Culture Strikes Back In Lahore

By Khaled Ahmed
The Indian Express, March 13, 2014


Pakistan is clearly falling back on culture to bring down the ideological temperature that the state has been enduring since the rise of the Taliban after September 11. The PPP government in the southern province of Sindh staged, in February, an elaborate celebration of Sindhi pluralism to temper the schisms in Karachi. No sooner had it concluded that the Oxford University Press Pakistan inaugurated its literary festival, inviting internationally-known creative personalities to Karachi. This was followed by Razi Ahmed’s Lahore Literary Festival, founded by him in 2012.

As an ideological state that “separated” from India, Pakistan has had problems with Pakistani culture. These problems were not fully articulated in the first 30 years but, beginning with the Zia-ul-Haq era after 1980, culture under Islam became the subject of debate. After 1947, the state moved instinctively to emphasize “separateness” from India because it sensed that New Delhi had not accepted Partition and expected Pakistan to “relapse” into the status-quo ante. Culture was coextensive with India, and not emphasized too much because it brought out commonalities with a region Pakistan had abandoned. After 1980, religious opposition to culture was boldly expressed because the “Shariah” was seen as overriding mysticism, which formed the matrix of culture in Pakistan’s plural society.

In 2014, the war has been internalized. History tells us that war destroys the way people live. People are allowed to live a normal life when there is peace. An optimist will say, highlight culture to end war. Culture diffuses identities inclined to violence to safeguard their boundaries. It is also a spiritually balancing factor in society because it is 90 percent entertainment and serves as a safety valve. By excluding the common man, the state takes risks it cannot even calculate. But alas, that is what has been happening in the past in Pakistan, a process that has produced the phenomenon of the Taliban.

The Taliban claim Pakistan as its moral domain. As the LLF regaled the city with artists and writers from India, Pakistan, and the West, the Taliban destroyed a cinema in Peshawar in the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But the thousands of young men and women who attended the festival over three days clapped and shouted their support to theses of togetherness presented by the genius of South Asia, not always echoing the ideology of the state.

India contributed most to this effort to oppose war with culture. Pran Nevile was there from New Delhi, an “unassimilated” Indian whose writings arouse the nostalgia of pre-1947 Lahore. Vishwajyoti Ghosh, “curator” of the book This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, an anthology of graphic narratives from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, enriched the dialogue aimed at challenging the national narratives that produce conflict. Yashodhara Dalmia, art historian, author of a new book on Amrita Sher-Gil, Lahore’s Lost Daughter, shared her insights with Nevile and Salima Hashmi, the daughter of Pakistan’s great Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and who teaches at Beaconhouse University in Lahore.

Two Indian personalities took the Lahoris of LLF by storm, not with their flamboyance but with their humility and depth of articulation: filmmaker Mira Nair talking to Mira Hashmi, and columnist Shobhaa De answering questions to Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the Punjab governor who was killed by a religious fanatic in 2011. A local reporter who expected a different sort of spectacle was overwhelmed by the self-effacement of these great Indian women. Nair’s brother Vikram, in another discussion, aroused laughter with his funny commentary on Indian cuisine. For once, India was nonthreatening and very much “like us.”

Two Bengali literary men especially enthralled the Lahoris. Anachronistically brilliant versifier of the long poem (after Nabokov?) and novelist Vikram Seth, whose double-decker A Suitable Boy is found in Pakistani homes—a kind of elevated version of the familiar Urdu classics of A. R. Khatoon—spoke frankly about his works. Amit Chaudhuri took part in a debate with Pakistani nuclear physicist and educationist Pervez Hoodbhoy on how states invent national narratives and pump the national curriculum with persuasions of war. Tagore was the peg in this discussion, who presciently opposed nationalism in 1916 as a Western disease.

Intizar Husain, with Asif Farrukhi, led the most sensitive discussion about whether Indian movies were a “cultural invasion” of Pakistan and kept the full house of audience spellbound. Kamila Shamsie led many discussions on short-story writing. Rebel poet Fahmida Riaz narrated how, after narrowly escaping prison under General Zia’s rule, she crossed the border and lived seven years in India, the fruit of which was her recent triptych of novellas, Hum Log.

Historian Ayesha Jalal probed Iranian academic Vali Nasr with questions about his stint with the U.S. State Department—from which he came out critical of the operation of its Afpak policies—and Sen. Aitzaz Ahsan, politician and author of the book The Indus Saga, discussed the “Punjabi Man,” with insights new to the largest nationality in Pakistan. Nasr was the toast of the festival: he interacted with author Ahmed Rashid, ex-ambassador Maleeha Lodhi and ex-foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who took everyone’s breath away by asserting that the biggest threat to Pakistan’s existence were the nonstate actors created by the state itself to fight its proxy wars.

Zia Mohyeddin has become the central emblem of culture, defying the Talibanization of Pakistan. He kept his familiarly bursting-at-the-seams house of audience in stitches, reading Mushtaq Yusafi, the greatest living humor-writer in Urdu. He sat down with poet Zehra Nigah to talk about himself and his craft of speaking, insisting that Urdu as a language simply collapsed after the intrusion of English words allowed by most politicians.

Well-spoken Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif and Kamila Shamsie have led the movement of writing in English by globalizing the Pakistani sensibility. More and more Pakistani boys and girls, pushed by the job market if not the state, have developed writing skills not known in the past. A recent anthology of short stories, I’ll Find My Way, edited by Maniza Naqvi, was culled from writers who responded to prompting questions. Naqvi reveals: “This year, OUP provided our themes for the short stories. The first theme, ‘The Meaning of Me,’ found 106 responses; the second, ‘The Bravest Place on Earth,’ brought in 74 short stories; the third, ‘Because this is What Matters,’ brought in 169 stories; and the fourth, ‘Paved and Unpaved Ways,’ had us reading another 84 short stories. By August 2013, we were delighted to have received a total of 433 stories written in English.”

Like many other places, South Asia needs regionalization to soften the nation-state’s tendency to create hostile identities, and the glue for this reconnection will be culture, which is the antithesis of war. Perhaps globalization, by happening first, has made the process of this osmosis easier. The intellectual leavening for this will come not from those who write political tracts, but those who write about the irreducible human being living, ignored, in this subcontinent.

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