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LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: Fiction’s place in Pakistan today

March 02, 2014


Omar Shahid Hamid, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz and H.M. Naqvi -- Hamza Cheema
Omar Shahid Hamid, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz and H.M. Naqvi -- Hamza Cheema

One of the first sessions at the Lahore Literary Festival was labelled ‘Delirium in Karachi.’ Three debut novelists from Karachi, whose books focus on different aspects of the city, occupied the hall three stage at Alhamra. H.M. Naqvi, the author of the prizewinning novel Home Boy, moderated the panel, which constituted Bilal Tanweer, Omar Shahid Hamid and Saba Imtiaz.

The sense of Karachi that one gathers from each book is different. Tanweer’s book is a series of narratives centered on the aftermath of an explosion; Hamid’s novel is a crime thriller that focuses on the police; Saba Imtiaz has written about a single female journalist in the big city. All three agreed that Karachi is open to interpretation, and that the multiplicity of viewpoints is simultaneous and inherent in any large cityscape. Tanweer argued that he is able to write fiction better when he grounds it in a place. By fully immersing himself in the Karachi his characters access, he is able to engage more fully with it. Tanweer’s protagonist in The Scatter Here is Too Great is a writer who is gathering narratives of Karachi residents after a bomb blast. While Tanweer was able to write an entire novel about these disparate tales, he acknowledged that any attempt to capture the whole of the city is a futile one, even though it is a worthy cause. The worth is in the multiplicity of perspectives that gathering many narratives allows.

Audience members and the panel considered the fictional treatments of other cities, including Lahore and Mumbai. Both Lahore and Mumbai, with their considerable histories, were observed to have a more iconic status than Karachi. The lack of fiction based in Karachi contributes to that, the panel observed, as does the Bollywood phenomenon by which Mumbai has been able to imagine the spaces within itself.

Imtiaz said that the thought of Karachi evoked for her the images of beheadings, crime — an infested place. Naqvi interjected by saying that his vision of Karachi was the sea — not a violent sea — and Jinnah’s mausoleum. He also proposed that a cinematic vision of Karachi would come forth in time, and that Karachi’s relatively shorter history had a role to play in the lack of it evoking any specific imagery.

There was, as expected, an aged member of the audience who waxed poetic about the heyday of Karachi, when it wasn’t in the news for violence or disturbances, and when the city stood as a symbol of the nation’s progress. Her comment was appreciated by the panellists, even as it provided little relief from considerations of Karachi as a politically disturbed city.

Hamid shared that he was excited about the changes that have taken place in Karachi’s politics and civic life over the past 20 years. He said that the changes had intrigued him, and having served as a policeman for over a decade has given him direct experience of the massive changes in the city’s infrastructure. Hamid agreed with a member of the audience that Karachi, with its multiple affiliated groups, and its complex web of political parties, serves as a metaphor — aptly or not — for the state of Pakistan. He argued that the stakes in Karachi are higher than in any other place, because all groups are represented here, and the tussle for power is still in flux.

In a session ‘Beyond the Global Novel,’ which was excellently moderated by BBC correspondent Razia Iqbal, the sense of place and placements of novels was the first thing to be addressed. “Global” in the title was questioned by the panellists, especially in terms of novels. Mohsin Hamid argued that the novel has always been a global phenomenon, and that it has not been restricted by spatial limitations. He did not go on to elaborate his point, though he could have easily done so by illustrating the cross-Atlantic readings of Dickens and Mark Twain, among other authors.

K. Anis Ahmed, debut novelist of The World in My Hands, brought up the issue of access, which may prevent novels from becoming global, and also pointed out that some novels do not transcend boundaries, and are read within their space and time of publication. Hugh Eakin from the New York Review of Books mentioned further complexities that prevent novels from becoming available globally: translation costs, distribution models, market-based supply chains.

Another panel that spoke on related themes was titled ‘The Place of Fiction in a Non-Fiction World.’ This could easily have devolved into a “literature does count for something” debate, but was rescued from such trivial dabbling by excellent contributions from writer Ahmed Rashid and non-fiction publisher Michael Dwyer. All panellists, including novelists H.M. Naqvi and Amit Chaudhuri, agreed on the ability of fiction to enhance an understanding of reality, but Rashid also argued the importance of reportage, first-person accounts, and anthropology texts to enable an understanding. He put forth the idea that even novels are a version of non-fiction, and the debate entered the murky but fruitful territory of semantics for a considerable time. Naqvi countered with the idea that even non-fiction, which is usually written from the third-person perspective, when viewed from a first-person point of view, loses the veneer of objectivity and becomes just another version of reality.

Rashid was especially pleased to note that all recent Pakistani authors had a deep understanding of the politics of the region. Dwyer mentioned how literature produced by political people was of importance in understanding them. He mentioned that his publishing house had published the first autobiography of a Taliban member. They also published a collection of poetry by Taliban members. Dwyer mentioned that some US army personnel who were disgruntled with their nation’s foreign policies had written notes of thanks to him for these publications, which they claimed had enhanced an understanding of the world more than any news or non-fiction item had enabled.

These panels on the place of fiction, and the fiction that is rooted in place, enabled conversation that improved an understanding of Pakistan’s unique position in time and space, and showed clearly the massive amount of opportunity available for novelists and non-fiction writers to write about this region.

— Sheheryar B. Sheikh