Nasir Abbas Nayyar delivered the keynote address at the 11th International Urdu Conference and impressed many with his perceptive thoughts. There were several others, including Akhlaque Ahmed, Mobin Mirza and Asif Farrukhi, who made their presence felt in various sessions that were held at the Arts Council in Karachi last week, but the limelight was captured by two of the old horses: Iftikhar Arif and Mustansar Hussain Tarar. Undeniably.

Tarar continued to be what he has been over the last more than half-a-century: popular among the crowds and articulate and engaging with the audience. The focus of discussion was his latest novel, Mantaq-ul-Tair Jadeed, influenced — as the name suggests — by the original and time-honoured 12th century work by Fariddudin Attar. But Tarar obviously is no one-novel wonder, and spoke at length about the broad canvas of fiction with his characteristic intellect that is laced with wit.

The common factor between Tarar and Arif, apparently, is the exposure in their formative years to the world of radio and television. It has made them realise the difference between the written and the spoken word. It may sound a bit like an oversimplification of their art of conversation with a live audience, but this difference is lost so completely and consistently on others that one wonders what other explanation there might be.

While the 11th International Urdu Conference itself was a success, most speakers, as always, did spoil the fun by reading out written texts

The manner in which Arif spoke about, say, Saqi Farooqi during the conference was a treat that was worth more than just about everything else. In less than 10 minutes, he brought to life an audience of hundreds that was on the verge of receding into a mental, if not physical, slumber. Frankly, Arif’s path was paved in a manner of speaking by Dr Nomanul Haq, who preceded the former and talked about the translator par excellence Umar Memon. What separated Arif and Haq from the rest, who actually did well in their own right, was simple: the two talked, the rest read. The differing approaches elicited different responses from the audience and it does not take rocket science to know who fell flat on their face. As for Arif, he didn’t read, didn’t speak, didn’t even talk. He performed. And, indeed, he ran away with the show the way only he could.

One felt bad for Fahimda Riaz, the poet who passed away on the eve of the conference and was not there on the presidium where she was scheduled to be. Her name did crop up in many a session, but it was thoughtful of the organisers to make a last-minute change to highlight her contribution to literature. Unfortunately, Fatima Hassan, who volunteered to take the challenge, decided to read a sketch that was written and published a little while earlier. It was ideally suited for the written word since it included history and conflicts of the time it was penned, but for a live audience, it was more — at least, as much — about feminism as it was about Fahmida. If only she could have talked about the time they spent together, Hassan would have done far better than she actually ended up doing.

Another problem, a consistent failure of the speakers over the years of the conference, is that the early birds consume so much time with their readings that there is hardly any time left for the conversationalists. The seniors, as is the staple, are lined up towards the end of any session and there is no other way about it, but the organisers can clearly reduce the number of ‘readers’ in a session. This alone can instil a lot of life into the sessions.

As for Arif, he didn’t read, didn’t speak, didn’t even talk. He performed. And, indeed, he ran away with the show the way only he could.

Two other sessions can be cited in this regard, though they had hardly anything to do with literature and almost nothing to do with Urdu. One was about television and theatre, the other about news media.

The first one had leading names talking about where and at what pace Pakistani drama was going and, indeed, if it were going anywhere. Towards the end of the discussion, it also touched upon the possibility that drama may not survive the onslaught of short-duration clips on social media websites and the resultant shrinking of the attention span of the audience.

The session was lively because no one ‘read’ anything. But it was made livelier by actor Sajid Hasan who kept tickling the funny bone every now and then, especially with his verbal sabre-rattling with the mighty Talat Hussain, who finally had to snub him into silence. There was a sarcastic mention of television channel owners’ tendency to create conflicts to attract audiences and improve ratings. It seemed that Hasan and Hussain were giving a live demonstration of just that, but they appeared extempore and the audience loved it.

The session on news media also had known names and faces who have mastered the art of live articulation with just an outline in the name of a script. No one ‘read’ anything and even the audience got involved in the discussion, so much so that a group of people started yelling to be heard from their back-row seats.

There was no ‘conflict’ in the session till there was one between newsmen Azhar Abbas and Mazhar Abbas when the latter remarked — and with due perspective — that even in the dark eras of media censorship, people used to know which news had been gobbled up by the censors. Today, there is so much news, but people don’t know anything. What he wanted to point out was the difference between information and knowledge, and that was a fair point with a lot of evidence out there in society. His sibling took the divergent position, arguing that today’s audience was “far more informed” and that “everyone today is a journalist.” The audience really liked it, but there was no answer when the elements of journalistic verification and editorial discretion were raised.

The real conflict in the session, as was the case with the first one, was its disconnect with the broader Urdu Conference umbrella. It was another journalist, the respected Raza Ali Abidi, who stood up from among the audience and provided the context with one single remark. “I want media persons to be taught decent Urdu.” The session immediately ended with a roar of laughter that said more than any words could.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 2nd, 2018