Festival Blues in Lahore

Raza Naeem helps us to zoom in on LLF 2020

Festival Blues in Lahore
The death of Nisar Aziz Butt, one of the foremost Urdu writers of the 20th century, who was a long-time resident of Lahore, and passed away in this city earlier this month, cast a heavy pall as one headed into the 8th edition of the Lahore Literature Festival (LLF) last weekend; similar to the untimely death of Fahmida Riaz in November 2018 just before the Faiz International Festival that year (as this scribe had also noted in these pages then). In all these eight years, the LLF had not deemed Butt’s work important enough to actually invite her to deliver a keynote address; likewise in her death, it could not be convinced to even put together a panel to remember her, as the Karachi Literature Festival had done in the aftermath of the death of Butt’s contemporary Intizar Hussain back in 2016. The ironic contradiction between obscurity and celebrity was set in stark relief as one read that Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was to be the guest of honour at LLF 2020. But more on that later!

With these thoughts in mind, one almost felt grateful on Day 1 of the Festival to attend the panel celebrating the achievements of The Herald and Newsline, the two leading Pakistani journals which both shut down in quick succession last year. The session had senior rights activist I. A. Rahman, Talat Aslam, Tehmina Ahmed and Zahid Hussain as panelists and was moderated by Razestha Sethna. It began by noting the depressing situation of news journalism in Pakistan in the wake of the murder of Sindhi journalist Aziz Memon, as well as the passage of strict social media laws by the government. Rahman noted that when he started his journalistic career, the only challenge was ‘to be yourself’; there was no external challenge. There were authoritarian regimes then, recent regimes had been growing more authoritarian. If one wrote courageously, one knew what would happen to oneself, in contrast to the situation today. There was some respect for the law then, in contrast to today. Also, society had become more timid, and journalists don’t have an editor to go through for backing. Both the journals were national institutions; and when they were closed down neither the state nor society shed a tear. Aslam, who worked at Newsline for a long time, observed that the journal was an all-women magazine and all of his bosses were women. Despite the journal closing down, many foreign scholars came looking for stuff written from that period, but regrettably there were no archives maintained by the journal. Hussain, lamenting the closure of Newsline said that the journal started losing its value as new media arrived in Pakistan. What made both the journals unique was being factually correct, to the extent of editors like Razia Bhatti being perfectionists about fact-checking. He further quipped that if anyone wanted to write about the history of the rise of the MQM, they should consult old issues of Newsline. Ahmed, who had been a member of the Women’s Action Forum before she joined Newsline, said at that time they had no model to follow, and had few resources. But she also said that there wasn’t a huge difference with the Herald in terms of editorial policy, even after Newsline was bought by a conglomerate, though the latter were always poor at business. The discussion made one wish that there was an alternative session on the life and times of The Pakistan Times, Imroz and Lail-o-Nahar, sister publications owned by the Progressive Papers Ltd, closed down by the military regime coming to power in 1958, which perhaps came closest to setting the standard in Urdu journalism that Herald and Newsline established in English.

There were plenty of sessions on Urdu at this year’s LLF and one of the best was on the Progressive and nonconformist Urdu poet Jaun Eliya on Day 2. The session comprised Eliya’s contemporaries Asghar Nadeem Syed, Amjad Islam Amjad and Dr Naumanul Haq, and moderated expertly by Sheba Syed. The panel moved from wondering whether his greatness could be measures on a criterion of normality; to the reasons for his popularity, especially on social media and among the youth. Haq opined that Jaun was popular among the youth because he has mischief, truth and gaiety in his person, whereas his poetry had appeal because of his style of recitation, and his deep knowledge and study. Moreover, Jaun reflected our contemporary situation. Syed said that there was a mythical halo around Jaun which he shared with poets like Majaz, Akhtar Shirani and Faraz, making him popular. In addition, our youth needed a role model who was simultaneously “sane and insane.” Amjad opined that Jaun is popular among the youth because in him the youth view defiance which they themselves wanted to practice. The panel had the necessary diversity of a poet, playwright and critic sharing their opinions about the iconic poet, and was enlivened by both humorous and bizarre eyewitness anecdotes about Jaun, and recitations of his poetry. However there was no Q and A session after the panel ended. One also felt that the panel might have benefitted with the participation of Jaun’s closest friends like Shakil Adilzada and those who both knew Jaun in his last days, and helped to publish his work both during his life and after his death; as well as the presence of Jaun’s wife and/or daughters who are both alive and in Pakistan, and would have shed a more intimate light on the poet. This scribe wondered why the session exclusively focused on the poetry of love and heartbreak in Jaun, though he was a Progressive and rationalist who had also written about socialism and Progressive themes.

From the session celebrating one iconic poet, it was a quick decision to attend another celebrating another iconic poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in the wake of the widespread popularity of his famous poem Hum Dekhenge. The session was moderated by Salman Akram Raja, while the panelists were the politician Aitzaz Ahsan, the iconic poetess Zehra Nigah and the critic Dr Nomanul Haq. Ostensibly woven around the publication of the first critical and annotated edition of Faiz’s Kulliyat (Collected Works) edited by Haq, Raja mentioned at the outset that the panel would look at the politics and poetics of Faiz, as well as his contemporary relevance. Haq provided knowledgeable context as to how and why a few lines from one poem of Faiz were edited out from there and inserted as an afterthought in another poem; while Nigah commented on how despite having the requirements of great poetry (metaphor, simile, imagery and nuances), there was something in Faiz which gave him a Divine quality, as was evident in the poem Hum Dekhenge. Ahsan compared the same poem to other anthems of resistance and put them in the league of We Shall Overcome, the Communist Internationale and Vande Mataram. Despite the riveting session, one felt that perhaps it would have been more in place at the 2020 edition of the Faiz International Festival. Moreover Nigah had nothing to add further to what she had already said about Faiz at previous other appearances. A more apt choice in this panel would have been Rauf Malik, who at 94 years of age is the oldest friend and comrade of Faiz still living, and who is privy to the both the private and public life of the great poet.

It was gratifying to attend the sole panel on translation at the LLF imaginatively titled ‘Transcending Geographies’ featuring Rico Alonso from Spain, Aamer Hussein from the UK. Amjad Islam Amjad and Shahnaz Aijazuddin, moderated by Musharraf Farooqi. The panel was diverse in that Alonso translates from Urdu and Hindi; while Hussein has translated some of his own stories from English to Urdu; Amjad translated from Arabic into Urdu; and Aijazuddin from Urdu into English. The panel moved from discussing the individual translations of the panelists to whether they themselves had some ‘theory’ of translation; to their motivations and reasons for translation; to the difficulties and challenges of translation, as well problems of finding publishers for translations and the legal frameworks for translation. Hussein came up with the interesting notion that it was very difficult to translate ‘Islamic’ languages like Farsi and Urdu into English; these languages translated much better in Italian and Spanish. All the panelists spoke expertly about the art of translation, including Farooqi who is himself a competent translator. However Amjad was the only panelist who actually read a translation he had done from the Arabic; it would have been better if the translators had shared a sample of their own translations to give the audience both the idea and flavor of transcending not only geography but language.

The final panel of Day 2 of the LLF was ‘Where is India Headed?’ featuring the historian Audrey Truschke, the novelist and academic Nitasha Kaul and a frequent visitor and policy-maker to Pakistan, Vali Nasr, moderated by veteran South Asia watcher Victoria Schofield. To her credit, the moderator said at the outset that she wouldn’t steer it in the direction of an India-bashing session; because the direction where India would head will determine where Pakistan would head too. The moderator asked every panelist where India was headed, to which Nasr replied that the Modi government had an ambitious agenda to replace Nehruvian India with his own personal stamp but the big question was whether India will succeed in doing it. Kaul remarked that one would have to look back to 1990s for an answer, which was the period of the neoliberalization of India, something which had not been understood adequately in literature. Truschke said that one needed to go back to pre-colonial times for an answer; Hindus and Muslims had always killed each other but the contemporary categorization of people through religious identity and targeting Muslims for being Muslims serves the needs of the Indian ruling class.

Day 3 of the LLF began with the launch of the second novel by British-Kashmiri academic Kaul titled Future Tense. Asked about her writing craft by the moderator Schofield, Kaul replied that it goes down to why one wants to write. You refuse to be bound by constraints in front of you. If one has a series of endless rainy days, it is an incredible faculty of mind to imagine a sun, meaning that we refuse to give in to some reality. Explaining the choice of her novel’s title, Kaul said that her definition of love is that it is a “disorientation of senses and tenses.” Summarizing her novel in one line as “What happens to dreams on a small canvas shrunk even smaller by the politics of conflicts”, she said that non-linearity was a really powerful element in her book. It was Kaul’s “dearest wish” to have Kashmiris read this book in the Gulshan Book Store in Srinagar near the Dal Lake. She summed up the discussion saying that her novel was a witness of the long-tail present along with echoes of the past, and cited the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, “Your history gets in the way of my memory.”

Another panel concerned the launch of the 2020 edition of The Aleph Review, Pakistan’s first English-language journal. The panel featured the editor of the journal Mehvash Amin, two of the contributors to the issue, namely the respected literary critic Muneeza Shamsie, eminent photographer Tapu Javeri and the respected art critic Quddus Mirza, moderated by lawyer-cum-novelist Osama Siddique. The panel addressed diverse questions from the motivation behind the initiation of the journal; to the value of digests and magazines; the stages of the editorial process behind every issue; the photographic element in the 2020 issue; the connection between the verbal and the visual; approaching social media for publicizing the journal; the desirability of having a literary aesthetics; and the complications introduced into literary aesthetics by the advent of films. What the discussion reinforced was Amin’s contention at the outset that the purpose of the journal was to have an archive of established writers along with including fresh work from younger writers. It would also have been a good idea to walk the talk, and have one or two among the younger set of contributors to the 2020 edition as the panelists, and to have them read what they had contributed to the journal.

The highlight of the final hour of the LLF was the discussion between Nobel Laureate Pamuk and Shahid Zahid titled ‘Writing Away from the Centre’ which was to have featured Pakistan’s own Mohsin Hamid, but the latter could not make it due to illness. Perhaps that was also the reason why the important subtitle of the panel, i.e. “How literature can be used to shape a more democratic world”, apparently and sensibly suggested by Hamid, was quietly dropped neither to be referred to by the moderator, or the speaker, nor certainly a member of the audience. Pamuk said that when he began writing novels in the 1970s, the major discussion was why nobody knew about Turkish literature; Turkey was at the edge of Europe. He was asked to elaborate on why he considered himself provincial. Pamuk said that he expressed this provinciality while living in Istanbul as a member of Turkey’s secularized middle-class, the “export of international Muslim bourgeoisie.” His culture and ideal were contradictory; he was provincial in the sense that the failure of the Ottoman Empire gave a sense of failure and inadequacy, and a feeling that “perhaps we should imitate the West to be successful”. So while Pamuk lived in Istanbul in an upper-class family, he felt at the center but also at the margins in the world of European literature. Talking about the reflection of provinciality in his work, Pamuk shared that after he turned 50, he began to write about the rural parts of Turkey; since being a writer is to identify with people who are not like you. Talking about Snow, one of his most popular novels, Pamuk said that he decided to set it in Kars in rural Turkey. He wrote it after his novel My Name is Red. He has chronicled the rise of political Islam, or as he called it, “Islamic terrorism”. He was more interested in the arguments of Islamic fundamentalists; he did not agree with his characters but he let them speak. It was an obligation for the writer to identify with the character rather than pass political or ethical judgements on them. According to him, the art of the novel is based on understanding people who are not like us. The conversation with Pamuk ended on both an intriguing and humorous note when he shared the plot for his forthcoming novel Nights of Plague featuring a plague which occurred between 1894 and 1910, killing millions of people in India and China, and relatively fewer people in San Francisco and Hawaii – but the West largely remained unscathed. This was also the time when humanity was discovering microbes. This novel was also about being provincial in that there is a secular liberal-minded person, a doctor who wanted to save people; but in the Ottoman Empire all the doctors were Orthodox Greeks, meaning Christians. So there was a demand for Muslim doctors. Pamuk’s main character wants to help people with the help of Western ideas. The conversation turned humorous when following Zahid’s question about books being translated and copies being confiscated, Pamuk quipped that he had seen his books disappear from Turkish bookshops. Once one of the ‘acceptable’ versions of his book had been confiscated and two policemen approached him, one of them recognized him and wanted Pamuk to autograph the confiscated version for his wife!

It is no mean feat by the organizers to have a literary festival running for the eighth consecutive year in Lahore despite many problems with the authorities in the past, when the Festival either had to be shifted to a smaller, more commercial venue and even truncated into a one-day or two-day affair. However what was particularly galling this year was the reluctance or outright absence to honour Pakistan’s own literary icons. Guests of the stature of Pankaj Mishra (LLF 2019) and Orhan Pamuk are perhaps welcome every second year, but simply raises questions when we have writers of the stature of Mustansar Hussain Tarar and Muhammad Ikramullah living in Lahore practically all their lives, but not honoured by the vintage literary festival of the city. Or perhaps the organizers of the LLF could take a leaf from their counterparts who organize the literary festivals in Karachi and Islamabad, as well as the Adab Festivals, by simultaneously having a local and international guest of honour at the same time? Another opportunity was missed when the organizers chose to invite Zehra Nigah, who has been a ubiquitous presence at least in Lahore; but not honour equally iconic personalities like Kishwar Naheed who will turn 80 later this year and Rauf Malik, the aforementioned legendary nonagenarian resident of Lahore who is Faiz’s oldest surviving comrade and the author of a very readable autobiography which deserves to be read and popularized among younger people. In addition, a wonderful opportunity to remember two distinguished sons of the soil, a Punjabi and Sindhi, respectively, went begging, when the festival did not honour Abdullah Malik and Sobho Gianchandani in the year of their birth centenaries. One hopes that the LLF will at least rectify this by celebrating the birth centenaries of two great sons of the Punjab in its ninth edition next year in 2021, namely the towering Progressive poet Sahir Ludhianvi and the iconic literary figure and communist revolutionary Major Ishaq Muhammad, as well as the 50th anniversary of the death of Nanak Singh, the father of the Punjabi novel, whose pathbreaking work has been reviewed in these pages.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979