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Like all literary panels titled so vaguely, the definition of the theme of ‘Satire’ took up several minutes. But fortunately, that debate didn’t occur until the end of the session, near and during the Q&A. William Dalrymple, the popular historian and veteran festival moderator, made sure that the debate never diminished into that fearsomely unproductive space.

The panellists were all well chosen for their works. Mohammed Hanif, Moni Mohsin, Shehan Karunatilaka and Shazaf Haider have all told stories that could not be told ‘straight’ without repercussions. Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was a hilarious rendition of Ziaul Haq’s last days in power and his assassination. Mohsin’s works have ridiculed as well as celebrated Lahori elitist culture through her character, the Social Butterfly. Karunatilaka’s novel uses the drunk narrator filter to relate a very sober narrative on Sri Lanka’s political issues. Even Haider, whose debut novel focuses on innocuous material, (arranged marriages), had plenty to contribute to the discussion.

The purpose of the humour in satire is to provide the “sugar-coating,” as Haider called it, to make the bitter truth palatable. Mohsin and Karunatilaka both admitted to having tried writing their novel first as straight, serious stories. And they both confessed to getting bored with that kind of storytelling after a certain point and wondering if that boredom would not easily transfer to the reader. Mohsin then employed the Social Butterfly of her columns from The Friday Times to become the unreliable narrator and the story seemed to come together, and to come alive. Karunatilaka used another device: a drunken detective, doomed to fail in his quest, but who provides lightness to the narrative through his fumbling and generates empathy from readers precisely because of his flaws.

“Sometimes you have to have a narrator who only sees some things,” Mohsin said, divulging part of her recipe for commentary on Pakistani society. Regarding the things that remain unseen and left unsaid by such a character, she called it “a telling silence”. Butterfly is supremely self-centered, which is additional subject for dark humour, as she judges without being judged within her own narrative, never owning up to her mistakes, always playing the victim or the heroine.

Hanif’s political satire on Zia didn’t start out as it finally appeared. He said he started out wanting to “write a murder mystery with some dirty jokes, and that’s what I did.” According to him, he only found out that his novel had satirical elements after readers pointed it out. He even labelled Pakistan a “post-satirical” society where nobody laughs at exaggerated evils anymore.

There is a treasure of material for satire in Pakistan’s history, its various communities and its oft-conflicting narratives of identity. A telling question near the end of the Q&A highlighted how satire enlightens readers on how “ridiculous things are,” as Mohsin said. There are many such ridiculous things in Pakistani society that are ripe for such treatment. In spite of the vague title, ‘Satire’ was a well-crystallised panel discussion and went on to inform a later panel on the ‘Literature of Resistance’. This discussion had Hanif again as a panellist, and he was joined by Palestinian-British novelist Selma Dabbagh, Kashmiri-Indian journalist Basharat Peer, and BBC journalist Lyse Doucet, who has recently been covering the Arab Spring.

Doucet was given the podium to define the title of the panel and she took it directly to the platform she is familiar with: the revolutions in the Middle East. Many believe them to be Facebook and Twitter revolutions. Doucet then gave historical context for the resistive elements of literature and how it was used to either further propaganda or to question autocratic regimes. Now, after the revolution, she relates how people are able to speak out freely for the first time: “People were discussing and debating in groups. In the middle of conversations people would stop and voice their wonder at being able to speak out for the first time in their lives.”

Hanif, who has recently written a small booklet published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based on narratives of missing people in Balochistan, took over from Doucet. “I am one of those hopeless people,” he said, “who believe that politics is the only real art. And the rest is just propaganda.” He ridiculed some of the Urdu press stories that refuse to name names, thereby resisting giving the victims and perpetrators any identity tags. But he also labelled it the most basic form of literature of resistance. He then went on to say that “any kind of literature is resistance. Even right-wing literature is resistance. Literary festivals may be some kind of resistance, but maybe not, because Arundhati Roy would attend more of them, which she does not. She sends video messages.” Hanif was referring to Roy’s video message that was aired at the end of the panel discussion but didn’t add much to the debate.

Dabbagh contributed to the panel by saying that the novels she had read as a student allowed her to learn about countries that she didn’t know anything about directly, and therefore her own fiction became for her the vehicle by which she could launch her own protest and make her readers interested in Palestine. Her protest was about building consciousness and doing justice to a topic fraught with risk.

Ali Dayan, the moderator, mentioned how his generation of Pakistanis in the audience had grown up listening to thousands of reports on atrocities in Kashmir. This generated some familiar, nervous laughter. Peer, who has lived in the region, said he could not fictionalise the atrocities he had written non-fiction accounts of. He admitted that “there are things you can do in fiction that you cannot do in journalism,” but was adamant that what he had to write about was a direct protest, a response that could only be given in what seemed most direct: reportage. He ended by saying something vaguely revelatory: “I don’t know whether writing changes anything, but it lets you live.”

The panels on satire and resistance connected at an important intersection. Satire exists to lighten the burden of a bitter truth, and to render it palatable; but are there some things so serious that they cannot be treated with indirect, fictional accounts? Did the distance from Zia’s death allow Hanif to render the account into fiction as well as he did? And will it always be too soon to joke about Kashmir because it is a living, breathing concern that does not seem like it will ever be resolved?

The difference between satire and resistance in literary terms may appear to be just a matter of degree, with resistance being the more forcible one. But it could be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes was invoked on the satire panel and his The Baloch Who is Not Missing was the reason he was on the ‘Literature of Resistance’ panel. The latter is very, very serious. So serious that Hanif refused to translate it into Urdu himself, because he couldn’t go through the process of writing it again.

Satire can be revisited more easily, and may even be more accessible universally. But the literature of resistance is that much braver, because it does not sugar-coat the rancid truth.


—    Sheheryar B. Sheikh