Magic realism tries to bridge borders of hate

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL January 25, 2009

JAIPUR: This is where the ongoing cultural cold war may have briefly chilled out as Indian and Pakistani writers crossed metaphysical borders to commune in surroundings so far removed from their acerbic bilateral politics, it might have been Rushdie-style magic realism in reverse.

A flight of parakeets unceasingly ducked and dived through the low foliage of the manicured lawns of an 1860s haveli, made available for the three-year-old, annual Jaipur Literature Festival. A perfect sun lit up five perfect blue-skied days. And a dialogue of suspended hopefulness between two troubled neighbours seemingly bloomed in the barren heart of a desert city.

Appearances may be deceptive. Just three Pakistani writers were present at the Festival, which ends today. A well-advertised fourth, Ahmed Rashid, elected to remain in Washington because rumour has it, his journalist’s nose wouldn’t allow him to leave a developing story, namely mint-new American President Obama planning a “major” speech in a Muslim country by the middle of next month. Accordingly, the Festival’s Pakistani contingent in the conversation between us — unquiet neighbours — were Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam and Daniyal Mueenuddin.

Ranged against them, the phalanx of India’s heavy intellectual artillery — Swapan Dasgupta, Ashis Nandy, Tarun Vijay and Barkha Dutt. It would have been understandable, if unforgivable, had each ‘side’ employed the “campaign of truth”, famously set in stone for a cultural cold war by US assistant secretary of state Edward Barrett in the 1950s. Barrett had said “a highly skillful and substantial campaign of truth is as indispensable as an air force.”

Few here wanted to hazard a guess at the “truth” of, before and after 26/11. Not Mueenuddin, who was asked by a member of the Festival audience whether he thought Pakistan had declined as a state. Mueenuddin, whose collection of linked short stories In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, is published next month, replied, “that’s very easy. Yes”. Not Hanif, a BBC journalist based in Karachi, who has won praise for his spare, soberingly funny debut novel on General Zia’s assassination, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His Ali Shigri, a fictional junior trainee in the Pakistan Air Force, parodies the suicidal jihadi vision that plagues our waking dreams: “As Obaid used to say, ‘God’s glory. God’s glory. For every monkey there is a houri’.”

A native of Okara, the district in Punjab that has become infamous for siring 26/11’s sole captured terrorist Ajmal Amir Kasab, Hanif is resigned to being forever yoked, at one remove, with dangerously default anti-Indianism. “My passport still shows my permanent address as Okara,” he recounts, “so at (Indian) immigration, they asked me, somewhat disbelievingly, to repeat where I came from.” He adds, “but they were very nice actually. They let me through”.

As they did the rest. Festival co-director William Dalrymple, writer and bon vivant, describes the inherent difficulties of putting together a cross-national literary festival in a region caught in the snarl of politics. “It was a very deliberate decision to include Pakistani writers. Before the Mumbai attacks we’d invited them because they’re good writers. After the attacks, we had to make a decision whether or not to disinvite them, so to speak. We decided to go ahead, make a virtue of it. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations helped with visas”.

He adds, “Many figures on the centre left as well as the right have argued for a sporting and cultural boycott of Pakistan. It is extremely important to keep up the cultural dialogue between Pakistan and India. Once you start pulling the plug on writers and artists, the fanatics have won.”

Hence, the South Asian twist to Lennon’s anthem of peace, with the Festival straining to deliver, as Dalrymple says, “one Hindu, Muslim and Jew playing together every night” to underline the sweet pain of co-existence. With funding from London’s Coexist Foundation and a substantial donation from an unnamed wealthy British Jew, the Festival made a point of laying on a multi-faith concert every night. Not least Salman Ahmad, beautiful to see, electrifying to hear, representative of Junoon, one of Pakistan’s most popular rock bands. As also, Israeli singer Shye Ben-Tzur, who fuses Rajasthani rhythms with Western sounds and Turkic sufi musician Kudsi Erguner, who played to Rumi recitations by American poet Coleman Barks.

What, if anything, did it add up to? Does the idealism seems a trifle overdone considering this gloriously free, unticketed Festival drew just 7,000 people in the 72 hours till its penultimate day, Saturday? The question is particularly apt today, 24 hours after Pakistan’s first “peace mission” to India since the Mumbai attacks, left Delhi. Salman Rushdie, the father of 20th century sub-continental writing in English, was famously ”interested in reimagining reality itself, not in just imagining alternatives to reality.” He presented magical characters or events in realistic settings. The Jaipur Festival’s Indo-Pak vibe may have reversed that — it presented real people in magical settings.

Rashmee Roshan Lall / World Report