I had promised myself this time that at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) 2014 I would not attend any session on South Asian English literature or terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and especially those moderated by socialites . I was equally weary of the criticism that the literary festivals were too ‘elitist’, talking not in terms of literary elite but in terms of one class and one language dominating the festivals.
At the festival itself, I found myself disagreeing with the criticism. Almost all sessions, English, Urdu and Punjabi, had full attendance. Among the audience, one could see students in school uniforms standing at the back, taking notes or making videos and listening intently to their chosen writers.
About my own decision to choose a particular set of sessions, I must confess that Vikram Seth got ignored. From what I heard his sessions were better than any of the South Asian writers of English. Here are some interesting bits of the sessions I managed to attend.
Zia Mohyeddin talks with Zehra Nigah
“Uski mehfil ki dekhna tehzeeb,
Baat ka ehtamam hota hai”
That’s how Zehra Nigah began ‘Tarz-e-Adaegee’, one of the first sessions to set the pace of LLF. Both the famed actor and celebrated poet were at their witty best. The conversation was spontaneous and Zehra Nigah compelled Zia Mohyeddin to narrate interesting anecdotes. He narrated how he started poetry recitation and acquired the reputation of the best narrator of Shakespeare’s writings in England, some 37 years ago. He was requested by a channel to recite a poem for a show called Five to Ten. He realised then that many of the English words he emphasised on did not require emphasis. The entire Hall II burst into laughter when ZM imitated those who recite Urdu poetry and their often out-of-tune recitals.
He joked about his experience of acting in a Punjabi film where he ran around trees and sang songs. The heroine was overweight, but when he requested the producer to do something about it, the producer instead requested him to eat more and make some seyhat.
Lahore’s Lost Daughter
Amrita Sher-Gil’s life and work once bewitched Lahore. Her untimely death almost made her a part of folklore. Yashodhara Dalmia, who had written a book on Amrita’s life, conducted the entire session with a pictorial presentation.
Dalmia discussed the sensuality in Amrita’s character, her struggle to discover her Indian roots and her bohemian nature in the conservative society of Lahore. Gill drew women who often looked sullen. Her work had a complex interplay of themes within them including race and class. She also focused on nudes and posed for many. Unfortunately, today only one of her paintings is available in the LahoreMuseum.
Pran Nevile said he is not an art critic but knew Amrita Sher-Gil as the “greatest beauty in Lahore” whose grandeur was the talk of the town and everyone including Khushwant Singh claimed to have had an affair with her. These comments sent a roar of laughter across the hall.
Discussing Middle East
This was more like a lecture in which Ahmed Rashid intervened here and there while Vali Nasr spoke. Nasr’s thesis was interesting nevertheless. He said Shias challenge the Wahabi control in the Middle East. They want more autonomy and basic rights in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Allowing them space will create room for other sects within Sunnism. “Pakistan has fighters in Syria,” he said, adding it might send more to Saudi Arabia like it did in 1979 but must refrain from fighting for other’s national interests.
The strengthening nexus between India, Iran and Afghanistan might isolate Pakistan. Nasr added that the Arab Spring in the Middle East has weakened the state structure and might lead to fragmentation in the region, aggravated by sectarianism in Iraq, devastation in Syria and city of Fallujah being overtaken by al-Qaeda in Iraq. In fact weakening dictatorships have only led to strengthening terrorist organisations. Since 1978, Israel has not had much problem other than Hezbollah which has helped score Iran a strategic victory in the Middle East through Syria.
Despite being a social crusader, reminiscences about Ardeshir Cowasjee’s humour and wit and turned this talk into a delightful experience. Ayaz Amir pointed out that in those “acres and acres of boredom” (referring to the newspaper he worked for), Cowasjee often appeared as an enthralling oasis. He had an abiding passion for Karachi and was intense about issues facing the Parsi community.
Rafay Alam, the moderator, remembered how Cowasjee never carried cash and offered to sign a cheque on napkins. He referred to Alam as captain who called him general. He often gave people fictitious introductions. Once, he went so far as to describe Alam as the police officer from Scotland Yard who had just returned from Japan. Eventually, Cowasjee named his dog “Captain” which caused confusion when Rafay Alam visited his house.
The panel regretted that Lahore lacked an activist like Cowasjee who would go fight against encroachments, destruction of heritage sites and pollution. No wonder, Lady Willingdon Hospital is being removed without much resistance. A civil servant in the audience asked, “who after Cowasjee?” The moderator asked the lady’s name and said: “Riffat Aunty you are the new Cowasjee.”
The Body in South Asian Art
How is the body represented in arts around South Asia? How does it depict birth, life, death, faith, reincarnation and mental states? How does it vary across the religions, cultures and centuries?
Dr Naman Ahuja searched for answers in his new book The Body in South Asian Arts, laced with visual images of paintings and sculptors. Death is the first theme, the most compelling enigmatic human history and art, which deals with the transience of body and the longing for immortality.
It included images of King Jahangir’s drinking companion Inayat Khan, dying from alcoholism. Jahangir, who was obsessed with visual arts commissioned a series of paintings of the dying man. He examined the tradition of making stupas filled with relics and ashes and memorials to martyrs in Rajasthan which are surrounded by depictions of women greeting the martyrs.
Mohammed Hanif explodes mangoes with Naveed Shahzad
Though the session was hilarious, The Case of Exploding Mangoes and even My Lady of Alice Bhatti have been around for quite a few literary festivals and events. Even most of the jokes cracked have been heard before in other talks. The session was titled ‘Love in the Season of Mangoes’ but there wasn’t much love to talk about and the mango season is far away anyway.
As the next serious work by Hanif “The Missing Baloch” came up, he turned around and asked the Lahori audience: “You are here to attend the talk, why didn’t you go to the Long March for Missing Persons when they came to Lahore?” When asked why the media doesn’t give the missing Baloch enough coverage, he replied, “Because they are not Punjabi or Taliban.”
When a child asked Hanif which one book should be read to become a writer, he said “Reading one book is dangerous. Read two books.”
Our culture and the foreign footprint
The discussion on “our culture and foreign influences” had many literary luminaries on the stage. Khaled Ahmed explained how difficult it is to define culture, especially in the Pakistani context: “Some say it starts with Muhammad bin Qasim, others say it is much older than that.”
Fahmida Riaz said culture within Pakistan is intermingled, like the Baloch tribes in Sindh and vice versa. Asif Farrukhi said that he was reminded of the Dancing Girl, the statue which is now in India and there are talks of bringing it back. “What will we do to it though, if God forbid she does return,” said Asif Farrukhi, adding, “Impose Hudood on it, give it kurta shalwar, cut its head?”
“One foreign impact on our culture is that we are all Muslims,” said Intizar Husain laughingly. “What is other than Islam is kufr. But Kufr in Urdu poetry is used to add colour by Mir, Ghalib and even Iqbal.” He lamented that now Basant is banned, even the phuljhari on Shab Barat is banned because it reminds us of Hindus. “But somehow halwa isn’t banned.” The whole hall was in fits knowing who enjoys halwa the most.
Women in Classical Punjabi Literature
The panel had heavy-weight Punjabi poets such as Mushtaq Soofi, Riaz Shaad and Sarwat Mohiuddin, moderated by Majeed Sheikh. The panel discussed the female characters in classical Punjabi poetry. Sassi, Heer and Sahiban, the characters they focused on, had to either choose their family or lover.
They focused on their defiance, against patriarchy, class, family, everything. Mushtaq Soofi went on to claim that a character like Heer could not be found in Arab, Persian or even English literature.
Many critics pointed out that LLF started on the International Mother Tongue Day, in the heart of Punjab with only two sessions on Punjabi literature in the entire festival. This one was jam-packed and people had to sit on the stairs and stand at the back. Perhaps the organisers of LLF got the message and there will be a lot more on Punjabi next year.
Read also: Politics amid literature at LLF