Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pakistan Diary - The First Karachi Literature Festival

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
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Portrait

A trip to the fatherland.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Reeling under unending terror attacks, Pakistan hosted its first major literary event on March 21, 2010. The budget of Karachi Literature Festival was less than the film-signing amount charged by Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor, whose face is seen in billboards all over Karachi. “We are doing it in Rs 50 lakhs (Pakistani rupees),” says Ameena Saiyid (see picture), managing director of Pakistan’s Oxford University Press, which is organizing the event in collaboration with the British Council.

Ms Sayid hit upon the idea of hosting such a carnival after attending the fourth Jaipur Literature Festival in 2009. “I had never before seen such a big gathering of writers at one place,” she says. “When I returned to Karachi and discussed the possibility of having a similar kind of event, not one person was discouraging.”

The two-day festival saw 50 authors from Pakistan, India, the US and the UK. They included Bapsi Sidhwa, Muhammed Hanif, Kishwar Naheed, Mohsin Hamid, Sadia Shepard, Fauzia Syed and Fahmida Riaz. India’s presence was marked by only two Urdu writers, though many were invited. “William Dalrymple (the co-organiser of the Jaipur festival) is not coming because the date is clashing with his birthday,” says Sayid.

From south Karachi’s Carlton Hotel, the mostly Pakistani origin novelists, poets, playwrights and newspaper columnists hoped to divert the world attention to the other Pakistan. “Our nation has come to be identified with Taliban and terrorism,” says Ms Saiyid. “But there is more to the country.” Karachi-based columnist Irfan Husain who will be moderating a session says, “This festival will help in dispelling the notion that Pakistan is just full of the military and mullahs. The world will realize that the country has readers, writers and other people living normal lives and that the current terrorism, hopefully, is a passing aberration.”

In a country where a book is a bestseller if it sells 5,000 copies, the reading culture is hardly vibrant. ‘Bestselling’ novelist Mohsin Hamid will not be mobbed if he goes for a coffee in Karachi’s fashionable Zamzama Boulevard. “For millions of people even a cheap book costs double their daily wage. Millions more can't even read because we never bothered to educate them. So reading is mostly a pastime for a middle class minority who some how acquired the habit at an early age,” says Mohammed Hanif, the author of the international bestseller A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

“The reading scene was more depressing till some time ago,” says Junaid Zuberi, a financial analyst in Karachi’s posh Clifton neighbourhood, who describes himself as a lover of arts and literature. “There weren’t many readers. Bookshops were closing down. Libraries could be counted on fingertips. The arrival of the Internet further dampened the book-reading culture.” However, publishers are now taking more initiatives to organize literary gatherings through book launch parties. Karachi has also seen the opening of a few literary cafes that hold at least one book-related event every week.

"Pakisan had a thriving popular fiction scene in the seventies but that is being replaced by political rants and pseudo-religious texts,” says novelist Hanif. “Islamic publishing is going through a boom period. You can find books on Islamic medicine, Islamic banking, Islamic parenting... But I have seen some young people who are very very keen readers and I keep hoping there'll be more of them.”

The domestic readers may be indifferent to the Pakistani authors writing in English, but they are becoming a rage in the global literary circuit. Short story writer Daniyal Mueenuddin is regularly published in the prestigious New Yorker magazine. Journalist Ahmed Rashid is a fixture in The New Yorker Review of Books. Young novelists such as Ali Sethi have become the darlings of the Western press that is hungry to know more about the inner life of a country frequently described as “the world’s most dangerous place.” In the Jaipur Literature Festival held in 2010, Sethi was flooded with interview requests from American journalists. In fact, he won’t be able to make it to Karachi due to his book promotional tour in the US.

Perhaps it is the renewed interest in the country that Pakistan’s Diaspora writers have started returning to the country. Daniyal Mueenuddin whose stories subtly unravel the life of the feudal society graduated in the US but now he runs a farm in rural Punjab. In 2008, Muhammed Hanif returned to Karachi after 12 years in London. “Our writers are coming home to find stories and collect materials so they can present themselves to the West as insiders,” Saiyid says. “The credibility is not the same if they write from abroad.”

Since the festival was planned on a short notice and lacks any government or corporate sponsorship, it didn’t even have a PR firm to do its publicity. In a bookstore in Karachi’s glitzy Dolmen Mall, browsers were unaware of it. “Not one of us knows about it,” says Yumna Zia, a business student of the city’s Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology who had come to buy books with college friends. “But the idea is good.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pakistan Diary - My First Evening in Karachi

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times
GO STRAIGHT TO MORE STORIES

Pakistan Diary – The First Evening in Karachi

A trip to the fatherland.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

I’m standing outside McDonald’s at Park Towers shopping mall. The sea wind is breezy. The evening traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. Suddenly, a bearded man comes running from Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Park, just across the road. A blinding flash of light. A huge bang. Bum phatt gaya. All is black. Am I dead?

This is my first evening in Karachi. The Pakistan International Airlines A-320 airbus landed at Jinnah Terminal at 5 pm. Two hours later, at the most, I should have been killed in a bomb blast. The evening before I flew to Karachi, a friend in Jorbagh had hugged me tight. She asked for my parents’ contact details so that she could attend the funeral once my dead body is flown back to Delhi. The week before when I finalized my trip to Karachi, my parents were puzzled by my sudden 'suicidal mood'. Other acquaintances shrugged their shoulders in resignation and said, “Be careful.”

Pakistan is described in the international media as the world’s most dangerous country. Karachi, its financial capital, is considered a focal point of various conflicts: ethnic, religious and political. Worshipers are killed in the mosques. Bombs go off in 5-star hotels. Commuters are robbed at gunpoint in traffic lights.

As I was going out to soak in the city lights, my host told me: “Don’t be adventurous. Pakistan is under siege.”

An hour later, over fish fillet with tarragon sauce, a friend said, “Oh no, it’s not like that. Yes, we must be careful. But life goes on.”

We were dining at an art-house café called Koyal, in Defense Housing Authority, an upscale neighborhood in south Karachi. On one table, young women were smoking cigarettes with their male friends. On another, a society diva was lording over her wide-eyed admirers. The restaurant manager, a woman in black trousers and white jacket, was cheerily bossing around her team of very professionally-trained stewards.

This could have been any hip place in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore. But this was Karachi in Pakistan. I wanted to get up from my table, shake the shoulders of these stylish diners and ask them, “Aren’t you afraid that bombs can go off here? Why are you risking your lives? Why not eat at home?”

Later the friend drove me through Zamzama Road, the glittery district famous for its showrooms and cafés. Whooshing past the walled mansions of Old Clifton, he showed me the ‘massage boys’, or ‘men prostitutes’, sitting discreetly on the roadside. A little later he pointed out 70, Clifton, which was the residence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s most charismatic politician. The friend then took me to the sufi shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the same locality. He later talked of taking me to farm-house bashes and beach parties later in the week. He talked of Clifton Bridge and Kala Pul, the landmarks that divide the snobbish part of the city (Clifton and Defense) from the rest.

The day ended uneventfully. I was still not dead. Karachi seemed like just any boring international metropolis. But is it really like any other city? I will soon find out.

A mastkalandar

Pakistan Diary – The First Evening in Karachi

The café crowd

IMG_0407

Abdullah Shah Ghazi's sufi shrine, Clifton

Pakistan Diary – The First Evening in Karachi

Happy in Pak

Pakistan Diary – The First Evening in Karachi