Mohsin Hamid has just returned from the massive Jaipur Literary Festival in India and the much smaller Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka. Books & Authors spoke with him about the two experiences and the potential for festivals like these in Pakistan

IN 2009 there had been international hype about the emergence of Pakistani writing in English, including William Dalrymple’s widely read Financial Times article about it. That had spilled over into the 2010 Jaipur Festival. How was Pakistani writing perceived this year?

We’re now well beyond that. There were a lot of Pakistani writers there, and there were large audiences that had come to see them and a lot of Indian media interest in them. But the phenomenon is becoming more mature, so it’s no longer just the hype of oh, they’re Pakistani writers. What’s happened now is that individual writers have followings in India and they are all very different from each other. We had non-fiction with Ahmed Rashid, we had Ali Sethi not just talking about writing, but also singing, Faiza Sultan Khan and her essays, me and my fiction, so now I think there’s enough differentiation that people understand that ‘Pakistani writers’ is a pretty vague label.

What were your takeaways or impressions from the festival? Are there certain themes that emerge at Jaipur, or is it too large for that to happen?

Nobody seemed like they were talking about any particular theme. It’s a huge festival, and because it’s free, it was attended by more than 50,000 people. It’s quite an amazing spectacle...

Does it lack cohesiveness for that reason?

What was incredible to me was that so many people were engaging with literature. There are four or five different venues, and the largest is the main lawn, which generally had about a thousand people for each event and an event every hour. It’s incredible to see a thousand people show up for one literary event. And then there were four or five other events happening simultaneously, and those had hundreds of people attending. And a lot of them had come down from Delhi and other parts of India, so it wasn’t just locals.

These were obviously not all industry people…

No, I had teenagers coming up to me saying, dude, I love Moth Smoke. Of course you had some industry people and some socialites, but it felt like the vast majority of them were actual booklovers. The other thing that was striking, coming from Pakistan, was how little security there was. Everybody just comes and goes, nobody gets frisked. Another big difference was how many international writers there were. Dozens and dozens of writers who we’ve all heard of were milling around. It’s chaos, obviously, but in a good way.

You were on a panel called ‘Out of West’. What was that about?

Well I couldn’t get there in time for that, but instead I had a solo talk on the last day held on the main lawn of the festival, so it had a big audience and a brilliant interviewer, author Chandrahas Choudhury. We discussed my two books but also philosophies of writing, techniques, literature in general, how I approach my books, etc. But we also had a five-minute reading from the Hindi translation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was very cool. It sounded to me like an Urdu translation, just written in Devanagri script. What I suspect happened is that the translator actually used an Urdu idiom, so there may very well be an Urdu version and it would probably be very easy to produce an Urdu translation now. Listening to that out loud was definitely one of the highlights for me.

What was your point of view on the contro-versy created before the festival by the Open magazine article that complained about the ‘literary raj’ of Dalrymple, who is British and organises the event? Was it being talked about?

It was definitely being talked about, and I think it’s a little unfair. There are many of us living in Pakistan today who have lived abroad and have spent less time here than he has in India. But for me the biggest thing is that the festival itself, which is attended by a huge international contingent, is clearly 90-per-cent-plus Indian. It feels like a very Indian festival. And just the scale of it, the kind of writers who come, the size of the audiences, and the usually, I think, very successful events, to me all of that adds up to a good thing.

There may be a separate point that article was making, which is if India has continued to look to the UK for literary legitimacy. And I think that’s interesting, but posing it in terms of Dalrymple’s ‘white raj’ isn’t justified; here’s a guy working hard and doing something wonderful.

Speaking of controversy, the Galle Festival had its share of it. A boycott was called to protest restrictions on freedom of speech in Sri Lanka; Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, among others, supported it. What were your thoughts when you were thinking about attending?

There was at least one writer who officially joined the boycott, and some of the other writers were missing for other reasons (Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra) but people speculated it may have been this, so it was certainly there in the background. For me, a boycott can be a useful thing if it is in the context of some overall international sanctions regime that is changing a country, as in the case of apartheid South Africa. But in Sri Lanka’s case, it doesn’t strike me that a literary festival boycott will do anything. The second thing is that obviously there are human rights and freedom of speech issues in Sri Lanka, but the same is true of India. And no one is boycotting the World Voices festival in New York because of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The organiser of the Galle festival is a Tamil, the opening event was about Sri Lanka’s future and politics and freedom of speech, etc., and there was clearly no attempt to brush this stuff under the carpet. It surprised me because when people like Roy and Chomsky boycott something, I immediately think there must be a good reason. But when I was looking at this more closely, I was just puzzled. Generally speaking, I think it’s always better to engage. In fact, this was probably a good chance to have debated in Sri Lanka a lot of things that are kept quiet.

How is the festival different in flavour and character from Jaipur? Obviously Jaipur seems to be much much bigger…

Galle is a much smaller, paid activity in a small Sri Lankan resort town, and the other one is a massive, free, open activity. From a Pakistan standpoint, I think Jaipur is a great model. If we could have a large, free literary festival here, that would be fantastic, ideally involving all of the languages of Pakistan. And it should be open; you can have a free event where it looks like, how am I going to get in there? In Jaipur there was an entrance and with police, but it was clear that anybody could just stroll in, and that is something that would be great to see in a Pakistani literary festival.

The Karachi Literature Festival clearly doesn’t have that scale yet, although it is only in its second year…

I’m coming for that, above all because I think it’s really important to support anybody any time they try to create a public space for the arts. Firstly, it’s happening. Secondly, it is creating a space for writers to come together, and I do think it can grow.

When I was travelling in Jaipur and Galle, so many writers were telling me how much they would love to come to Pakistan for a literary festival if it wasn’t for the security situation. But the law and order situation and the inherent sense or charge of elitism that clings to English-language writing are challenging. In Pakistan, too often we retreat into Clifton or Defence in Karachi or the equivalent in Lahore for these types of events, and they can feel exclusive. The real thing is, where can you find a place that does not feel like that, where you can provide security but genuinely accommodate large numbers of people.

It may also be that we are in a particular moment right now where there is such an attempt to shut down freedom of expression, maybe the focus has to be to just keep things alive until we can come back into public space. And if that means smaller events in more secure locations, then so be it.

The interviewer is Senior Assistant Editor at the monthly, Herald

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