LLF2018 gave us an opportunity to interact with some of the most learned, creative and insightful people from across the world. We talked to them about their participation in this year’s festival in connection with their works. There’s word from the Founder & CEO Razi Ahmed on organizing this year’s successful iteration of the LLF; India’s most glamorous writer Shobhaa Dè sheds light on her Pakistani experiences and what they mean to her; and thinker and author, the erudite Ali Mahmood provides insight into his process of researching and writing books, and highlights the underlying theme that defines his lettered works.
Founder and CEO, Lahore Literary Festival
After two years, the LLF is back at Alhamra. How does it feel to return to its birthplace, so to speak?
It was exhilarating being back at the Alhamra after a gap of two years. The Alhamra ties in well with the festival as its purpose-built halls, courtyards, and ease of access reinforce the identify and rationale of the festival as a diverse, public event. Nowhere else at a festival, whether Jaipur, Edinburgh or Karachi, is there such an elaborate public space, built specifically for the promotion of the arts, that allows for multiple halls to be utilised and seamless circulation of speakers and audiences.
Having the Alhamra as a venue is a great way to orient first-time visitors to Lahore as it still is one of the boldest, bravest architectural statements, contemporarily, on Lahore’s Fort and other references.
Riz Ahmed, Ben Okri, Reza Aslan, the LLF’s 6th iteration was bigger, better and stronger than ever. How was the audience feedback?
We’re fortunate that every year we are able to persuade star speakers to speak at the LLF. I will add here that we have to date never offered or accepted requests for honoraria from speakers. Once our speakers are in Lahore, we go all-out extending the best of Lahori hospitality and warmth to all our delegates.
One of my keen desires for the LLF is to engage with the world, to renew a global dialogue, with Pakistani writers and thinkers playing a key role in reshaping and reformulating opinions on a whole raft of issues we face today.
The mix of Pakistan’s best names and rising stars, commingled with leading lights in literature and the arts from abroad, makes every edition distinct and engaging.
2018 also featured some lesser-known but equally stellar personalities – like Dr Azra Raza, Sona Datta, Ali Mahmood, and Amardeep Singh. Tell us about putting the programme together for this year’s festival and what the main theme was.
Every edition has its star-power, the ‘crowd-pullers.’ Equally important though is to spotlight the ‘unsung’ writers and thinkers. We are privileged to have hosted some of the names you mention and also, amongst others, the young scholar Ammara Maqsood who spoke on her work on the new middle class in Pakistan, first-time writers Bisma Tirmizi and Nadia A.R. and the venerated Ikramullah (who rarely talks publicly), a leading name in Urdu fiction.
It’s hard to impose a thematic structure on the festival as the programme is done with a viewpoint to bring seemingly disconnected topics together, dissecting the academic and highbrow issues, in fiction and non-fiction, into decipherable and stimulating content for the widest possible audience (piquing the curiosity of students, elderly and young, locals and foreigners).
By programming disparate themes such as climate change, Sikh heritage in Pakistan, Baba Farid Ganj Shakar, nationalism, Nayyar Ali Dada’s architecture, food, the session paying homage to Asma Jahangir and so on, the 2018 home edition of the LLF aimed at celebrating the power of dialogue and the critical role citizens can play in taking charge of their destinies. Smart dialogues, in open and public settings such as the LLF, can bring wider circles to appreciate the power of books in shaping our national discourse.
Some critics often raise the question, why do literary festivals feature non-literary figures?
Literary festivals around the world are broad-based and pivoted around ideas which transcend demarcation and categorisation. There must be more exchanges between literary and non-literary writers and thinkers. One or the other cannot be the sole determinant of our lives. My personal belief is that creative expressions manifested in literature, cinema, music, visual art, history, architecture, archaeology, and other disciplines should be seen in a shared framework. That’s what the LLF annually celebrates the past and evolving traditions of writing, inquiry, resistance, and discovery. Literature allows us all that to get past a silo mentality and celebrate our shared humanism.
Tell us about the honours awarded this time.
The Board of Trustees of the LLF awarded two lifetime achievement awards this year.
Posthumously, the award was announced for Asma Jahangir for her untiring efforts for justice and human rights. It was collected by Ms. Jahangir’s three children. Ms. Jahangir was part of a panel discussion at the LLF in 2015 along with Ayesha Jalal and Romila Thapar.
The other award was given to I.A. Rehman for championing freedom of speech in Pakistan.
Your book “Muslims” underlines an objective history of the Muslims throughout history, highlighting their status as leaders in the fields of science, medicine, culture and architecture while also listing their military achievements, economic prosperity and other academic advancements. What inspired you to write this book tracing the legacy of the Ummah?
I don’t think “inspired” is the right word. I started reading because I was curious. I did not know much about this subject but once I started reading, I found it so interesting, so exciting that I delved deeper. As I discovered more about this story, about these people, I felt that this is something that more people should be aware of and should understand.
Therefore, it was not so much a decision to do this but more a case of going on a road of discovery which I found so fascinating that I wanted others to also be exposed to this wonderful story of these wonderful people.
From being a businessman and to now writing books, what prompted your foray into writing? Usually writers tend to stick to one genre of writing or study. This is your second book in the last five years. Your first book, “Saints and Sinners”, was an economic analysis of certain nations prospering while others were getting mired in debt and poverty. Both subjects are vastly different from the other. How do you manage to diversify your areas of study?
My first book covers facts relating to the modern world – in the last fifty to hundred years, what made some countries rich, and others stay poor. I don’t believe that a set of economic formulas is sufficient enough to turn around economies. It studies why some places like Singapore, Malaysia, China, Dubai, Botswana have achieved greater progress.
The second one is about a bunch of people who now form 20% of the world’s population, and focuses on their story of 1400 years. Right back from the time the Prophet (PBUH) left Mecca, there were not even a hundred Muslims in the world. Yet within a century, they ruled all the land from the Atlantic Ocean to China forming one of the greatest land contiguous empires the world has ever seen.
In addition to their massive empire, they were known as men of art, culture, science, education. Everything about them outperformed the rest of the world. So the question arises, what happened that suddenly made these people accelerate like they were flying in a plane and the rest of the world was walking.
Despite the fact that these two books cover a different set of facts, they share a commonality in theme. Both of these works look at what is it that makes one bunch of people perform better than others. In fact, the third book that I have now started writing on China, is based on the same premise.
These days it is not good enough to write a good book. Like all other goods, books have to marketed as well. Do you have plans to publish “Muslims” through an international publishing house?
I’ve signed on with one of the bigger Indian publishing houses called Rupa Publications and they will now prepare their publication of the book.
Marketing a book is not the central purpose of why I write. My first book, “Saints and Sinners”, was picked up by Harper Collins India, and marketed and distributed through them. I don’t necessarily write to become a successful seller of books. I write because the subject interests me and I think more people should be made aware about it which is why I give away as many of my books as I sell.
What books do you usually read? Name a few of your favourite writers and titles.
Now that is a difficult question to answer. I read about 200 books a year which means I read a book almost every 2 days. I spent the last five years researching this topic. The bibliography at the end covers over 200 of those books.
Now I am moving on to a different subject where all the books I am reading currently are on China. So to say, which authors I like reading, no I don’t read in that way. I read on a subject and then I tend to exhaust all material I can get hold of on that subject until I have read and have more of an understanding on that subject than anyone else.
If you want to ask which are my favourite books in my life, that is easier to answer. I think books that have affected my life, perhaps changed my life, changed my values I can name off the top of my head. From China, there are, “Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung”, Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”, Lao Tsu’s “The Tao”.
From India; when I was young, I was most affected by Gandhi’s “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”. From America, it was “The Godfather”.
I think there have been other books which have impressed me when I was in jail as a political prisoner for a year in 1972-1973. I spent a lot of time reading “Asian Drama: An Inquiry Into the Poverty of Nations” written by Gunnar Myrdal, which he won the Nobel Prize for in Economics. That is a 3000 page tome which I read very carefully.
In modern times, a book that has affected my thinking more than most is a book called “Rogue State” by William Blum. That book has completely turned around my view of current affairs and the international political situation.
While researching “Muslims”, which Muslim period in history did you find most interesting and why?
So many periods in our history are interesting. Obviously the times of the Prophet (PBUH) and the four righteous caliphs was a very crucial and formative period of our history.
Then there is the century of conquests under the Ummayads, the development of learning under the Abbassids, the magnificence of the three great gunpowder empires of Ottoman, Mughals and Safavids; and just before them, the time of the amazing Tamerlane, who was perhaps the second greatest conqueror of all times.
What I find not only interesting but also relevant to our own lives is the modern age of the Muslims. Eight of nine chapters of the book deal with the last 100 years, noting why the Muslims went down and how they have struggled to find their place again in the world. I mean, every part of this story really gets one thinking.
You now have a deep understanding of the top Muslims throughout the ages. Which one would you say has impacted you the most?
It is hard to narrow it down to one or two people.Of course the first one is the Prophet (PBUH). After him, the other remarkable people who impressed me include Saladin; and in modern times, Mohammad Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt; Gamal Abdel Nasser and my favourite, Gaddafi.
In this day and age, when Muslims are easily stereotyped as terrorists, and the Muslims are divided between categories of moderate and fanatics, do you think a book like yours could lend clarity and perspective? Who are the readers you intend to target?
Well to start off with, the book is written in English. So it is largely aimed at anyone who can read the language – and that includes a lot of Muslims, who for whatever reason, have not been exposed to the facts of their own past.
Other than that, it would be researchers, social influencers, opinion and policy makers, the business elite or the military brass from the West who have an academic interest or political, diplomatic, economic or personal ties with the Muslims. It would be those who would like to understand more about the Muslim past and present through events and people that have shapedour reality.
Any advice for the Muslims of today?
There are some lessons that emerge from this book.
One of the most important things to note is that the Prophet (PBUH) stressed on education. Unfortunately this ideal has got left behind by the Muslim world today. We must realize that without education we are not going to go anywhere. And education doesn’t mean just doing your Matric or A’levels or even your politics and economics. It means going for advanced studies and acquiring scientific knowledge.
The second thing is that the Prophet (PBUH) instilled in his people a set of values based on justice and social consciousness which enabled them to become better than others and contribute to their societies and the world at large. We must not lose sight of those values if we are to succeed again.
This is your second trip to the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF). And you’ve been to the Karachi Literature Festival twice. Do you feel the Karachi/Lahore equation is much like that of Mumbai- Delhi? Which city do you feel more connected to and why?
There we go! This is an age-old debate with historic implications! Rationally speaking (who needs that?), it’s unfair to pit cities in this manner. But we are irrational AND unfair. So. I love the seductive lure of Lahore. I had said it earlier – Lahore is like a perfumed and ephemerally irresistible mistress. One gesture, one glance… and you are fida (bowled over). Hooked. Karachi is like a stern and starched bureaucrat, hell-bent on conducting business. But it also has its gorgeousness and unique sense of style.
It is a crazy city. I like crazy cities.
Lahore is more nawabi (princely) and laid back. Does anybody do any real work here? The rivalry between Mumbai and Delhi is more recent. No historic links at all in this regard. Mumbai is for survivors and drifters. It pushes you to the edge. It is kind to losers and derelicts. Delhi – not so much. Our capital is turned on by just one thing: power.
I find that a turn off. Creativity and culture thrive in Delhi, despite the babus (suits)! In Mumbai, it’s how creative you are with dhanda (business).
Do you feel people to people interaction like your visit and that of many others to attend the various literary festivals across Pakistan are important to bridge the divide?
These interactions are the only way forward. Eliminate the politicians from our dialogues and see what happens! We will be laughing and singing and eating and celebrating together. Those artificial barriers that separate us must be broken. The young can do it. Dosti (friendship), not dushmani (enmity) – make that the motto for the next generation. No more nafrat (hate). The world is a tired and negative place right now. It’s time to spread love and peace – as the hippies once did! We have so very many affinities! Why waste energies on our differences. I feel nothing but love and acceptance when I visit.
I long to return. I know it’s the same for countless Pakistanis who want to come across and find out for themselves what India is all about.
What in your view embodies the spirit of LLF?
LLF is really pretty unique in that it offers the best platforms for a free and liberal exchange of views despite the challenging environment. Visitors are informed and engaged. Speakers are charged up.
What more do you want? And the beautifully curated evenings offer writers a chance to get a marvellous glimpse into Lahori society, stately homes and come away richer for it. Did I forget to mention food and the legendary hospitality? This time, I came home with a full, excellently packed Lahori repast that was devoured by the family!
You are often equated with Jackie Collins. Your books are known to be risqué and are mostly based on the life and times of some of India’s most celebrated elite. Why have stories about this cross section of the society been those you have chosen to tackle most often?
I left that form of writing decades ago! I had a great time while I was at it. But it seems so distant today. I have written 20 books. More than a dozen from the list have nothing to do with the early novels.
Which of your works is your favourite and why?
It’s a little like asking which of my six children is a favourite and why. Even if there is a favourite,
I would be an absolute ass to reveal which one!
What keeps you so stunning at 70?
Pond’s cold cream. And a wicked sense of humour.
Any new books in the works?
There is always a new book happening inside my head.