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I’ve just returned from my first Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), having previously attended four in Karachi since 2010. In the Islamic Republic, I always encounter a passion for fiction. Through the pages of a novel, many Pakistanis pass effortlessly into an imaginary realm where they can alter their sense of self, forget their worries and sample different lifestyles. At a workshop I once ran in Karachi, for example, I met a teenage girl who said she found freedom in libraries and in reading fiction from around the world.

At LLF, I moderated a panel about Lahore with London-based novelist Roopa Farooki, Karachiite critic Muneeza Shamsie and — the only straightforward Lahori — novelist and lawyer Osama Siddique. I asked about their connections to the city of gardens. All three had been born in Lahore, even if Farooki and Shamsie had less binding subsequent links than Siddique. But the trio spoke with equal wisdom and excitement about the metropolis’s cultural heritage. Shamsie spiritedly refuted Anatol Lieven’s view of Lahore as a microcosm of Pakistan, exclaiming, “I don’t know why we dismiss Pakistan’s diversity! We’re a very diverse country.” Meanwhile Farooki and Siddique said how they, and other writers such as Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam are creating a city of the imagination as well as of bricks and mortar.

Siddique moderated another session with aplomb, code-switching between English and Urdu as he conversed with Ayesha Jalal, Salima Hashmi and Khaled Ahmed. Dealing with the great Saadat Hassan Manto, the session in the Alhamra Art Centre’s largest auditorium proved so popular that some spectators had to sit in the stairwell. Two of the speakers had close links with Manto: Jalal is his grandniece and biographer, while Hashmi is the daughter of his comrade Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Hashmi recounted a sparkling anecdote about her first encounter with Manto as a child: his bespectacled face popped out from behind some bushes at a park where she was walking with her mother. Manto asked them to convey to “his friend” Faiz — then in jail — warm wishes. Finding herself bemused as this apparition disappeared as suddenly as it had materialised, the young Hashmi asked her mother who the man was. Alys Faiz replied in her memsahib fashion that he was just a man who “was drunk 25 hours out of 24.”

Certainly Manto had a drinking problem, but Jalal criticised the Pakistani film Manto for focusing “sanctimoniously” on his alcoholism, rather than examining the real reasons for his personal crisis the way Indian filmmaker Nandita Das did. Clearly, Manto was horrified by the violence of Partition, as shown unequivocally in his fiction. That said, Jalal argued that he was neither as implacably opposed to Pakistan’s creation, nor as upset by his relocation to Lahore from Bombay [Mumbai] as Das put forward in Manto (2018). He quickly got into trouble in the land of the pure — just as Ismat Chughtai did — as a dissenter. Manto was traumatised by his break with the Progressive Writers Association, espoused by authors such as Faiz, because he was not a joiner and felt that the Kremlin was pulling the group’s strings.

Manto stripped Urdu clean of its conventional ornamentation and said outspoken things in that language that couldn’t be said today. He was a critical thinker, who did not recognise accepted truths as truth, his writing always sparked by doubt. In his first ‘Letter to Uncle Sam’, for example, he wrote: “My country is poor, but why is it ignorant? I am sure, uncle, you know why because you and your brother John Bull together are a subject I do not want to touch … It will not be exactly music to your ears.” Manto was prophetic about where Pakistan was heading, his choice of themes was bold and he was an outspoken critic of imperialism and its fallout.

I caught Roopa Farooki’s other panel, on women’s writing, with publisher Alexandra Pringle, Sudanese-British novelist Leila Aboulela, and Pakistani-Londoner writer Maha Khan Phillips. Farooki told a shocking, but sadly unsurprising, anecdote about a male critic reviewing her first novel Bitter Sweets based solely on her author headshot. He refused to engage with her fiction’s form and content, writing instead about how tired he was of attractive British-Asian women producing novels. Khan Phillips spoke about how, rather than assuming a “Muslim misery memoir” perspective, the issues that let women down in Pakistan and other Muslim nations are systemic, structural and economic. In relation to the world of books, Pringle made a pronouncement that struck and depressed me: “Women buy books and men judge books.”

Aboulela also appeared on a fascinating panel — about the right to migrate — with author Mohsin Hamid and human rights lawyer Becca Heller, who recently challenged Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. Aboulela described her early experience of migration as an MA and PhD in London. When Sudan’s 1989 coup brought Col. Omar al Bashir to power, she had to stay on in Britain. Aboulela spoke eloquently about how this compulsion meant she didn’t gain closure on leaving the home country, because her exile wasn’t planned. Later, her husband found a job in Aberdeen, where there wasn’t much ethnic diversity. In Sudan, she had moved in liberal circles, but in Scotland she interacted less with Westerners and became more involved in the mosque, which made her feel welcome.

Interlocutor Suzy Hansen (Notes On a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World) turned to Hamid, positioning him as a proponent of open borders in his latest novel Exit West. I thought this was a social scientist’s view of fiction, and that the text is more complex than simply advancing an argument. Hamid was gracious, though, reminding the audience that borders aren’t natural. We invented them, along with passports. All of that doesn’t seem to be working so well, so he sent out the challenge of un-inventing boundary apparatus. One of the things in Pakistani history he is most proud of is that in the 1980s, the country took in three million Afghans with relatively little difficulty or animosity.

This festival showed me literature’s redemptive power. In these uncertain times, the imperative for writers to take on burning issues, push ideas to the limit, transcend borders and question everything is more pressing than ever. There is a need for many more Mantos, Aboulelas and Hamids!

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 10th, 2019