I arrived at Chennai airport from Dubai early on a mid-January morning to be greeted at immigration by a smiling officer.
“Purpose of visit?”
“I’m attending the Lit for Life festival.”
I fumbled in my shoulder bag for the address. “Can anyone attend? I’d love to. I haven’t read your work, sir, but I’m sure you’re very good, and we Bengalis are mad about books!”
After three hours of sleep, I was at the school where the festival was taking place. I was greeted like an old friend by veteran journalist Ziyaus Salam, who was to moderate my event that morning, and Abdullah Khan, the Bihar-born novelist with whom I was to share a panel the next day. I hadn’t met either before. I saw old friends, too: Mukund Padmanabhan, editor of The Hindu and a friend for many years, who had been inviting me to Chennai and moved mountains to bring me over, and Githa Hariharan, with whom I’d spent many wonderful hours of conversation at our homes in London and Delhi, and in Kent, Berlin and other places. Githa and I walked in the mild sunshine, smoked and talked about her new novel I Am the Tide, a diachronic narrative of mystic poetry in medieval India and caste prejudice today. I read the book (in proof) when I got back to London; it’s her very best to date.
At my event at 11am, Ziya began the conversation by asking me whether I felt a sense of homecoming here: after all, I had studied for 18 months in Tamil Nadu. Befuddled after two sleepless nights and two long flights, I mumbled that I’d only ever been in Chennai for a day, aged 13, on my way to Ooty where I going to study. But over the next two days, as I traversed the gracious, spacious city, images and sense impressions from my teens of its green gardens and seascapes and its layers of architectural history resurfaced, most of all on my third and last day when Mukund drove me through the old part of town with its Anglo-Saracenic architecture — official buildings and a university. The ravaged haveli of the nawabs of Arcot reminded us of how the long British rule changed the topography of our cities.
As I feasted every night on local delicacies, I also remembered how my tastes in food were reshaped in this region; I am still mostly vegetarian by choice and can’t survive more than a few weeks without dosa, idli and appam, and coconut chutneys — even in Karachi, I need to find these dishes whenever I can. My tastes in music, too, evolved in Tamil Nadu. A few weeks after I reached Ooty, watching a very young Hema Malini dance at a local theatre, I picked up the refrain of ‘Krishna Ni Begane Baro’ [Krishna, Come to Me] a haunting padam [song that accompanies a Bharat Natyam performance]; it was in Kannada, not even in Tamil, a language of which I never learned more than a few phrases, but I made two of my talented teachers teach me the melody during the sunny breaks between classes. To this day I can still sing it — probably the only Pakistani Sindhi who can.
Audiences and panellists were deeply aware of the current rewriting of history and the erasures of Muslim contribution to India’s past.
At school we used to begin the day by listening to devotional music; M.S. Subbulakshmi, whose concerts I attended at least twice in London many years later, remains an abiding love, as does all Carnatic music, along with the Sindhi wais and Seraiki kafis of my childhood. In Ooty, too, the reading habit I had acquired in Karachi was nurtured by the mildewed colonial books — fiction, biography, history — I found on the abandoned first floor of the library (another relic of the Raj) which was my sunset refuge from long days at school.
But I am jumping back and forth in time. At my session at the festival I was refreshed to be asked about travels, genres, my new book which hasn’t reached India yet, languages of choice and contingency, world literature, a possible autobiography, and — from the floor — the conflicting demands of the short story and the novel. There was also the familiar question: where was home? London? Karachi? But I wasn’t asked about being a diasporic subject (I’m not), or PakLit in English — those topics that bore and bedevil me in Pakistani university discussions.
Sessions I attended were often dominated by the question of India’s history. I heard Ira Mukhoty speak about the legacy of Mughal women and Audrey Truschke about Aurangzeb. Audiences and panellists were deeply aware of the current rewriting of history and the erasures of Muslim contribution to India’s past. In these moments I most acutely felt my double heritage and my Pakistani identity, as I did when, in the authors’ lounge, I talked to Aanchal Malhotra, who was there to discuss Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, her book about the divided legacies so many of us share.
Another fascinating discussion, in which a friend, Sharanya Manivannan, participated, was about the use of legend and myth by contemporary writers. Though the overwhelming references were to the great epics — the Mahabharat and the Ramayana — Sharanya spoke of her recreation of the life of the Tamil poet Andal. I’d have liked to be on that panel to talk about how I’ve increasingly used parables from Rumi and Attar, and allusions to our Indus folklore and poets, in my work. Next time, I hope.
Let me end with a guilty confession. I was also meant to be on a panel on the future of the novel, but with a constitution upset by changes of my body’s clock, I slept through the morning and woke only when my alarm went off on London time. But my last breakfast in Chennai was spent with my co-panellists, Abdullah and the intelligent and perceptive Sumana Roy; our conversation — in two languages — ranged from literature (and the losses and gains of festivals) to geographies of longing and belonging, music, the foods we loved best, and absent mutual friends. I was reminded of a note I’d received from one of the organisers — conversations that continue after the sessions of the festival are over are often the best.
The columnist is a short story writer and novelist living in London
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 3rd, 2019