SALF 2013 – Closing Night: Addictive Cities

Guest post by Zainab Kizilbash Agha


Panel: Amit Chaudhuri (author, Professor of literature at East Anglia) and Jeet Thayil (poet, author, musician)

Moderated by: Ted Hodgkinson (British Council Literature)

Date: November 1st, 2013


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The South Asian Literature Festival ended its 2013 programme with an event interestingly titled as ‘Addictive Cities’. There are some cities – cities like Calcutta, Karachi and Bombay – that have drawn writers back repeatedly and that have helped writers tell the stories they want to tell, while in turn the writers have wound up telling the stories of the city.

Even though it was a particularly wet evening, and a Friday, the room was filled to capacity with people in welly boots, waterproof jackets and slightly wet green saris. In the session, a little longer than an hour, Ted Hodgkinson conversed with  two authors who have had particularly monogamous relationships with their cities: Amit Chaudhuri, author of various books set in Calcutta including The Immortals of Calcutta;  and Jeet Thayil, poet and author of Narcopolis, which is a story of Bombay experienced through opium addiction.

Ted cleverly used the mundane details of life in each author’s writing to engage with them on bigger ideas – identity, religion, modernity and Indian cosmopolitanism.

Both authors agreed that they liked to ‘flip’ reality in their writing and show readers a different perspective on things.  For example, both tended to show the urban, man-made landscape as more natural than the rural one. For Jeet, this battle between urban and rural was like a match between the writings of Baudelaire and Wordsworth. The city won, he said, because only it could make people truly anonymous, and therefore it was ‘the only place where freedom was possible’. Bombay, in particular, interested Jeet because of the way the city warmly accepted all kinds of people in a truly democratic way, rewarding nothing but talent.

To explain his fascination with Calcutta, Amit read a passage  that  praised the city’s essential modernity, talking about the sense of timelessness that Calcutta embodied – not in the grand, formal way of mausoleums, but embedded in the patina that covered the streets, in its ‘aura of decay’ and the ‘slated windows that have stood forever’. “True modernity is not anything new,” he pointed out.

Jeet also read part of the prologue to his book, which started with ‘Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name […]’. He rejected the use of Mumbai, he explained later in response to a question, because it was a deliberate political construct by people ‘who don’t read books and never will’. Amit added to this by explaining that the word ‘Kolkata’ did not exist in English other than as a utopian literary term just like ‘Calcutta’ seemed to have no meaning in Bengali.

The conversation continued on many different themes, one of them being the defining characteristics of good writers. According to Jeet, romantic poets were particularly to blame for making writers believe that they had to live a certain lifestyle – full of blistering relationships, drugs, alcohol and an assortment of other addictions – to be able to write, with the result that they become too busy leading that life to actually write. He read out a poem he wrote as a letter to Baudelaire after he won over his twenty-year drug addiction, admonishing the French poet for pushing him towards drugs. Ted offered him the poem on a paper to read out. Jeet declined and read it from memory and the audience got to see the performance poet at his best. There were laughs as Amit checked his recitation against a copy of the poem on a page in front of him.

The evening ended with a question about Calcutta and what the city meant for the Bengali identity. Amit said that as a child, Calcutta would speak to him about his Bengali identity through children’s fiction. He went on to explain how many serious writers of adult Bengali fiction, including Tagore, wrote a quota of children stories. This project to invest in Bengali children’s literature began in the 19th century and stretched ‘till today. Indeed, what better wayto help a child’s identity develop than through good stories? A future DWL project perhaps, I thought, as the evening and the Festival closed with promises of more to come next year.


Zainab Kizilbash Agha works in the public sector trying to improve how governments spend money and the choices they make. She has worked  with governments in Pakistan, Namibia, Ghana and now works in the UK. She writes for therapy. Some of her rants are here:

Khayaal Festival of Arts & Literature 2013 – First day

By Fatima Hafsa Malik, DWL Events Coordinator, Lahore


When I decided to attend Khayaal Network’s literature and art festival a couple of weeks ago, I expected to enjoy myself.

What I didn’t expect was to be blown away.

A two-day event at Al-Hamra Theatre, it lived up to its promise, at least for me.

Regrettably, I could not attend on Sunday but the four sessions that I did attend were nothing short of brilliant. I could only make it to the afternoon sessions after work and so when I walked into Hall 1 at 2.30 or so, Mira Sethi’s session with Mohsin Hamid was already underway.


Mohsin and Mira in conversation

Mohsin is one of my favourite Pakistani authors and his was a talk that I had been looking forward to the most when I saw the schedule. And he did not disappoint. He was supposed to talk about English fiction and the Pakistani imagination, but he and Mira covered so much more. When asked which one of his three novels was his personal favourite, he said they were like his children but perhaps the latest one was the closest to his heart, although Moth Smoke being his first work of fiction would always be special. Talking about How to Get Rich in Rising Asia, he said that it was his attempt at a ghazal. And that he wanted to write about love like it has been written about in Sufi poetry, referring to the beloved in the ‘you’ form and lifelong love affairs. He said he wanted to explore what a non-transactional love would be like, what it would be like when you say to somebody that you love them and instead of meaning that they make you less lonely, if you meant that you would like them to be less lonely whether or not that includes you. When wrapping up before the Q and A portion, Mira asked Mohsin what his hopes and dreams were for Pakistan as a writer and a Pakistani. He said quite simply, ‘I don’t need much actually. I would be happy if Pakistan became a place where people stopped killing each other so much.’ Enough said, wouldn’t you agree?


Salman Shahid in action

The next session was ‘Main Manto’ with readings by Sarmad Khoosat and Salman Shahid. How does one even begin to talk about Manto and the sheer impact of his genius? And how does one appreciate the talent of the two speakers who chose such different pieces and transported you to another world altogether? Suffice to say that I had goose bumps by the end of both readings. Salman Shahid read a short story by the name of ‘Thanda Gosht’ and if you haven’t read it yet, you must. A punch to the gut in typical Manto style, it was a very powerful

Sarmad in an uncharacteristically serious pose

Sarmad in an uncharacteristically serious pose (photo credit: Express Tribune)

reading. And Sarmad Khoosat simply stole the show. He read a letter of Manto’s and the resounding applaud he received after the reading was an honest testimony to the effect he had on the listeners. After the two readings this session also included the screening of a short teleplay by the name of Main Manto. And let me tell you, the audience was mesmerized. There was a hushed silence throughout the hall while we watched the life story of Manto play out before our eyes. It had a star studded cast including Sarmad Khoosat as Manto himself, Saniya Saeed as his wife and Arjumand Rahim, Mahira Khan, Faisal Qureshi among others. I think it deserved a standing ovation. And when it ended, I realized for the hundredth time how lucky we are to have such amazing talent amongst us.

The session after that was ‘Literature and Culture – a Discussion between Khaled Ahmed and Intizar Hussain’ and it was great listening to these two veteran writers talk at length about the Urdu language and the effect literature has had on our culture. They were both of the opinion that literature has suffered at the hands of politics and extremism. Intizar Hussain remarked that the beauty of the Urdu language lies in that it has been born from many languages and we must acknowledge that fact to appreciate it.

Bilal Lashari applauding in the 'Lights, Camera, Action' session

Bilal Lashari applauding in the ‘Lights, Camera, Action’ session

The last session for the day in Hall 1 was ‘Lights Camera Action’ and it had a few members from the teams of both ‘Waar’ and ‘Mai hoon Shahid Afridi’ who were interviewed by Shahnaz Sheikh. I haven’t watched either movie and so it was an interesting session for me as I had no opinion about them. And as proud as I am of the effort that has gone into both these films, the session seemed a bit ‘promotional’ to me. Maybe that was intentional, who knows. The audience seemed divided about the movies as well, some completely thrilled with them and others not so much. When asked why Waar was in English, Bilal Lashari said it was easier to promote at an international level and that it had subtitles. ‘But a large percentage of the population cannot read, Bilal,’ someone said, to which he replied that people still seemed to connect to the movie in spite of the language barrier and it had had a lot re-watchers in theatres. My take? Why not have English subtitles? Aren’t a lot of international movies in their local languages? Is it a reflection of the gora complex that seems to have ingrained itself inside us? Or am I reading too much into this?

All in all, it was a very intellectually appeasing day for me and I had a foot wide grin when I walked out of the complex to head home. There were a few technical glitches during the teleplay screening but it was worth the disruption. The attendance could have been better in my opinion but it was still heartening to see Lahoris of all ages turn out for a literary adventure. I am sure everyone who attended it had a great time and to all those who didn’t, mark your calendars for next time. It wasn’t an event to be missed!


Fatima Hafsa Malik alternates between medicine and writing. She can be found at and @fhafsamalik

SALF 2013 – Reporting Across Borders: India and Pakistan

Guest post by Sonal Tarneja


Panel: New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh, Executive President of the Times Group in India Rahul Kansal, and lawyer and journalist Farooq Bajwa.

Moderated by: Shreela Ghosh, South Asian Arts Director at the British Council.

Date: October 26th, 2013

Reporting across borders SALF


Starting off as a discussion on the state of reporting across the Indo-Pak border, this session delivered much more than it promised – it offered an insight into what’s going on on both sides of the border, the relevance of Partition today, and a contrast of attitudes, perceptions and ground realities.

Reporting, like most other exchanges across the border, is not easy. With just four Indian journalists – from across all publications – in Pakistan, and an unsaid number of Pakistani journalists in India, cross-border reporting is stifled and poor. What gets reported in India, then, is what sells – a reiteration of young India’s view of Pakistan as an imploding country – “trouble for India”. Whereas until the 1980s one got to see a positive glimpse of Pakistan, especially with television shows like Dhoop Kinarey, which were beyond their times compared to Indian offerings (or lack thereof), more recently news from across the border is unidimensionally and progressively about terrorism. Pakistan, on the other hand, is so absorbed with its own internal problems and near turmoil, and the threat from neighbouring Afghanistan, that India has slid down the list of top news items and priorities over the last 10 years.

So is Partition even relevant today, or have both sides moved on? With 60% of the Indian population less than 30 years old, Partition isn’t very relevant in India today. It’s a part of history. In Pakistan, however, the Partition is about the unfinished business of Kashmir, though not in the top of the current national agenda. With the focus of animosity shifting towards the US since 2001, India is considered far less “bogey” than it used to be. Pakistanis now don’t see India as a threat, and in fact 60-70% want better relations with India.

That said, certain establishments – reportedly the military – are still holding firm. The latest Pakistani film ‘Waar’ reveals an interesting insight. It’s interesting that for a country torn by war, Pakistan’s first attempt at a “Bollywood style blockbuster” portrays India as the trouble maker, when, as a matter of proportion, the issue lies elsewhere.

Overall, on a people to people level, cultural exchanges such as open access to Bollywood films in Pakistan, and consumption of Pakistani music and performances in India, is giving birth to a positive attitude on both sides.

So what is the solution for long-lasting peace? Increased trade can improve things, and is bound to eventually, but the question is when. Even under existing agreements, trade can almost be quadrupled. But with artificial barriers (or “silly bottlenecks”) such as requiring the other side to park its trucks half a kilometer from the border because ‘the road conditions don’t allow for heavy trucks’, a lot more needs to be done. Elimination of tit for tat barriers, easier and less stringent visa requirements, and even helping the other side overcome onion shortages (!) are a great place to start. In the meantime, ‘Aman Ki Asha’, a peace initiative between the Jang Group of Pakistan and the Times of India, is trying to make a small difference.



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


(This is independent coverage of an event at the South Asian Literature Festival in London. DWL is not responsible for the views expressed or relayed in it.)