LAHORE, Feb 24: The last day of the Lahore Literature Festival was star-studded since some eminent writers made an appearance, including Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohammad Hanif, William Dalrymple and Tehmina Durrani. Unfortunately, however, some sessions coincided and even before people could enter the hall for Dalrymple’s session, the hall was chock-full.
Mohammad Hanif, one of the most popular authors at the LLF, spoke in the morning about his new book ‘The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are’, (and in Urdu, cleverly titled, Ghaibistaan May Baloch) in a session moderated by known journalist and rights activist I.A Rehman.
Hanif, who is based in Karachi- and has spent most of his life more as a journalist than an author – said he felt the burden of guilt when he kept seeing a Baloch family outside the Karachi Press Club in a sit-in seeking return of their missing family members.
“I saw the man sitting outside the KPC for his missing brother, and I also saw that the press was paying no attention to him; I too felt guilty about this,” he said. “My friend Sharjeel Baloch knew him, and in fact he told me that five classmates of his had gone missing too…,” Hanif added.
He says the situation of the missing people in Balochistan was heartrending, with no media space being given to them. As a result, he made a compilation of some of the cases he undertook as a journalist and wrote about them.
When HRCP approached him and an idea was floated about turning it into a book, Hanif accepted it.
The stories published in this collection are mostly based on the interviews Hanif conducted with families of the missing during the HRCP fact-finding mission. He narrates their tragedy with empathy giving details which give a heartbreaking account of what took place.
Hanif describes one 22-year-old who has been missing for a year. He is the son of an ‘honorary journalist’, Khalid Mengal, but since he has no supposedly eminent rank, says Hanif, his name is never mentioned in the media.
Linda Bird Francke, the writer of ‘Daughter of the East’ held an extremely interesting session with Victoria Schoffield. She spoke about herexperience of collecting information from Benazir Bhutto, at a time when she did not even dream she would be the prime minister, because it was all under the Zia regime. Her first impressions were unforgettable.
“I saw her in a rally and there were rose petals showered on her, and she rode on a garish colourful bus, and I said to myself, who is this beautiful woman? She is gorgeous enough to be a model but instead she chose to be in the political world!”
That was in 1978, and a few years later she was surprised and thrilled to receive a call from BB’s agent asking her to write the book. But when she flew to Pakistan, she found BB was taken as a troublemaker. “Even the US Embassy refused to see me, especially since it was Reagan’s government who supported Zia,” she said.
She described Benazir as a very disciplined person, who never denied Francke the one hour designated everyday from her schedule.
“Occasionally she used to be doing her exercises and talking to me,” laughs Francke, remembering old times. “And she used to be gasping for breath while marching up the garden, but still talking.”
She also remembers BB to be very emotional and angry in those days because of how General Zia had destroyed her family, especially by hanging her father. She was exceptionally close to all of them. “Out of all the other women I have interviewed I found Benazir to be the most forthright and honest about herself,” says Francke.
She also says that BB brought out the book in time to win popularity with the public. She was always conscious of the power the Western media wielded, and wanted to occasionally interact with them, especially because there was always a sense of familiarity with that society for her.
However, because of the ever-changing political situation and even BB’s life (she suddenly announced her arranged marriage to Asif Ali Zardari), Francke had to ‘complete’ the book four times.
While working on the book, she never felt endangered, though, except once in 1987, when she was flying out carrying BB’s jail papers (descriptions) with her, when BB herself called up and said, “Oh my God, they found out your name and now you are on the red list!” She was then transported to the airport in a highly secretive manner which may have been thrilling had it not been scary, says Francke.
“I always felt attached to her (BB) while writing her book,” she says. “We remained friends till the end.”
Writing poetry a declining trend
At the session held on English poetry, Samina Rahman, Khalid Ahmed, Navaid Shahzad, Athar Tahir, Henna Babar Ali were the panelists and it was moderated by Ahmad Rashid.
The poets paid tributes to Taufiq Rafat, Maki Qureshy (the only woman poet), Kaleem Omar (who was also a friend of Rafat’s), all of whom wrote in English. They read a couple of their own poems, some of them having been published in book form while others printed years ago in magazines.
The discussion led to the opinion that the trend in poetry was declining in many ways: across the globe it was less read and written in today’s world, while in Pakistan the situation was equally bad. Mainly because of the publishing problems, poets had to either find alternative ways to let people read their works, especially aspiring poets, while others tended never to show their work.
Navaid Shahzad said the teachers used to be rich in literary knowledge and often were the biggest and most direct source of inspiration to their students, and today the focus is more on teaching language than literature.
Samina Rehman insisted if children were encouraged and exposed to reading poems they would develop a love for the form.
In conversation with Nasreen Rehman, Bapsi Sidhwa spoke about herself, her childhood and her writings. She said that she had polio when she was a child, and because of that, was never sent to school.
Her home education led her governess to give her first fiction book, Little Women. “It was so inspiring to me that I, who came from a very un-literary family, (my parents had never read a book of fiction between themselves), was dragged into the abyss of reading.” She said through that book she took up reading like an addict, especially being a lonely and friendless child who stayed at home. “I became an abnormal reader, because books transformed my entire life since then on. I read Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, Anna Karenina several times, and many other books…” said Bapsi. “I had to read things accessible to me, because if I read Shakespeare, no one would have explained it to me.”
Bapsi said because of the voracious reading, she ended becoming a natural storyteller, and knew how to make the plot, characters, structure the story, all subconsciously. Later on her honeymoon trip to the mountains, which was a mystical experience for her, she met a young girl from the plains who was married to a Kohistani man and then later heard she had tried to run away. Her body was found beheaded in the river Indus. This shocking news and experience on her own honeymoon became the basis of her novel The Bride.
The Crow Eaters followed but publishing was an issue because no one wanted to print English novels. Bapsi says that as she revealed the real characters of the Parsi community in the novel, they almost ostracised her and did not like it. “They felt it like I had betrayed them,” said Bapsi laughing it off.
Young people especially, fans of her tremendous work, were keen to hear her points of view on various topics.