Come January, the city’s literary festivals provide us the opportunity to meet some scintillating minds from Pakistan
By Ruchhita Kazaria
Come January and my heart begins to sing. That is when Kolkata puts on its thinking cap and throws open its doors to the intelligentsia. It’s time for the literary festivals that have become an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape.
The Kolkata Literary Festival (Kalam) and the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) also provide the opportunity to meet scintillating minds from Pakistan – not just panellists but also at least some Pakistanis who manage to get visas to attend these events.
Pakistani delegates at Kalam 2014 included personalities like Farida Khanum, Salima Hashmi, and Ali Sethi. The famed historian Ayesha Jalal is expected this year.
Last week’s AKLF 2015 brought us the well-known journalist and novelist Mohammed Hanif and Razi Ahmed, director of the Lahore Literary Festival.
On January 17, 2015, day four of AKLF 2015, I sat amidst a jostling crowd for an afternoon session titled, ‘A Case of Exploding Ideas: A Literary Conversation’, featuring Mohammed Hanif in conversation with Indian writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi.
Hanif, a man of few words and a boyish grin, confessed he often feels “homeless” and “homesick”. Transporting the audience to Pakistan, he recounted his childhood: “Ours was a Punjabi rural household. In our village you had small landlords or farmers. It was a rather oppressive life with no privacy.”
One day, he saw “this newspaper advertisement of a pilot; a rather glamorous looking man. That day, I decided that I would become that man.”
His other dream that became a reality was to develop into a writer. “Young men have vague notions …like writing books. Books, with really cool covers. I wanted to write a book but drifted into journalism.”
My friend Saira Shah Halim asked him about his views on visa restrictions between India and Pakistan and if he sees peace between the countries.
“Well, not in my lifetime!” came his prompt response. “I don’t see anything changing between our countries. But yes, if we have a lot of retired generals hugging each other from across the border …we could still have hope for reconciliation.”
He couldn’t have known that Saira’s father is Lt. Gen. Zameer-ud-din Shah, India. As the audience applauded, he added, “Visa is a routine process but has become a thriller in these two countries. Till the last minute you don’t know if you will get your visa for India. It is very idiotic.”
Ruchir Joshi articulated an interesting take on the issue: “We are battling with the environment with no green projects. I believe that day is not too far when some environmental issue will force us to get together. Some flood, something …will wipe away the boundaries.” I felt quite choked up at the implication of his words. The discussion moved on to stage and music. Besides being a writer and journalist, Hanif is also a lyricist, poet and playwright known for his sardonic wit. When the audience insisted that he recite a poem, he refused. And then obliged by reciting the nonsensical:
“Kya hoga, kya hoga Ab pata nahin … kya hoga” (What will happen, what will happen
We don’t know what will happen) Turning to Ruchir, he winked and added, “I can be the next not-so-expensive lyricist for your next movie”.
Hanif has a way with words. He can amuse you with his wit. His eyes brood one moment and chuckle the next. “Nobody pays when you write a novel in Urdu. So I write in English,” he said. “Though I do write articles in Urdu.”
On the situation in Pakistan, he said, “The people who attack other people don’t read novels. I was wondering why any Pakistani author hasn’t gone to jail in the last 20 years. But well, 23 Pakistani journalists did get killed last year. It’s amazing to stay alive and still be relevant isn’t it?”
What an intense thought. Clutching copies of both his novels, I walked up to him and introduced myself as an Aman Ki Asha member. He responded, grinning, “A thinker, a peace thinker. Not a member.”
Book signing for him is opportunity for a chat. As we posed for a photograph, he asked, “Do you like the picture or must we take another one?”
Later, my friends and I sat neatly in the front row seats at the iconic Victoria Memorial, for a session moderated by Razi Ahmed, Director of the Lahore Literary Festival. Titled “Border
Crossings: Across the Language Divide” it featured Mohammed Hanif, Florence Noiville from France, and K. Anis Ahmed from Bangladesh.
Saira and I realised that Razi Ahmed looked familiar because we had seen him at last year’s Kolkata Literary Meet (Kalam) with Farida Khanum at the same venue.
Speaking of languages, Hanif recounted, “In Punjab (Pakistan), we have a really weird education system. Families speak in Punjabi at home and so, by the time you are five years old, you have a language, a vocabulary. Then you go to school where the medium of instruction is Urdu. So the vocabulary you have becomes redundant and a new language takes over. Then in college, Urdu is no good. So you begin learning English. It’s basically juggling between languages… I’ve been through that process!”
“If you can’t make a living out of a language, it doesn’t make sense. If a language cannot fetch you a job, is delinked from the economy, is no longer used even in schools …it obviously doesn’t make sense,” he added, making a dire prediction. “Thirty years from now, only a few freaks in Lahore will speak Punjabi. This is the tragic reality!”
During the discussion session I asked about the future of ghazals in India, given that Urdu, though it is a Hindustani language has been conveniently dubbed as a ‘Muslim’ language and is dying a fast death in India.
“Urdu is just 300 years old and ever since it came into existence, people have been saying that it’s dying,” responded Hanif. “In Pakistan, people still listen to Jagjit Singh all the time. The more discerning ones listen to Pankaj Udhas.”
“Well, in the absence of Urdu. I think the Indians will borrow Ghazal couplets from Pakistan and sing,” I ventured. Mohammed Hanif: “Aha! So that’s nice! Borrowing is nice … when you are borrowing good things!”
Mention of Aman ki Asha came up, drawing warm applause from those present.
Saira Shah Halim asked about Hanif’s point that a language should pay. “What happens to people who want to write in vernacular? Do they have a market?”
“People are born with the need to write. It’s like a personality disorder,” responded Hanif.
“The question is how do we create readers… not writers.” Quoting George Bernard Shaw, he added, “A language is an army with a dictionary”. “Languages survive with state patronage, people’s affinity or economic reasons. I think we should ask the armies on either side to start educating children and spreading the love for vernacular.”
“I speak in the Marwari dialect at home with my grandmother,” said our friend Abhishek Chamaria. “But when I see my two-year old daughter, I know for sure she is not going to adapt to it … maybe because she won’t have friends who will know the dialect by the time she’s five years old. How do we ensure that our vernaculars live on?”
The Bangladeshi publisher, author and translator K. Anis Ahmed took up this one. “The key is to have softer resources to sustain languages. What we need is a cultural consumption. We talk about outside borders; they exist more within each country … on one side rest words and on the other side, rests silence. The silence needs to be penetrated. We will need to consciously keep in touch, almost romance our vernaculars till the forthcoming generations too, fall in love with them.”
After the scintillating session, we made our way to Razi Ahmed and reminded him of our meeting last year. What a delight to speak to this intelligent, informed, inquisitive and invigorating young man. As we exchanged contact details and took a photograph together, he invited us to visit the Lahore Literary Festival. We are thrilled at the possibility. But will we get visas?
In the end, I believe peace with Pakistan is possible through poetry and prose. And visas.
The writer is a former journalist with the Times of India and Asian Age, Kolkata.