Karachi Literature Festival: The novel in English
By Haneen Rafi
Pakistanis writing fiction in English were the celebrities in town over the weekend of the KLF. They were seen roaming around with stacks of hastily jotted notes, at times an obscure title that one was compelled to ask about and thereby betray one’s ignorance, and hoards of fans claiming epiphanies after having not necessarily read their work, but at least listened to fragments of their talks during the festival.
Two major works of fiction in English were unveiled over the course of the festival — Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden and Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
“Novelists don’t tell you what to think. They tell you what to think about.”
— Nadeem Aslam
Aslam’s session on his latest offering was a major attraction of the festival and despite scheduling woes, garnered enthusiasts of all ages. His close-to-home accent amid the more foreign ones was a welcome change and by the end of the hour-long talk, many were left teary eyed, one of whom was Aslam himself.
The session provided the perfect concoction as Aslam talked about his journey — a man with less-than-humble beginnings leaving Pakistan, leading a hard life and yearning to rediscover his identity and roots. The magic realism that Aslam’s fiction is known for was cleverly weaved into the conversation between him and the moderator, Kamila Shamsie.
With four novels to his credit, Aslam’s first public discussion in Karachi touched upon many things dear to him as a novelist and as a Pakistani. He fondly recalled his first story, written at the age of 12, and spoke about Gore Vidal, John Updike and V.S. Naipaul as writers whose works allowed him to learn English and thereby write in it.
Talking about the artistic quality in Pakistan, he said that the connection that he shares with the place was revived in his visits to art museums in Lahore and Delhi: “I saw myself in the paintings and the art,” he said. One of the passages he read out hailed Pakistan as a place of “heartbreaking beauty”, a phrase he choked on, unable to say the words.
In an interview earlier this year Aslam lamented that his writing has cost him friendships, love and money. To quote his words at the festival, “the path from intensity to greatness requires sacrifice.”
“Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
— Mohsin Hamid quoting Douglas Adams
Hamid and H.M. Naqvi got along very well at the festival. Both have hugely successful novels to their credit and seem to have genuine regard for each other. But this chemistry did not entice in the session that launched Hamid’s novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Starting with the process of conceptualising the novel, which in Hamid’s words “pretends to be a self-help book,” to talking through the writing regime and the drafts that followed, the session did not have a promising start. It did, however, delve into how Hamid’s writing has evolved over the course of his writing career, and how all his novels are, for him, “self-help books … partly a joke but also deadly serious.”
What many in the audience wondered, even if the question was not asked, was whether Hamid had anything new to offer. Those who have listened to Hamid and Naqvi at previous KLFs had the distinct feeling of deja vu. Apart from the good-natured back and forth between the two, the session clearly lacked the genuine emotion that Aslam’s was replete with.
The writer is a Dawn staffer