasphemy law. Here, O’Brien raised a question that many of us think of, “How many mainstream Sunnis are charged under the blasphemy law?”
“Aasia bibi ‘confessed’ to defiling the Quran through her thumbprint on a statement she could not read as she is illiterate. After each atrocity there is a noble apology, a promise for compensation and that it will never happen again. Until it does,” he concluded.
Society and its problems
KLF’s session on ‘Tharparkar: Desert Woes’ on the second day had the audience thoroughly engaged. One of the panelists commented that Tharparkar makes it to the news only when there is death and drought. But what emerged from the audience of mostly concerned citizens and activists was the uneasy matter of madrassahs proliferating at an alarming rate in Tharparkar. At the moderator, Sadiqa Salahuddin’s request, I.A. Rehman, seated in the audience, commented on the seriousness of the situation. Referring to Dr. Sono Khangharani’s talk earlier on Tharparkar’s changing demographics, Rehman pointed out that the impunity with which religious extremism was being allowed to flourish will destroy the Thari culture — and worse, will turn them into zealots.
One of the main focuses of the session was Tharparkar’s infant mortality. Dr. Tanveer Ahmed of HANDS, an NGO, painted a critical picture, saying the data from official sources showed an alarmingly high 481 deaths out of every thousand children under the age of five. These figures came from urban district hospitals, which the media has greater access to, and did not include those from rural health centres, which are far less accessible.
The main causes for the high mortality rate are the distances, lack of transportation, poverty and the unavailability of lady health workers, who only cover 42 per cent of Tharparkar. Dr. Tanveer informed the audience that 72 per cent of Sindh’s households were food insecure and the resulting malnourishment was causing 47 per cent of the children to suffer from stunted growth — the highest in the country.
Social activist Dr. Sono Khangharani spoke on the water crisis in Thar, saying 70 per cent of the water is undrinkable while half of Thar’s 1.5 million population is jobless. Panelist Masood Lohar, the National Programme Manager of UNDP-Small Grants, spoke on Thar’s history, migratory culture and the impact of drought on Thar’s indigenous population and their livestock.
The need to read
“Parents should start reading to their children even before the child can read,” Ameena Saiyid stated during the session ‘Education and Reading: Community and Parental Involvement.’ The session discussed the roles of parents and the community in encouraging reading, the urban-rural and male-female divide in curriculums, the role of the government in education, and interestingly, the importance of building libraries to foster growth in the level of reading.
According to Saiyid, “In order to encourage reading in children, it is essential that parents themselves read. If they are seen reading and enjoying books and going out and buying books or giving books as presents, I think children will learn that.”
Adding to this discussion was the topic of libraries, where another panelist stated the importance of libraries in the country, which will inevitably lead to a change in habits and encourage people to read.
To this, Shahnaz Wazir Ali forthrightly said, “There is always talk of metro passes and underpasses. But how many libraries have been made?”
In terms of the role of the government, Fazlullah Pechuho defended the government and stated that the private sector must be involved in the process of education and building schools too.
“Politicians are blamed every time! When schools in villages are shut for years, there are several instances when the communities in those villages do not protest,” he said, highlighting the general mindset of the population in the country.
Discourses on the national language
Veteran columnists and writers such as Masood Ashar, Zahid Hina, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Wusatullah Khan and Mubashir Ali Zaidi were on hand for the ‘Urdu Columns and Blogging’ session. It was moderated by the editor of online Urdu site Hum Sub, which has provided space to many new bloggers.
The session started with Ashar reading columns written by the late Intizar Husain. The moderator presented an overview of the traditions of Urdu opinion columns and how it defied censorship from dictators and political governments. Ashar and Asghar Nadeem Syed deplored the tendency of Urdu columnists to act like propagandists of political parties and conservative religious pressure groups.
Wusatullah Khan of BBC Urdu, one of the most widely read columnists, said while writing he imagines himself sitting on the footpath of a road, with a cigarette in his hand, overhearing the conversations of the people around him.
In another session, popular Sindhi and Urdu playwright and short story writer Noorul Huda Shah spoke about the influence of her TV serials, such as Marvi, Jungle on social issues. She also read a short story she had written.
The session on Urdu digests and their contribution to Urdu literature descended into a farce as panelists declared themselves unqualified to speak on the subject, bickered endlessly and did not give enough time to Shakeel Adilzada, the only person on the panel who had actually written stories for digests.
Not without our neighbour
With both Anupam Kher and Nandita Das absent from KLF, it fell to outspoken journalist Barkha Dutt to take up the Indian mantle, something she did with aplomb. Since Dutt rose to fame for her reporting on the Kargil war, it was unsurprising that the disputed region featured during most of her sessions.
The launch of her book, This Unquiet Land: Stories From India’s Fault Lines, saw Dutt in both a reflective and combative mood. On Kashmir, she was the very voice of tolerance, saying the two countries needed to work on other issues first before trying to come to a resolution on Kashmir. In fact, according to her, “Kashmir is no longer the theatre of conflict.” She was also scathing of both countries for refusing visas, comparing them to spoilt babies who needed to grow up.
If anything raised Dutt’s ire, it was how social media had made nuanced discussion impossible. She also lamented the double standards applied to women, saying, “If you are a woman with a brain in either India or Pakistan, a thousand things will be said about you.”
Dutt was also present at a panel discussion confusingly titled, ‘Words and Images of the Day.’ Present with Dutt was moderator Ghazi Salahuddin, Financial Times correspondent Farhan Bokhari and French writer Olivier Truc. Dutt and Bokhari got into a heated discussion about the extent of regulation required in the media, with Dutt arguing for self-regulation, something Bokhari claims will never be practiced. Both did eventually agree that government regulation must be avoided at all cost.
Dutt defended the supposed negativity of the news, saying it is not the job of the media to act as public relations officials and that their duty is to show what ails society. She interestingly also blamed the audience for sensationalism, asking why they keep tuning in if it offends them so much.
India was also at the centre of discussion in a panel titled ‘What Keeps Us Apart? India-Pakistan Relations.’ The panelists — Salman Khurshid, Jamshed Marker, Hina Rabbani Khar and Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri — all hailed from the political mileu and gave predictably safe answers. All said there needed to be greater understanding, the stakeholders on both sides had to take the initiative and vexing issues had to be diplomatically approached.
The true star of the session was the moderator F.S. Aijazuddin, who abandoned the customary Q&A format to pose questions to the audience. He asked the crowd, numbering in the hundreds, to answer questions about Hindu and Sikh beliefs. The silence, as they say, was deafening and perhaps answered the question posed in the title of the discussion better than any of the panelists.
For a country with an ideologically-blinkered sense of its own history, Pakistan needs Jamshed Marker. The 93-year-old former diplomat launched his book Cover Point: Impressions of Leadership in Pakistan by saying, “Old men forget and I have forgotten quite a lot, but not the things I should not forget.”
Marker talked about how no one gave Pakistan much chance of surviving in its early days but there was a spirit of togetherness and defiance — a spirit that has now curdled into something uglier. He was still optimistic for the most part, taking a longer view, and claiming our very existence to this day is grounds for optimism. Ever the diplomat, Marker was even guarded in his criticism of Zia-ul-Haq choosing only to comment on the difficulty in working for the dictator. Still, he was on point in claiming, “The Pakistan we have today is not the concept of Jinnah.”
Sound and vision
The confident Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy basically just took the reins during her session at this year’s KLF. Sharmeen’s boisterous personality shone through as she proudly spoke about her documentary A Girl in the River — The Price of Forgiveness, which is about honour killings in Pakistan and has been nominated for an Oscar.
Filmmaker Chinoy spoke proudly about how Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gave a statement promising to look into the matter of honour killings (“It should be called pre-meditated murder,” she said), after her recent documentary, A Girl in the River.
Sharmeen openly displayed her annoyance and disappointment at the attitudes prevalent in the country, where honour was only associated with women. Further, when she was questioned by the moderator about how her films were accused of putting Pakistan in the limelight, by portraying the country in a negative manner, she was quick to interject before he could even finish the question.
“If you don’t like this picture then fix the problem! Don’t shoot the messenger!” she said, to a loud round of applause from the audience.
2015 saw the release of several Pakistani films, from Manto and Moor to Dekh Magar Pyaar Se and Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, that were a good mix of typical masala films as well as those with a good storyline and jaw-dropping choreography.
But what gave way to this rise in the production of films in Pakistan? According to Nadeem Mandviwalla, it was the change in the policies of the government in 2001 and 2007. He also rightfully stated that the popular demand for films is mostly Bollywood movies, and this is essential for cinemas to keep running.
“We have learnt a lot from India, of course. Our generation has viewed mostly Bollywood,” said actor Nimra Bucha.
The only change in cinema is not just the production of new films, but the fact that there are cinema houses to screen these films. However, as Bucha pointed out, the one thing missing from the Pakistani film industry is well equipped studios.
Another important question that arose was that of audience expectations. Are we just keen on films full of fun and dance and pretty faces? Do we care about the art of good filmmaking? Actor Sania Saeed responded, “I think our audience is ready to see any kind of cinema. It is very important that we tell our stories, related to our culture.”
KLF attendees gravitated towards comedy time like ants towards syrup. Aquarius Hall was bursting at the seams to attend the ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ session moderated by Nadeem Paracha — more than half the audience was standing in the aisles. Paracha introduced the topic of humour as a very dangerous weapon and his fellow panelists, Saad Haroon and Sanjay Rajoura as the top guns in delivering it.
Amid all the hilarity, the panelists discussed the attitude Pakistanis and Indians had towards satire, and how tolerant they were of it. Nadeem Paracha gave an example of how many people were angered by his tongue-in-cheek piece on a mullah. Saad Haroon said both cultures struggled with satire and gave the example of a video he made that went viral — a parody called Burqa Woman which made him feel, from all the comments it received, that people wanted to hit him hundreds and thousands of times. Sanjay quipped that most of the time the comments generated from both sides of the border give the impression that a third world war was on.
With his infectious humour, Saad Haroon responded to questions from the audience, saying at times comedy is meant to be dark and ugly, while Sanjay said by definition comedy should offend someone. But at the same time Saad also felt comedians from both sides of the border end up being ambassadors to counter perceptions and stereotypes abroad about their nationalities.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2016 issue.
Sanjay Rajoura’s jokes were mostly politically sound, but not without jabs about Pakistan and its culture — the Indian bias came through during both his sessions. Perhaps misjudging the mood of the audience, his comedy routines did not evoke the same level of amusement as Saad’s. He even had a minor spat with an elderly lady in the audience during his stand-up routine the first day — when he made a dig at the Quaid’s dream of a separate homeland for Muslims.
‘An Evening with Anwar Masood’ also drew a large crowd and was filled with merriment. Despite his advancing years, the Urdu, Punjabi and Persian scholar hadn’t lost his touch. A surprising number of fans were from the youth who kept calling out to him to recite some of his popular poems including ‘Banyan’ and ‘Chai-Lassi.’
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2016 issue.