By the end of the first day, the festival was running well behind schedule. Mics weren’t working, sessions were starting up to an hour late and audiences were getting fidgety. Fortunately, an amazing aura of excitement continued to surround the hotel, so while there was some annoyance amongst the festival goers, no one really cared for too long. In retrospect, it’s quite possible that the organizers just didn’t plan for so many people to attend the event and got overwhelmed with the response. Some of the sessions were crammed to maximum hall capacity, particularly the Works in Progress session at the end of the first day.
This session was going to be a crowd puller from the start. The US embassy, which was a major partner in organizing this year’s KLF, had brought together quite the celeb group at one table: Ali Sethi (The Wish Maker), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), H.M. Naqvi (Home Boy), M. Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) and Sunil Sethi (The Big Book Shelf). I don’t think anyone was expecting anything really solid to come out of this little sitting; for most of the fans sitting there, it was probably just a chance to kill five birds with one stone. Considering that, one still managed to walk away with some interesting little nuggets from the aforementioned writers.
Ali Sethi was the youngest and the most intense member of the panel. Everything about him was geared to create an impression, from the stark rims on his glasses right down to the dramatic way in which he read out passages from texts about religious minorities in Pakistan. Evidently the writer still most concerned with ‘finding himself’, Sethi spoke passionately about the need to know one’s social reality and to figure out what one’s ‘social and economic inheritance’ was. His investigations into violence against religious minorities were driven by this same need to understand events as they unfolded around him; a process that his idealistic education abroad did not prepare him for, he said. Writing could help you decide what you believed in, said Sethi. This was an interesting turn from what one had normally heard, which was that you inevitably put to paper what already exists in your head and heart.
Daniyal Mueenuddin was by the far the most relaxed person sitting at the table. Leaning back comfortably for the most part, he listened with careful (though at times incredulous) attention to the rest of the panelists. He was adamant that writing was play for him – that he sat down to write when he wanted a break from real life. This stood out in sharp relief from the others’ descriptions of the writing process. M. Hanif, for example, spoke about the sense of loss that he felt when he was done writing a book: as if ‘an old friend or lover you’ve quarreled with every day has suddenly upped and left’. “I think all writers are mad,” Hanif grinned. “What kind of person sits in a corner and makes up stories and expects to be taken seriously?”
Sunil Sethi then followed with the opinion that all writing was ‘a hardship post’… by which point Mueenuddin, who’d clearly had enough of all the intensity, was compelled to sit up and disagree. Somehow, listening to him speak, one understood why he felt this way. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s work thrives on honesty and simple statements of fact. Nothing is strange in his world. The entire strength behind his debut novel was its easy, un-judging frankness. So yes, if I were to imagine Mueenuddin working at his desk, the image would not be of a tortured artist wringing his hands over the multiple layers of meaning hidden behind every sentence; it would be more a picture of a slightly relieved man writing his diary after a day of not quite being himself.
It was Hussain Naqvi who brought the whole picture back into perspective.“The production of prose becomes incidental,” he said. “Being a writer means negotiating life, family, making a living; and producing something that resonates within you as well as with others.” While Ali Sethi’s write-or-die attitude was infectious and Mueenuddin’s writing-is-play approach made sense, it was probably Naqvi’s exposition of the process that summed up the reality of being a career writer most effectively.