Five weeks ago I was in Lahore, Pakistan, for a literary festival, along with a hundred thousand other people. Now, when we remember it, it will always be in the shadow of what came after. On Easter Sunday, with families out for a day in a park, a massive bomb exploded. Yet another set of tragedies, for a society that already has had so many. My friends’ FaceBook pages echo their misery. One puts up a photo of a little boy – her child’s son, killed by the bomb. Another is visiting the children in hospital, struggling for their lives. She is giving them toys her friends have donated; hugs and smiles in amidst the suffering. There’s a photo of young men crowding a hospital entrance, wanting to give blood. Most don’t know what to do with their anger. Pray for Lahore, says one. Another replies: Don’t pray – fight against hateful religious ideology.
I am putting up my reflections about the festival, just as I wrote them before that bomb exploded. It is a tribute to the remarkable people who created a space for tolerance and debate, and will continue to do so.
Lahore, Lahore hai, people say – the city of Lahore is simply itself, unique. Do I want to go there to be part of a literary festival? I certainly do. Lahore has a unique reputation among cities in South Asia – for its vibrance, its culture, its hospitality. I have spent time there once, but not enough. Are you sure it’ll be OK? people around me ask, and you can see why. Pakistan has suffered more sectarian violence in recent years than any other country. It lies on a geo-political fault-line, with a deadly nexus of issues that link Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USA, fundamentalism, and regional security. But so far Lahore has been less affected than other cities. I owe my invitation to Ahmed Rashid, journalist and authority on the politics of Afghanistan and Central Asia, whose books I have used in researching for Uncertain Light. He knows better than most what the dangers are. The chances of anything happening while I’m there are slim.
I look up everything I can find about the festival. It’s only been going four years, and it sounds wonderful – more than a book festival, a celebration of all that books can open up to us. Debates will range from highly charged political issues to novels about personal relationships, from innovation in art to the need to preserve Lahore’s architectural heritage. There will be film actors, museum curators, a drama production, an evening of Qav’vali singing – sufi-inspired music, a tradition that goes back 700 years. And – in the style of many South Asian literary festivals – it is free, all events open to everyone. Over the course of a weekend they’re expecting a hundred thousand people. Speakers will be flying in from 40 countries —
And it nearly doesn’t happen.
Two days before the festival is due to start, with participants already arriving (me among them), the government of the Punjab tells the organisers to cancel it. Speakers who have not yet arrived must be asked to cancel flights. The official reason? The authorities cannot guarantee security. Well, no one doubts that Pakistan has security issues but it’s hard not to believe there are other agendas here – political differences? personal jealousies? The festival organisers come from influential families and have secured wide sponsorship from businesses, media corporations, some international cultural sources. The arts need patrons – they always have done – and you don’t run a free-to-all festival without someone having to pick up the bill. Many who have helped inspire the festival are active citizens also in other ways that might have got under the skin of the authorities, like protesting the bulldozing of heritage buildings to make way for a new metro line. Is this a ploy to demonstrate who really holds power?
By evening – who knows what negotiations it has taken – a compromise has been reached. The festival organisers are told they can hold a reduced festival: two days instead of three and they will have to find a new venue. This is bizarre – if security cover can be provided for two days, why not three? And if not in the arts centre where it was planned to happen, why in a new venue, which turns out to be a hotel just across the road? Later Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, says, To be a satirist in this country you don’t have to make anything up. You just tell it straight.
I can just about imagine what the organisers are going through. For myself, I am just grateful that I am already here so no one can tell me not to come.
A taste of culture
While the festival team work into the small hours adjusting the programme, those of us already here have a couple of days’ unplanned holiday, in an interesting city and in excellent company. I share a breakfast table with Muneeza Shamsie, who has edited collections of Pakistani women’s writing in English, and Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian in the UK, women whose writing I know but had not thought I would ever meet. There’s nothing we can do to help sort out the problems so we just go with the flow, and this particular flow carries us through a series of delightful encounters. Claire and I happen to be in the foyer when one of the festival organisers comes in, checking lists. She is about to go to the museum where an art historian from India is giving a talk about Pahari miniature paintings – would we like to go? Sure we would! But by the time we get there the talk is over and everyone is having tea and delicious snacks and mingling to chat. We mingle too – and I discover that hosting the event is the artist Salima Hashmi, whom I have met some months ago in London. She is the daughter of Faiz, Urdu’s best loved 20th C poet, and I had contacted her because I wanted to use my translation of a poem by Faiz in my novel Uncertain Light. Salima says she is about to take Dr Goswamy, the art historian, to visit a family museum of Faiz’s letters, books, photos – would we like to come? So off we go in her car and spend an absorbing hour wandering through Faiz-ghar (ghar means ‘house’.)
The archive of photos give a sense of Faiz’s range – he was not just a great poet but a left-wing political activist who travelled, met writers elsewhere, addressed trade union conferences. He was at odds with the Pakistan authorities and spent years in prison, from where some of his most moving poems were written, many addressed to his English wife Alys; and later more years in exile. I come away with a complete edition of his poems and a DVD documentary of his life.
We have been here hardly a day and already we are experiencing that complex mix of characteristics that strike a new-comer— the easy warmth of hospitality, the cultural richness, the background of political tension. There’s singing coming from one room – a tabla player, children learning Hindustani classical music. Faiz-ghar is a cultural project that tries in a small way to uphold the values that Faiz believed in – specifically, they are producing children’s books that teach a respect for human rights and tolerance of diversity. In Pakistan today people have paid with their lives for upholding these simple values. Five years ago Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, was murdered for speaking out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that have been frequently used to persecute Christians. The story hit the world’s headlines, along with the almost more shocking fact that many feted his murderer as a hero. Now – looking at old family photographs – I discover that Salman Taseer was Salima’s cousin; and the story didn’t stop there. A few months after his murder, his son Shahbaz was kidnapped. As we stand here looking at pictures of them all as children, Shahbaz is still missing.
The hostage-taking which is the pivotal event in Uncertain Light might seem to readers elsewhere to be melodramatic. Here it is a constant possibility; in this family, an ongoing reality.
Where are my sessions?
Friday – The programme for the truncated set of events has arrived in my email inbox. Of the planned 99 sessions, 45 are no longer there. Some have been combined, many more have disappeared. The devastating reduction is not just because of losing a day, but because the new venue can’t host as many simultaneous sessions. I scan quickly to see what has become of my sessions. I was originally down to do three – as a novelist, on translations of Ghalib, and chairing a panel on education. Which of these have made it into the new programme? None. A stab of disappointment – to come all this way – but the feeling is momentary. How gutted the organisers must be feeling at watching their months of preparation unravel. My own loss seems not particularly consequential. At least I am here.
With all their logistical challenges, the organisers are still giving thought to looking after us, and two young women arrive with drivers and cars to take us to see whatever we want of Lahore, and the day proceeds like yesterday, a series of unexpected and delightful encounters. A petite, lively woman in her 80s comes out of the hotel to join us: it’s Madhur Jaffrey, whom the programme describes as ’The Woman Who Took Curry Global.’ With her is a tall American, her husband. He’s quiet, and I wonder if he is slightly overwhelmed by being with so many chatty women. As we wait to set off I ask about his own line of work. He says, self-deprecating, ‘I guess you could say I spent a lot of my life trying to master the violin.’ I sympathise – I’m a late starter on the violin and it is the most difficult instrument. I discover later that he was in the New York Philharmonic.
Rishm, one of our guides, is co-ordinating volunteers for the festival. In her day-job she is a manager in a group of independent schools, trying to inculcate a love of reading at an early age. It’s the basis of everything in education, she says – and it’s older pupils from her schools who will be volunteers at the festival. With Rishm is her friend Saba, co-opted for the day to help take us around. She is a professor of art in Dubai, back visiting Lahore where she grew up. She points out buildings to us as we pass – there’s the Art College where she studied, one of the few places where they teach the skill of miniature painting – with techniques developed centuries ago to achieve the incredibly fine detail. You start by catching a squirrel, she says, and laying out a few hairs from its tail in length order, to end up with a one-hair fine brush. Now she and Madhur are talking about the merits of different kinds of shawls, and I realise that too is a science in itself. Later when I read Madhur’s memoir of childhood, Climbing the Mango Trees, I will find a vivid description of her mother taking hours to choose a shawl from the array that the shawl-wala had spread out on the verandah of their house in Delhi.
We arrive at the Shahi Qila, a vast 16th C fort-cum-Mughal palace, where we are adopted by a guide. Do we need a guide? Saba and Rishm are doing such an excellent job. But his persistence vanquishes them, so he comes with us and plies us with memorised dates and names of rulers that we can’t take in, while we wander looking at timeless views framed by stone arches. Saba and I look regretfully at the decaying tile-work and murals. There’s no culture of preservation here, she says. I have heard there’s been a wonderful restoration done – with Norwegian funding – on the Shahi Hamam, the 17th C public baths in the old Walled City. We fantasize about what we would do if we were the custodians of this fort-palace, and had some funding.
A call comes on my mobile from Shamain, who has the unenviable job of reorganising the festival programme. They’ve been trying to work out the best slot to put me in. What about one of the panel discussions on fiction – ‘The Passion for Love Literature’ – would that fit my novel? Perfect.
Through the security checks they come, tens of thousands crowding the hotel foyers and grounds. You would hardly know the festival team have had a fraught time and are probably sleep-deprived – they are everywhere, welcoming, making sure everything happens according to the constantly having-to-be-revised plan.
In the grounds of the hotel that acts as venue bookstalls have been set up, groups of people browse, families sit on the grass, young friends meet. Volunteers from local schools are everywhere in their t-shirts with the festival logo, guiding people, offering help. Crowds jostle to find a place in the opening session, where the Indian actress, Sharmila Tagore – at 71 looking still serenely beautiful – gives a thoughtful retrospect of her career in film, starting with Satyajit Ray films & becoming Bollywood’s most loved heroine. Then the stimulus multiplies – there are four simultaneous sessions, two in the hotel’s large reception rooms, two in marquees in its grounds. There are full audiences in each, and still the crowds mill about in all the spaces in between. The conversations I overhear among the young are in a lively mixture – English with Urdu words thrown in, Urdu with English words. I have learnt Urdu but have never lived in an Urdu speaking society and it’s pleasurable just moving around the crowds, listening in.
I dip into sessions, greedy to get a taste of it all. There’s an international flavour even among the Pakistani presenters, reflecting the globalised pull of education and professions. Most have had a period living in the US or UK; some are still based there and have come back specifically for this event. There are ten sessions on aspects of Urdu literature but the primary language of the festival is English. Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world but all those with positions of influence are fluent in English, and for many it is their effective first language. Probably a high proportion of the people milling about here have had their education through English-medium.
This is a deeply polarised society, not just in life-chances, but in religion, politics, attitudes to those outside one’s own group, to women’s roles. All of these intersect. Few women in the crowds here wear head-scarfs, but without exception the women in the security teams do, staffing the x-ray portals we all have to pass through to get in. There are soldiers with guns in the mini-buses that bring the speakers daily to this hotel, and more standing around the entrance, looking – frankly – bored. There’s the world moving by in the streets outside, cars, motorbikes, three-wheelers, and probably none of the people in them are interested in the issues we’re getting into here. We’re in a bubble of time and space, removed not just from their world but – for these few hours – from our own daily concerns, indulging in the luxury of being able to listen, reflect, enjoy, respond.
In its themes, the festival faces out to the fractured world we all inhabit. There are sessions on feminism, a rightwards lurch in South Asia, the effect of politics on literature, the rich/poor divide. Looking out for my friend Ahmed Rashid, I see him taking care of a frail elderly woman. At eighty-nine Nancy Dupree is one of the oldest people here, but intellectually still vigorous, an archaeologist with a passionate involvement in Afghanistan’s history. She is on a panel on how to preserve national heritage in stressed societies. A young Afghan archaeologist on the panel says, ‘Don’t dig any more. Leave it in the ground. That’s the safest place.’
The cross-cultural range presents unexpected treasures. A Chinese Muslim calligrapher, Haji Noor Deen, plies his art in Arabic. The Iranian-Azarbaijani-French photographer, Reza Degati, shares what his observing eye has captured – as someone tweeted, he ‘finds spirit and humanity in conflict zones around the world.’ Razia Sultanova, an Uzbek ethnomusicologist, is bringing to light women’s traditional songs which they kept going through the Soviet era and which male musicians didn’t know existed. Her writer husband, Hamid Ismailov, talks quietly about the image of railways in his novels, cross-cutting the vast distances of the steppe, and linking stories of Central Asia’s complex range of peoples. His books appear in Russian, English and French but are banned in Uzbekistan. Someone asks why. He says, ’To an authoritarian government even something written with humanity can seem subversive.’ He and I were to have been on a panel called ‘Writing on Exile’ – but that has disappeared. Never mind, we talk about it anyway, and now we have met we will read each other’s books.
Several younger writers here have exile experience in their backgrounds. Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian-American author of Mornings in Jenin, had parents exiled by the war of 1967, and a childhood moving between the US, Kuwait and Jordan. The parents of Anita Anand, a British journalist and BBC presenter, were Hindus in what is now the North West Province of Pakistan, and had to leave at the time of Partition in 1947. Her mother was a baby when they arrived in a refugee camp outside Delhi. Zukiswa Wanner’s parents were South African/Zimbawean exiles; she was born in Lusaka, Zambia, the year I left it to come to Britain. In a panel on ‘Whose Narrative is it Anyway?’ there’s a question tossing between her and Mohammed Hanif about which was a comedian and which a satirist. ‘I couldn’t be comedic,’ Zukiswa says, ‘I was born under apartheid!’ Later I see her at the bookstall. She has no idea who I am – why would she? Nor had I heard of her until we both landed here, half-way across the world from where we started. I introduce myself – ‘I was also born under apartheid!’ She laughs and immediately sends the ball back – ‘Why aren’t you buying my book?’ So we agree to buy each other’s.
Conflict is written deep in the history of this city. Lahore lies close to the border with India, and during the Partition in 1947 – within living memory of the oldest people here – it was the setting for a tragic history of mass migration and communal killing. Many prefer not to dwell on it, but the festival opens up these painful chapters too.
Older people are interviewed, remembering those times. Others critically reexamine the hopes with which Pakistan was founded. One session is devoted to a leading Urdu writer who chronicled the effects of Partition, Intizar Hussain. He was to have taken part in the festival himself, but died just weeks before.
More significant, the festival celebrates the culture that Pakistan and India share. Several high-profile participants are Indians who have achieved eminence in different cultural spheres, and they all get an enthusiastic response. An estimated 1000 people come to listen to the art historian B N Goswamy – whose talk we missed in the museum – as he shares his insights from a lifetime of studying miniature painting. Now in his 80s, he was born in Sargoda, in Pakistan, 100 miles west of Lahore, and a boy at the time of Partition. His wife was born in Lahore itself and this is the first time she has been back. They were invited to the festival by FS Aijazuddin, a fellow art lover and life-long friend from this side of the border.
And poetry – Poetry is the most universally loved art form among Urdu speakers, and any powerful Urdu poet speaks equally to them all. There is such a crowd wanting to hear TV personality Zia Mohyeddin reciting from the great 19th century poet Ghalib that security guards have to handle potentially unruly young men, desperate because they can’t get in. The organisers look worried. Rejoice, I say – in how many countries do young men almost cause a riot because they can’t get to hear a poetry recital?
When I can take in no more stimulus, I retreat to the speakers’ quiet zone on a verandah overlooking the pool. Razi Ahmed, founder of the festival, moves among us, checking everything is fine, introducing people to each other. He is the perfect courteous host, and keeps thanking us for being here, which makes me laugh – the privilege is all ours. This is an easy place to start conversations. I watch people discovering each other, groups coalescing. We are sharing this experience, but each of us is making of it our own story. I introduce myself to the poet Zehra Nigah. Years ago my Urdu teacher and friend Ralph Russell took me to meet her when she was in London. Now in her seventies, she was one of the first women poets in Urdu to become well known. Radical, feminist, steeped in the classical traditions of Urdu poetry, she yet uses the forms to say things that are new. I remind her that she gave me a signed volume of her poems. My Urdu wasn’t then good enough to be able to read them; I will go back now and see if I can do any better. It’s eight years since Ralph died, and a pleasure for me to be with people who remember him. Another is Nuscie Jamil, a member of the festival’s advisory board – she studied with him when she went to SOAS as a mature student. ‘He was a lovely man,’ she says immediately, ‘always interested in everyone.’
Nuscie seems to be the original multi-tasker – feminist, activist, grandmother, runs her own successful business. She starts telling me about an outstanding school for children of the poorest communities, of which she is a trustee; and the moment she hears that I am an educationist she is on the phone to the head teacher, arranging for me to visit after the festival finishes.
Day two, Sunday morning — – and here I am on the platform in the larger of the two marquees, waiting to begin. I look out over the faces – maybe 700 people? In the UK if 20 people come to hear me talk about my books, that’s a modestly good turn out; I’d be delighted with 40. Here the faces crowd before me, there’s a buzz of animated talk, waiting for things to begin. What will I say, to reward the attention of so many people?
I’ve only once before spoken to a group as large as this. That was at a celebration for Nelson Mandela in London, where I was one of twenty-seven lucky people (representing his twenty-seven years in prison) invited to honour him in a three-minute piece. However different the circumstances, I feel once again the weight of this moment – being given the chance to share thoughts with all these people.
Few in this audience will have heard of me. The others on the panel are much better known: Adaf Soueif has come from Egypt – novelist, political commentator, activist. Kamila Shamsie is the one the audience are sure to know about, for she is one of their own – she grew up in Pakistan and now moves between here and the UK. Both Adaf and Kamila are published by Bloomsbury, and it’s Bloomsbury’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Pringle, who is to interview us. The three of them have worked together for years – it was to be an in-house event, now here I am, an outsider thrust in among them. Muneeza Shamsie, Kamila’s proud mum, comes to the front of the audience to get a photo – it makes us laugh, so that’s how the camera catches us. Good start.
Our session is called ‘The Passion for Love Literature’. It’s obvious why love is so central in fiction, because it is central in life. When it is my turn to speak I find myself saying that though there is a love story in each of my novels, what matters more to me is that they reflect love of all kinds – for parents, children, friends, people who inspire us. Uncertain Light is as much about loss – for when we give ourselves in love we make ourselves vulnerable. Long after we have lost someone close to us, the love still infiltrates our lives in complex ways … Looking out over the faces obscured by light, I am thinking of a woman I met yesterday – young still, but struggling to get past the loss of her husband. Or Saba, our companion walking around the Fort – she is back in Lahore after a whole year; it took that long because her brother was murdered here, for being from a Shia family. Are they perhaps here, knowing I am thinking of them?
Alexandra moves us on to talk about ‘transgressive’ love – a theme in all our novels, she suggests. It’s not a word I have thought to use but I see immediately that she’s right. There’s a built-in tension between the power of individual love and the constraints of society, and the central love story in Uncertain Light raises moral issues that it does not resolve. How to talk about this, here, with this audience? I find a way through the ghazal poetry that runs through the story. The love poetry everyone here has grown up with reflects a being-in-love that was almost always illicit, and frowned on by society. It is about feelings that won’t be neatly packaged, and there are few happy endings. Lovers can seldom have what they long for. I quote Ghalib –
hazaron khahishen aisi ki har khahish pe dam nikle
bahut nikle mere arman lekin phir bhi kam nikle
Pleasure ripples like warmth across the hundreds of people in the marquee. They could have completed the couplet themselves after the first two words. For the few who don’t know Urdu, I give Ralph’s translation –
Desires in thousands, each so strong it takes away my breath anew
Many longings have been fulfilled; many, but even so, too few.
Everything comes together – Urdu poetry, Uncertain Light, this audience. When the session is over, I go to the bookstall to sign copies. Within a short time it has sold out.
The festival is over, but there’s another day before my flight, make the most of it …
I know as I walk in the early morning through narrow streets of the old walled city, that I will remember this, each moment vivid. I am being expertly guided by Lucy Peck who has mapped it all – her session talking about all this was, sadly, one of those cancelled – how lucky for me to have this personal guided tour.
In the 17th C Wazir Khan mosque we admire the exquisitely painted walls, stepping carefully past an old man who sleeps on the floor. We visit an arts centre that trains people in traditional arts including kaghazi pottery: kaghaz is paper – this pottery is as thin as paper. I buy a bowl, which sits now on my desk, a small portable part of a vivid craft culture. That afternoon I visit the school that Nuscie Jamil insisted that I see. We drive far out to an industrial suburb; the children are from the poorest communities, and are getting an inspiring education. Two of the young teachers are themselves graduates of the school, and their faces shine as they talk about how they love working here.
Back now in London, difficult to make the transition from all that intensity … I see still pictures of those days in Lahore, of thousands of young people coming to listen, talk, & feel connected to ideas & issues. News from Pakistan is troubled – the big issues of politics and security continue to flare, exposing the polarisation of attitudes. A week after the festival an announcement is made that Salmaan Taseer’s murderer has been hanged. The road from his prison to the capital is thronged with protesters, and he is hailed as a martyr. One week later, Shahbaz Taseer – Salmaan’s kidnapped son – is discovered, and freed. He has been gone five years with no news, now suddenly he is back. Political analysts are busy trying to make sense of it all. I am thinking of that family, trying to recover.
I took a half-empty suitcase to Lahore and have brought it back filled with books by people I have met. Now I will spend the months ahead getting to know them. I find on my shelves the collection of poems that Zehra Nigah gave me over thirty years ago. Opening it springs open a small door of memory – I told her it would be slow work for me reading them, and asked her to recommend one to start with. She suggested Samjhota – ‘Compromise’. It’s about a chaadar – a traditional woman’s blanket-like shawl that can cover her from head to toe:
Warm and soft, this blanket
Of compromise has taken me years to weave
Not a single flower of truth embellishes it
Not a single false stitch betrays it
It will do to cover my body though
And it will bring comfort too,
If not joy, nor sadness to you
The most beautiful book I have brought back is by B N Goswamy, The Spirit of Indian Painting: Close Encounters with 101 Great Works. As I slowly turn the pages I remember the atmosphere of total absorption in the vast audience that listened to him talk. There are few written sources on which he has been able to draw to uncover the background to the paintings; he has done it by close attention to detail, and a kind of studied intuition – that appeals to me. But the diligence is awe-inspiring. In an interview with an Indian newspaper he says he must have scrutinised about 150,000 miniature paintings in his lifetime, and can clearly recall more than a thousand. ‘You need to absorb a painting,’ he said in his talk, ‘the way you absorb a poem,’ and he began quoting poetry. The sounds circled around me. I couldn’t follow the sense; but everyone else seemed to.
After we had both been at Faizghar, Goswamy told me of his youthful passion for Faiz’s poems. Once as a young man he saw on a bookstall a magazine which had printed a new poem by Faiz. He had no money to buy the magazine so he pretended to be browsing until he had memorised the poem, then he put it back. He told me that he knows by heart at least ten of Faiz’s poems. I asked if he would send me a list of them, and within days after getting back he has done so. Three I already know; the others I will get to know. Like the greatest poetry, they are both a reflection on Faiz’s own times, his own spirit, and yet universal. I see in some of them strands of the lives in Uncertain Light:
mujh se pahli si muhabbat, meri mahbub, na mang …
Love, do not ask me for that love again.
Once I thought life, because you lived, a prize –
And time’s pain nothing, you alone were pain;
Your beauty kept earth’s springtimes from decay,
My universe held only your bright eyes –
If I won you, fate would be at my feet.
It was not true, all this, but only wishing:
Our world knows other torments than of love
And other happiness than a fond embrace.
Dark curse of countless ages, savagery.
Thank you to Razi Ahmed, Ahmed Rashid, Salima Hashmi, Nuscie Jamil, moving spirits behind the festival, and members of the team that made it happen against the odds: Rimmel Mohydin, Shamain Haque, Aadil Malik, Rishm Najm. Also to Alexandra Pringle, Adaf Soueif and Kamila Shamsie for our shared session; Raheela Akram of Sanjan Nagar School, Sarah Qureshi of Faizghar; Saba Qizilbash and Lucy Peck for the guided tours; Salman Haidar for a gift of a facsimile of Ghalib’s early ghazals; all the participants for stimulus and company; and B N Goswamy for inspiration. The translation from Zehra Nigah is by Rakhshanda Jalil; the one from Faiz is by Victor Kiernan. Photo credits: Faiz, universalpoetries.wordpress.com; BN Goswamy, lalitkalachandigarh.com; groups at festival, Muneeza Shamsie, Rishm Najm.