DWL London Readers’ Club – the 2nd meet

Guest post by Sonal Tarneja


“Zainab!  I won’t be able to read all the stories.  I’ve read the first two – which other ones should I prioritise?” I texted frantically.  In about 15 hours we were going to be discussing Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders at the second DWL London Readers’ Club meet-up.

IMG_1133I arrived at the Notes Café in Covent Garden, all nervous and conscious I’d be the only person who hadn’t done her homework, but I was in good company as it turned out.  Two new faces, Kirin and Beenish, sipped on their coffees, the ochre book prominently displayed on the table so that we could all recognize each other.  We had barely introduced ourselves, when Kirin and Beenish admitted they hadn’t read the entire book, and then Sumaira walked in, apologizing sheepishly for having just read the first two stories. I breathed a sigh of relief.  And as the rest of the group trickled in slowly – Zainab and Nadia and Holly and Nigham – I knew this second meet was going to be a success.

IMG_4244So there we were, sitting around a table adorned with cheesecakes and coffees, and a few signed copies of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.  A show of hands confirmed most of us had not done our homework, except Zainab, who had both her hands up for being a super prepared organizer, and Nigham, who had suggested the book, and came endearingly armed with her iPad full of notes from when she had heard Daniyal speak at the London School of Economics a few days before.

IMG_1071So what did we all like about the book, Zainab asked.  “It takes you back to Pakistan,” Nigham nicely summed up.  “You can picture things so vividly,” Beenish agreed. “Daniyal presents things exactly as they are in reality. It’s evocative, it’s authentic, it offers a good balance, it’s not patronizing” – and we all nodded our heads.

For me, personally, the book couldn’t take me “back” for I have never been, but it amazed me how this could easily be a bunch of stories set in Delhi and need no alterations whatsoever (except maybe the ease with which the most ordinary person brought out a gun every now and then).  The same people, the same relationships, the same issues, the same everything Daniyal talks about exist in India.  And as with everyone else, it gave me a good understanding of the everyday lives of a section of society we interact with everyday in Pakistan or India, but know so little about.  A parallel universe we almost choose to ignore.

IMG_4242So how exactly did an author who spent his early years outside of Pakistan, and knew the country as an outsider until he moved there very recently, offer such vivid and detailed insights into this stratum of society?  How did he get such a deep understanding and awareness of their social lives?  And would he have written about it if living in Pakistan, versus dipping in and out of the country?  Perhaps one observes and perceives more when they’re not entrenched in the setting on a day-to-day basis.

And what differentiates Mueenuddin as an author?  It was generally agreed that he was one of the finer Pakistani writers of our time, one with the ability to put himself in the shoes of the characters and really bring them to life.  But what really stood out in his writing was his realistic depiction of women, the importance given to women, the concern about unequal relationships, and the ability to be critical of his own class, but in a contained way.  And the central part that romance plays in his books.

IMG_4275Mueenuddin’s next novel will be a love story set in Madison.  A question was raised about whether he will be able to display the same objectivity in portraying characters and narrating the plot, and pull off an American identity as easily as he did a Pakistani one in this book.  A fascinating challenge, but all of us had enjoyed what we had seen of In Other Rooms, Other Wonders enough to find out for ourselves – even the ones who had seen/heard him speak at the LSE and felt that he was not quite as charismatic as they’d thought him to be through his writing! (“It’s a bit like Sachin Tendulkar. He’s great on the cricket ground, but you lose all hope the minute you hear him speak.”  Oh Beenish… Beenish!  That comment alone could spark the fourth IndoPak war!)

And so it all came to an end, but only with the promise of another interesting book and another enjoyable conversation for our next DWL London Readers’ Club meeting. In May, we will be discussing Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. To sign up for an engaging discussion, a cup of coffee, and sugar, shoot an email to london@desiwriterslounge.net!


This is a guest post. The author’s opinions are her own and do not reflect the views of Desi Writers’ Lounge.


Sonal lives in London and has a deep interest in South Asian history, with specific focus on the Partition. Her personal blog can be found on sonaltarneja.blogspot.com.


DWL Readers’ Club launches in Islamabad


Hurray! We’ve always sort of considered Islamabad our home city, and now, with the launch of the DWL Readers’ Club in the capital, it seems things have come full circle.

The club’s Islamabad icebreaker managed to gather more interested readers than any other chapter had managed so far! This can only indicate good things to come.

If you’d like to sign up for the DWL Islamabad Readers’ Club or for our activities in Islamabad in general, write in to islamabad@desiwriterslounge.net.

In the meantime, here’s an awesome post that writer/photographer Haroon Riaz put up on the inaugural Readers’ Club session in Islamabad. Thanks, Haroon!


NAPA International Theatre Festival 2014 – Ismat Apa Ke Naam


NAPA Ismat Apa Ke Naam

There were two standing ovations that night at the NAPA auditorium in the old Hindu Gymkhana. The audience first rose to its feet when Naseeruddin Shah walked onto the stage to introduce the production, a dramatic retelling of three of Ismat Chughtai’s plays by Motley Theatre, titled Ismat Apa Ke Naam. That ovation was for Shah alone, fueled by the audience’s deep respect for his work in film, and their utter delight at seeing him in the flesh.


Photo credit: Syed Junaid Ahmed.

This production was an experiment of sorts, Shah said in his introduction. The storytellers would employ a mix of narration and acting, with basic use of props, lighting and sound, thus creating a more full-bodied storytelling experience. Karachi audiences had previously seen a simpler version of this being put into practice by Qissah Farosh, which had inserted a basic component of acting in their performance of the works of Patras Bukhari and Mirza Farhatullah Baig, but had stayed faithful to the narrative form of storytelling. Prior to that, Zambeel Dramatic Readings had paid tribute to Ismat Chughtai’s work in a more classical narrative style.

The benefits of the evolved storytelling model are obvious: it allows the narrator to interact with the audience, to react to the material while relaying it, and to laugh off mistakes – all the while maintaining the ambiance of a theatrical production. And so we saw Heeba Shah give a wide grin when she briefly stumbled at one point in her telling of Chhui Muee, a scathing critique of gender and class relations seen through the prism of childbirth. We saw Ratna Pathak Shah stop mid-sentence and chastise an audience member for leaving their cell phone on while narrating Mughal Bacha (originally published as Ghoongat), a funny and also incredibly sad lesson on love and ego. And we saw Naseeruddin Shah chuckle frequently through his telling of Gharwali, a hilarious literary treatise on the patriarchal concept of honour. Of course, given Shah’s skill as an actor, it is perfectly possible that the chuckling was intentional, but the point remains that the storytelling model allowed him to use it.

Over the course of an hour and some minutes, the three actors enthralled the audience with their charged performances. My only peeve was that Mughal Bacha was narrated in too low a voice; the audience had to strain to hear Ratna Pathak Shah. But Ratna Ji also served us one of the evening’s most memorable scenes, in which she prepared to say her prayers while building up to the climax of the story. The quiet, deliberate movements with which she performed the wuzu and wrapped her head scarf created an aura of both piety and dread as we waited to hear what would ultimately become of Kaalay Mian’s and Gori Bi’s unfortunate marriage.

It was testament to the strength of Chughtai’s writing and Shah’s direction that the theatrical aspects of the production never overpowered the stories. It seemed as though the Shah family was simply the channel; ultimately it was Ismat Apa whose voice emerged the strongest – unapologetic, unflinching – and that was exactly how it should have been.

NAPA Chairman Zia Mohyeddin with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Photo by Fawad Khan.

NAPA Chairman Zia Mohyeddin with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Photo by Fawad Khan.

The second standing ovation of the night came when the actors converged on stage to take their bows. By this time, the applause was not just for Naseeruddin Shah. All three actors had, in their own way and style, owned the stories they had told. They had truly celebrated Ismat Chughtai, and in doing so they had done us a service. As Shah had pointed out in his introduction, Chughtai never got the recognition she deserved in her own country. Despite her obvious literary talents and diverse body of work, she forever became known as the woman who wrote Lihaf. The stories showcased in this production demonstrated that Chughtai was never one to step back from difficult themes, but the mere implication of lesbianism in Lihaf had caused a scandal that she was never quite able to overcome in the course of her career, or indeed even after she died. Every time Motley Theatre performs Ismat Apa Ke Naam, it reclaims some of the space, inch by precious inch, that should legitimately have been hers. And for that we are grateful.


The NAPA International Theatre Festival 2014 is on ’till 27th March. Get details for the event here.

The Pink City magic and literature

Guest post by Kiran Nazish


Jaipur: It was all about sensations. It was about the exuberance of sounds, emotions, noise, feelings, aromas, color, joy and an irrepressible vivacity. There seemed to be thousands of people around; people who’d come from Bombay to Kolkatta to Pune to Goa to the US and London, all of them just readers and fans of literature. The sounds of laughter and loud, excited conversations drowning out the beeper-machine at the entrance.   I walked inside, under a canopy of colorful, Rajastani-style umbrellas hanging from the sky, and into the big lawn where it all was going to happen.

JLF umbrellas

Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

JLF Mohammed Hanif car

M. Hanif featured on artist Rohit Chawla’s installation ‘Out of the Box’. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

There was no other place to be that morning. This was the biggest literature festival in the world and it looked like it. Built on a smaller festival that had started indigenously in the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur, the restyled Jaipur Literature Festival was launched by author William Dalrymple in 2006 as the first free literature festival in the world; also perhaps one of the most celebrated, judging by the increasing numbers of attendees. This year the festival broke records by bringing in 220,000 listeners across five days.

No wonder he's so happy. William Dalrymple swinging it while Reza Aslan looks on at a musical performance. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

No wonder he’s so happy. Dalrymple swinging it while Reza Aslan looks on at a musical performance. Copyright: Kiran Nazish.

The smell of hot adrak (ginger) chai wafted soothingly through the fresh winter air of Jaipur, in the front lawn. Crowds of people were seated on chairs and on the ground, standing, some on heels, peeking over each others’ heads to catch a glimpse of the tremendous Nobel Prize winner and economist Amartya Sen, who gave the key note address at the festival opening. Sen’s keynote address outlined a seven-point vision for a better India, one that included a strong and secular right-wing party and that reserved more space for the arts and humanities in public life.

Adrak chai walas. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

Adrak chai walas. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

Seats filled to capacity for Amartya Sen's address. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish

Seats filled to capacity for Amartya Sen’s address. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish

The hundreds of thousands of attendees listened to about 260 panelists spread across 175 sessions. Luminaries like novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, celebrity novelist and film maker Xiaolu Guo, philosopher Michael Sandel and classicist Mary Beard engaged hundreds in every hall simultaneously.

The programs at the festival were diverse, with leitmotifs of discussions on a variety of different topics, from the US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan to CIA’s war on terror, from female voices and women’s rights to India’s disappearing languages. The intriguingly-titled session “Who will rule the world?” had Professor Rana Mitter of the University of Oxford laying out China’s incontrovertible candidacy for superpower status. Sessions like “Democracy Dialogues” that included the author of “Why India Votes,” discussed India’s current challenges and new developments as a democracy.

Jonathan Franzen’s session with author Chandrahas Choudhury. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish

Jonathan Franzen’s session with author Chandrahas Choudhury. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish

The stunning Durbar Hall, full to capacity. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

The stunning Durbar Hall, full to capacity. Image copyright: Kiran Nazish.

This was the Jaipur Literature Festival’s biggest and most successful year to date, leaving participants with high expectations for next year’s event.


Kiran Nazish is a Pakistani journalist and academic, who currently teaches journalism at a university in India.

Once Upon a Macaroon: London Readers’ Club Inaugural Meet

by Zainab Kizilbash Agha


‘What really knocks me out is a book that when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you would call him up on the phone whenever you like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’ J D Salinger


Yes. How nice if we could pick up and call Jane Austen to ask for Mr. Darcy’s number or ask Yann Martel to end our misery and tell us whether that tiger in Life of Pi was made up or ask Kamila Shamsie for the achaar gosht recipe from Salt and Saffron or hang out with Ngozi Adichie and tell her how cool she is. But since we cant call Kamila or Yann or Ngozi (and certainly not Jane) I guess the next best thing is to find other people who get excited about books and, well… get excited about them together.

And that is why I kept stalking DWL facebook posts to ask when we would have a DWL Reader’s Club meet in London, until one fine day the DWL voice replied, ‘When you organize it, my dear’ and I went away skipping and jumping at the thought of a readers’ meet finally happening in London (as did the DWL voice, I am sure).

So for its first meet the DWL Readers’ Club in London (from now on referred to as the London meet) chose to discuss Hosseini. Of course at that point the ‘DWL Readers’ Club in London’ consisted only of me and Sonal (who had been volunteered to co-organise this event) and our choice was the result of some careful thinking.

Me: ‘Who should we talk about?’

Sonal: ‘Hosseini.’

Me: ‘Why?’

Sonal: ‘I just got his latest book.’

Me: ‘But DWL Dubai is already starting off with that one. Okay, okay… let’s be different and talk about all his books!’

Sonal: ‘Haan. Good idea. We could talk about what people think about the characters he creates.’

Me: ‘Haan haan. Clever.’

Sonal: ‘And look, here is a picture of all three of his books together that we could use to advertise the meet.’


Hosseini seemed to work as we eventually got twenty-four people signed up for the meet. True that some of them didn’t live in London, nor even the same time zone, and most of them shared either one of my last names, but that was all mere technical detail. We were going to have this meet, even if I had to bring my kids to help fill up the seats (although their response to his  books had been pretty lukewarm  – ‘But mama you can’t really have a thousand suns’).

Fast forward to 2:59 pm on the day of the meet and Sonal and I could be found staring forlornly at a plate of macaroons dutifully shaped in the letters ‘D’ and ‘L’ (we used sugar packets for the ‘W’… those macaroons are expensive!).  Our back-up plan, if no one came, was to yell ‘free macaroons!’ and snap lots of pictures when people stampeded to our table.

photo (3)

Thankfully people did show up.

I spotted Harsha first, struggling behind the long queue trying to get into the café. I went to bring her to the table, greeting her enthusiastically. She politely asked how I had managed to recognise her, considering we had never met. I shrugged noncommittally (how could I explain that she would recognize people too if she had stalked their page a few times to determine the probability of them turning up at this meet?).  And then after Harsha came the others, filling our table to capacity. These included a real writer (yes, yes, the cool factor of our meet went up a notch or two) and a DWL regular who has been to DWL Karachi meets.

I had anticipated that the conversation of a group that had never met before would be full of starts and stops, so had come armed with sheets full of ice breakers. But this was a group of women who were ready to chat. After a few minutes of ‘so which of his books have you read?’ and ‘how do you know about DWL?’ I discreetly dumped my sheets of paper under the table before anyone could spot my lame whose-line-is-it-anyway-type ice breaker questions about characters from the book.  A little introduction about DWL, Papercuts, a plea about the Indiegogo campaign, and we were ready to talk Hosseini.

photo (5)

Most people had read his first book, some his second and a couple of us his third book, so the conversation focused on themes of his books rather than specifics (note to self and Sonal: for next meet choose one book so everyone talks about the same writing).

As this was Hosseini, the first word to go around the table was ‘depressing’. For some of us, though, his writing was sad but also showed that life was resilient – his characters went right on living and growing through all the tragedy. We went through the characters in his book, noting how they were impossibly human in their capacity for good and bad. A question we asked was whether the women in his books were stronger than  the men. Anqa passionately disagreed, saying that Mariam was shown just as human as her father, for example, in her initial relationship with Laila. We spoke about how the relationship between fathers and sons and their capacity to disappoint each other was a recurrent theme in his books and how legitimacy and gender played into the story lines.

photo (4)

Holly felt that The Kite Runner had the weakest protagonist she had ever come across. Ayesha felt that although Hosseini fleshed out real characters, he didn’t do so well in describing how they felt.  Perhaps this was because of his first profession as a doctor:  he gave us the diagnosis but let us work out our feelings for ourselves. The doctors around the table nodded their heads vigorously on that one.

Inevitably the conversation turned to Afghanistan and the fact that Hosseini made this country accessible to the world at the right time. We discussed whether he was qualified to write about Afghanistan, a country he left when he was only ten. But all of us around the table agreed (strongly) when Harsha said that it takes one to leave a country to see it and experience it more clearly as she felt about India, having left a few years ago.  Perhaps that was why he was able to describe so beautifully what Amir would feel like when he went back to Kabul to find his family home before he went back himself (something he describes as ‘life imitating art’ in the foreword to the tenth edition of the Kite Runner).

We discussed how one’s own personal context has an impact on how one feels about a book. A few of us around the table felt that our threshold for pain was much lower than where it was a few years ago. For books that had recently made us laugh, Moni Mohsin’s  and Shazaf Fatima Haider’s work was cited. Sonal wondered if the things that made us sad were universal but the things that made us laugh were more culture specific. I suggested it was also because humorous writing is so difficult – it demands that the writer writes only what the reader wants to read rather than what the writer wants to write.

photo (6)

On the same note, Nigham suggested that the next London meet should be on a lighter book. ‘What?’ I thought, ‘They want to do this again!’ and my facial muscles (which had not sagged throughout the meet) hoisted themselves up even more. Somewhere quieter perhaps, Ayesha suggested, and we nodded as the waiters hovered around us to release space to the Covent Garden crowd, which leant, half frozen, against the café’s doors.

And that is how our first London meet ended: appropriately, with plans about the second.  To find out more about when that will be, and what book we will be reading, please email london@desiwriterslounge.net or watch the DWL facebook page.  To find out whether any one showed up (again) watch this blog!