March Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 9 years ago

The Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) began amidst February showers. However, the real chill set in when the Punjab government toyed with the idea of cancelling the literary extravaganza altogether, in view of the prevailing security situation. But fortunately, the government was persuaded to take the plunge and the show went on.

This year’s keynote speaker was Romila Thapar, the eminent Indian historian, who often draws the ire of Hindu fundamentalists back home. Thapar began by observing that categorising Indian history into  ‘Hindu, Muslim and British’ or ‘ancient, medieval and modern’ periods serves no purpose: history should be viewed as a continuum, since religion did not play the role of  a rigid belief system in older times. Most people were as influenced by the bhakti sufi sects as they were by formal notions of Hinduism or Islam. A common language and culture were binding forces that held groups together more than any professed religion. She also questioned the discredited theory of the Aryan origins of the Indus Valley civilisation, as well as the extent to which the formation of medieval states and kingdoms could be called ‘feudal.’

Setting the stage for her later foray into the convoluted history of the Somnath invasion, Thapar maintained that fundamentalists of different creeds were not happy with a secular view of history, a case in point being the story of Mahmud of Ghaznavi’s destruction of an ancient temple at Somnath. Colonial writers claimed that Mahmud Ghaznavi’s act of breaking idols at Somnath created trauma among the Hindus, which in turn led to Hindu-Muslim differences. Examining the historical evidence, Romila says she found versions at such wide variance with each other regarding the event, that it is difficult to say with any certainty that it actually took place. Thapar calls attention to the intermingling of ideology with history, leading to a distorted reading of historical events.

British scholar Andrew Small’s book, The Pakistan-China Axis was launched at a session titled, Do All Roads Lead to China? It featured Hasan Karrar, Mushahid Hussain and Peter Oborne. Introducing his book, Small said that he had tried to extract as much useful information as possible regarding the Chinese view of Pakistan, a country seen as China’s only friend in international relations.

China has, however, resisted Pakistani attempts to forge a treaty alliance, which may be used to defend Pakistan. Although both countries have a shared adversary in India, during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war China warned Pakistan that despite Chinese support for Pakistan’s position, the latter must be ready to fight India. Similarly, Pakistan had hoped for Chinese support on the Kargil episode in 1999 but China behaved very cautiously. According to Small, a strong Pakistan is an asset for China, which benefits from Pakistan’s role in South Asia. This should have led to a relationship beyond security. China’s economic take-off should have been of enormous benefit to Pakistan, but pledges made have yet to be realised.


While China has its anxieties regarding the emergence of the Taliban and the threat they represent, Small seemed hopeful that the China-Pakistan axis was now in a different phase and the relationship would take off considerably. Most of the discussion in the panel revolved around the economic aspects of the relationship, especially the much-vaunted Economic Corridor as well as the value of the Pakistan-China relationship in the context of the growing India-USA relationship.

The discussion became really interesting when it shifted to the cultural relations between China and Pakistan. Karrar pointed out that Pakistanis actually know very little about China, and the study of the Chinese language is a recent phenomenon. Even Chinese cinema and literature were largely unknown. In such a context, teaching rudimentary Chinese in schools was a useless endeavour, in his view.

The launch of Naseerudin Shah’s autobiography, And Then One Day, during the session Hero and Anti-Hero, was predictably one of the greatest crowd pullers and Shah opened up to the audience with a  candid discussion of his life and work.

One of the highlights of the LLF this year was a session on Cordoba, the Spanish city that became the epitome of tolerance and creativity under Muslim rule in Spain. In the session titled The Wonder that was Cordoba: The Legacy of Tolerance, historian Ali Usman Qasmi ably moderated the panel discussion between poet Shadab Zeest Hashmi, scholar Ziauddin Sardar and eminent Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. Qasmi invited his three panelists to shed light on what Andalusia meant to them. Hashmi went on to elaborate the structure of her book, The Baker from Tarifa, consisting of poems inspired by Muslim Spain.

Sardar pointed out that while there was always a tendency among Muslims to glorify their history, it was in Cordoba that for the first time Islam had encountered the ‘Other’ — Jews and Christians — as thriving communities, and it isn’t possible to develop tolerance without engaging with the Other. It was also the first time that a real internal debate occurred within Islam, among its three different strands: theology, philosophy and Sufism, and there was critical engagement with the Other as a community. According to Sardar, the legacy of Andalus is about engagement, criticism and self-criticism, and it is a universal history, not just belonging to Islam, but just as much to European history. Pervez Hoodbhoy accepted Cordoba as a metaphor for Islamic tolerance but also pointed towards the failings of the religious state in Cordoba, namely that Jews and Christians were not living as equal citizens and had to pay the jizya as dhimmis. For him, the example of Cordoba was not the way in which a modern state should function, and the fact that one community dominated the other was not justifiable. The session  became an entertaining duel, between two allies-turned-rivals, namely Sardar and Hoodbhoy, with their differing viewpoints.


The discussion then moved on to whether science can be termed ‘Islamic,’ and Hoodbhoy highlighted the interesting case of Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate Dr Abdus Salam who, though a devout Muslim in his personal life, worked within the accepted framework of Western science, while Weinberg, with whom he shared the Nobel Prize was an atheist.

An interesting surprise on the second day of the Festival was the session on Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, titled On Karl Marx’s Daughter attended by a lively audience consisting of both veteran and younger Marxists, along with unreconstructed feminists in equal measure.

The writer of Eleanor Marx’s biography, Rachel Holmes, introduced her subject as the first “champagne socialist,” and the only woman since the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft to have made such an impact on English radical thought. Holmes also shed light on Eleanor’s relationship with her illustrious father as well as his comrade Friedrich Engels, who whetted her appetite for Arab and Middle Eastern literature. Apart from being a translator and theatre enthusiast, Eleanor Marx was an active participant in the trade union movement, and the founder of the Independent Labour Party, the precursor to the present-day British Labour Party. In this respect, she was Marx’s heir and one of her key campaigns was mobilisation for the eight-hour workday. Eleanor Marx also founded the Gasworkers Union, which became the biggest trade union in Britain. Holmes shed light on Eleanor’s American tour to promote her book, Working Class Movement in America, for which she interviewed American sex workers, cowboys and women workers. She was only 43 when she died, in mysterious circumstances. According to Holmes, Eleanor Marx was criticised for her views by British liberals of her time as a “Jew, a German immigrant, who doesn’t wear a corset, a complete harridan.”

In the Body of the World, a session featuring Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, was moderated by Nadia Jamil. Ensler gave a moving and candid account of her passage to a feminist existence, saying that being sexually abused by her father caused her to deny and to “leave her body,” only becoming able to inhabit it years later, when she could confront and overcome the demons of the past. The session took an unexpected turn when Nadia Jamil, on impulse, mentioned some ‘unmentionables,’ delighting some members of the audience while leaving others aghast.


The Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer was a panelist at two sessions; one was Footnotes from the Frontline with comic novel writer Joe Sacco, and the other, Faiz: Kuch Ishq Kiya Kuch Kaam Kiya, with Adeel Hashmi and Ali Sethi. At the latter session, Basharat — who has drawn upon Gulon Mein Rang Bhari in the score for the movie Haider — spoke about how he was introduced to Faiz as a child, by his father.  There was an incentive: for every couplet by Faiz that the young Basharat could paraphrase, he was given 10 rupees as a reward! With that beginning, Peer says, the verse eventually become an essential part of his psyche. The conversation between Adeel Hashmi and Peer was interspersed with Ali Sethi’s melodious renditions of Faiz.

Another musical treat on the third day of the festival was the session titled Mallika-e-Tarranum Noor Jahan: The Empress of Song. Moderated by Hameed Haroon, one of Madam’s most fervent fans, the session had her daughters Nazia Ejaz and Mina Hasan on the panel along with Jugnu Mohsin and Yasser Hashmi. The video presentation prepared for the occasion by Nazia took the audience down memory lane while the conversation was peppered with hilarious anecdotes.

Two of the sessions on the final day of the LLF were devoted to Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, writers described as the pillars of the modern Urdu short story. Very timely indeed, since 2015 marks the birth centenary of Chughtai and the 60th anniversary of Manto’s death. Unfortunately, both sessions left the audiences actually wanting to know more about the two writers and their works than what the panelists had on offer. The first session, titled Why I Write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, was the book launch of well-known Indian journalist Aakar Patel’s translations of Manto’s selected non-fiction. Incidentally, the moderator had brought out his own translation of Manto’s non-fiction last year. That fact alone would have made for an interesting session between two fellow translators, but the moderator seemed more interested in speaking himself, and allowed his own views on Manto to get in Patel’s way. Moreover, the session was more of a general discussion on the man and his life rather than one devoted specifically to his non-fiction, about which few in the Indian subcontinent know, when contrasted with his short stories.

The session on Ismet Chughtai, A Portrait of Ismet Chughtai: Defining an Era in Leftwing Urdu Literature, also had some issues. Firstly, the featured speaker Dr Asaduddin, a distinguished translator of both Manto and Chughtai, who was to launch his translation of Chughtai’s autobiography, could not make it to Pakistan. Although the hall was packed to capacity, and included a lot of young people, the session failed to meet expectations.

The session was intended to highlight Chughtai’s role as an icon of left-wing, progressive literature and to be fair to the moderator, an attempt was indeed made at the beginning of the session to define ‘left-wing literature.’ However, the discussion soon descended into generalities, and strayed off-topic. For example, it wasn’t until very late into the discussion that one panelist let slip that Chughtai was deeply influenced by Rashid Jehan, a communist and one of the pioneering progressive writers in India. No attempt was made to tease out this relationship between two influential, progressive female writers.

On a brighter note, it was a sheer delight to attend a packed-to-capacity session on The Long Lost Art of Literary Conversations, which was a launch of critic Asif Farrukhi’s book of interviews with leading Urdu writers. Conducted, with grace, wit and occasional repartee, the session was an epitome of how such conversations ought to be held.

Moderated by well-known writer Masood Ashar, the panelists included equally eminent writers Kishwar Naheed and Intizar Hussain, and of course Farrukhi himself. Ashar began the discussion by wondering aloud whether the era of literary conversations was indeed over and why younger people could not be included in such an endeavour. Farrukhi responded by saying that the book could not have been done without the cooperation of Naheed, Hussain, Ashar and Zahid Dar and owed its origins to a series of interviews first published in the Herald, which were greatly appreciated by readers. He shared with the audience that his interview with Faiz was indeed the weakest in the book, since at the time the interview was conducted, the poet was surrounded by his admirers and Farrukhi was overawed by the sheer presence of the great poet.

The discussion then came full circle, questioning whether our society really supports literary dialogue now as opposed to the past. Hussain said strong literary organisations like the Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq and the Progressive Writers Association had declined in force; but the emergence of literary festivals had given a new impetus to dialogue with varied audiences, although talk shows on television, which were essentially “shouting matches,” were in vogue. The discussion ended with a plea that we should all read and encourage the younger generation in particular to read literature.

Another literary treat was in store for those who attended Ziauddin Sardar’s book launch of The Stones of Mecca. Sardar, who had apparently won lots of new admirers with his provocative stance on Cordoba the day before, was at his best while describing the origins of his latest book.


It was part of a research project in the 1970s to research the problems of the Hajj, preserve Mecca’s cultural property and trace the caravan routes for Mecca. He then moved on to describe how Mecca lacks a sense of history and memory, and over the centuries has been limited to the performance of a particular function i.e. Hajj. However, what is usually forgotten is how the city has multiple memories, from being the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the formative years of Islam to harbouring some of the great satirists and writers of the time. Also marginalised is the violent history of the city which is lost in the idealised propaganda surrounding it, a case in point being the work of Al-Tabari, a renowned historian.

He criticised the present state of Mecca, saying monuments were increasingly being wiped out by the Saudis, and the city may become devoid of historical memory in the near future. As the session ended, one frustrated Pakhtun youth could be seen berating Sardar for giving a one-sided view of Mecca and Islam, without having read the book.

I was also fortunate to attend one of the two Punjabi sessions at the LLF, titled Punjab da Husn-e-Adab. The moderator began by observing that there are three noticeable trends in the development of Punjabi literature since the 10th century: the Sufi tradition, folk tales and tales of chivalry and wars. Qazi Javed, Mushtaq Soofi and Riaz Ahmad Shad were invited to speak on these respective themes. Unfortunately, this session seemed like a repeat of last year’s LLF session on Punjabi resistance poetry, the only change being the moderator and the composition of the panel. Qazi Javed, discussing Punjab’s Sufi tradition, observed that it could be more or less summed up in two points: that the universe is one creation and all differences are due to defective human vision; and that if we concede that all differences were simply an illusion, there is no justification for sectarianism. He talked at length about the poetry of Data Ganj Baksh and Baba Farid and their love of music and humanism. Soofi spoke knowledgably about the many interpretations and misrepresentations of the popular Punjabi folk tales, Heer Ranjha and Mirza Sahiban.

The LLF 2015 was hampered by strict security measures, which created hindrances in reaching the venue on time, as people had to park miles away from the venue and walk to the Alhamra. On reaching the Alhamra, participants went through several checkpoints, being frisked before they were let in.

Although the LLF once again offered much food for thought, it has to strive to shake off its elitist label. For instance, the sessions on Seraiki and Punjabi literature were welcome, yet these panels were crammed into smaller halls, even when they drew impressive numbers, bringing up charges of tokenism. One hopes that future editions will keep that in mind and see greater representation from Seraiki, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi literature, which are producing some of the most striking resistance literature in Pakistan today. Let us also not forget that 2015 is also the birth centenary year of another stalwart of Urdu fiction, Rajinder Singh Bedi; and 2016 will be celebrated as the birth centenary of two stalwarts of the Progressive Writers Association, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Sibte Hasan. Organisersof the literary festivals in Karachi, Lahore and, yes, Islamabad, please take note!

*Photos by Tapu Javeri for LLF

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.

The writer is a social scientist, translator, book critic and a prize-winning dramatic reader based in Lahore.