South Asia Loves Lit Fests Long Time


Literary festivals are a Western construct. Throw off your shackles South Asia! You’ve nothing to lose except William Dalrymple!

"I saw more south Asian writers in the early 1990s in London, Sydney and New York than India," he said. "And it’s great for international writers too because they can get away from their damp bedsits each January and speak to pretty girls under the awnings in Jaipur, surrounded by elephants and palaces."

That’s Dalrymple, quoted in a press release story from the Guardian about Lahore Lit Fest. If you really want to read it here is a link. Although the sub-head talks about Lahore restoring its cultural tradition there is no information about who or what features in that tradition. Nor is there mention about the rivalry between Karachi (which is having its fourth festival) and Lahore (which is having its first). A sidebar or an accompanying blog would have sufficed. Such detail or nuance may be lost on the layman, but presumably anyone reading an article about literary festivals in the first place has a passing interest in detail and nuance. Ho hum.

Disclosure: I’ve only ever been to one literary festival and the highlight was a well-known writer flirting with me in the science section of a bookshop. He was fingering the spine of a chemistry book. I rest my case.

The Jaipur Lit Fest has just taken place. In a few weeks time there will be the Karachi Lit Fest. The Burma Lit Fest is taking place in between the two. Then towards the end of February there is the Lahore Lit Fest. There are 30 literary festivals in India alone. Keep up!

I know what you’re saying - Hay, Cheltenham, Oxford. These happen within weeks of each other with the same faces popping up, plugging their books, rolling out the same anecdotes, putting the world to rights, being self-absorbed and speaking from on high. Indeed Hay has enough franchises to rival Chicken Cottage.


As of yet the KLF has not published its schedule of speakers, leading one journalist to accuse the organizers of being shoddy. But hey, there’s two weeks to go! That’s an eternity in Pakistan. Besides, the line up of participants haven’t varied all that much in the last few years for KLF. Oh look, there’s Mohammed Hanif! Mohsin Hamid! Raza Rumi! Kamila Shamsie! It’s like subcontinental literary festival bingo. You get a full house with William Dalrymple - who is like the Kim Kardashian of literary festivals. A Lit Fest without him is like a Daily Mail side bar of shame without KK. Dawn even described Dalrymple “as the the most recognisable British face in South Asia”. David Cameron will be devastated. To be fair to Will he has just written a book - about Afghanistan - which has had fantastic reviews.


What I like about KLF is that it is free, open to all and that the number of visitors are on the rise. It, and the event in Lahore, encourage young people not only to attend but to write and to think independently. This is a good thing - demystifying literature and Writing (with a capital W) as a way of increasing the critical mass of English and Urdu literature coming out of Pakistan. It is crucial that Pakistani literature gets attention for being good rather than being Pakistani, as the last few paragraphs of this 2010 Independent article observes.

But this leaves me wondering about other art forms in Pakistan. How much effort is expended on promoting art, dance, drama, film, music? What is the impact of lit fests on these art forms? Do they benefit from a ripple effect, socially or economically? Who takes part in these festivals and why? Who goes to these festivals and why? What about the bilingual aspect of Pakistan’s Lit Fests? What sort of coverage is there of Lit Fests in the Urdu language press? How do sales or publicity of Urdu language books compare to their English language counterparts? Is there a language barrier? I’ve no idea what Amadou and Mariam are singing about but I happily pay for their music as do millions of other people.

I’d like to know more about the Pakistani art scene as a whole and not just in a way that translates easily for an international audience (this is where literary festivals are a useful device as they are basically all the same).

Ah, but what about freedom of expression? I hear you ask.


Well according to Mohammed Hanif (you can find the full quotation in that Indy article I linked to earlier) lack of freedom never “stopped writers and other creative artists in Pakistan. In fact, some of the best literature in Pakistan has been produced during the worst military dictatorships.” So there’s your answer.

But what about the work of contemporary artists? Or was the drooling over Pakistani art just a phase? Where are the Mohammed Hanifs and the Mohsin Hamids of the music world? And what about film? I am shamelessly going to plug a post I wrote last summer about the loneliness of the independent film-maker in Pakistan. Disclosure: Hammad Khan is a friend of mine. Is it that other art forms are too Pakistani for international consumption?

Here’s Mohammed Hanif again, back in 2010.

The boom… is basically half a dozen writers getting published worldwide, winning awards and getting good reviews. And because they write in English, in a globalised world they get much more attention than their counterparts writing in Urdu or Punjabi or Pashto. But I do hope they are getting this attention, because they are telling some good stories.

So let the Lit Fests inspire the next generation of Kamila Shamsies and Bina Shahs, but let them also pay more than lip service to other Pakistani artists and art too. Maybe one day South Asia won’t need William Dalrymple.

Who needs drones?

How many Pakistanis have been killed by their own countrymen recently?

23 January: Four pro-government tribesmen are shot in Badaber, Peshawar. Two former peace militia members killed in Kari Haider Khel, Tank. Police actions kill three men in an 'encounter' in Faisalabad.

22 January: A Shia doctor is killed in Peshawar. A woman in Mastung, Balochistan, has her throat slit and her body dumped near a police station over an alleged elopement. Six people are killed in Karachi: torture and beheading to blame.

21 January: Two security personnel killed by an IED in the Mohmand tribal region.

20 January: Seven people killed in Karachi. The body of a 16-year-labourer is found in Bara.

19 January: Suspected terrorists kill two people in Kot Azam, Tank district. Two suspected members of the Balochistan Liberation Army are killed in Mastung.

18 January: Kamran Faisal, charged with investigating corruption allegations against the prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, is found hanged in Islambad. His uncle said the body bore signs of torture. I don’t think anyone believes it was suicide. Eight people die in Karachi. Armed men kill a school principal and his son in Kharan, Quetta.

17 January: Five people, including two women and two children, killed by shelling in Miramshah, Waziristan.

15 January: 18 - I’ll say that again - 18 bodies are recovered from Bara tehsil in Khyber Agency. 

Does this mean NOBODY was killed on January 16? What happened? Did Pakistan take the day off?

I apologise for the bleakness. Here is a picture of something cute.

A cloud of doom hovered over the commentary on Pakistan too. Here is some Pakistan reading.

Ajai Shukla writes about the difference between Indian and Pakistani reaction to the killing of soldiers on the Line of Control (h/t Shashank Joshi).

…the fortuitous outcome of Pakistan’s single-minded focus on Tahir ul-Qadri’s so-called Long March was that New Delhi’s tough response to brutality on the LoC went almost unnoticed in Pakistan, allowing Islamabad (which has little appetite for roiling the waters) to settle for a pro-forma response. This avoided an acid exchange of tit-for-tat statements that would have united Pakistan’s divided anti-India constituency.

Ah yes, Qadri…

The man and his not so million-strong march occupied Islamabad in addition to swathes of column inches, screen time and hot air. Things in Pakistan happen so quickly it’s best to wait to let the dust settle. Who could have predicted that even as the cleric was in his luxury shipping container making his demands the Chief Justice would issue an arrest order for the prime minister? It’s Pakistan, nothing is accidental. Anyway, here’s Huma Yusuf on the symbolism of the shipping container in Pakistan (no really).

But what were once symbols of the globalized economy and regional trade have become markers of Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation.

Shipping containers, which have been used to transport NATO supplies through Pakistan to Afghanistan, now represent rocky U.S.-Pakistani relations. In 2011 and 2012, to protest the killing of Pakistani soldiers in American airstrikes, the Pakistani government blocked the passage of containers for seven months and threatened to only allow the resumption of shipping for exorbitant transit fees. The containers have also become a favorite target of militants who oppose Pakistan’s cooperation with the United States in the fight against terrorism.

The sectarian violence of the last few weeks continues to be felt. Dawn has this photo gallery of Bara villagers protesting in Peshawar while Al Jazeera has this feature on the plight of the Hazaras. The article carries an extract from those tools over at Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which claims responsibility for the Quetta blast. 

If it is the will of God, in 2013 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi will not allow any Shias to remain living in Quetta […] we will carry out such attacks that the enemy will, with the will of God, not have any escape. […] Our message to the Shias is simple: be prepared to kill, or be killed

The original LeJ statement can be found here. Not for nothing have the attacks on the Hazara been described as genocide.

Here is a puppy.

Pakistan. Not so zinda, really bad:

Quetta, Pakistan. Photo by AP

Bombs tore through Pakistan on Thursday and killed at least 100 people, most of them Shia. It is not the first time militants have targeted the Hazara community and it won’t be last. What sets this bloody incident apart from others, however, is the wider response to it.

Shia refuse to bury their dead until the military intervene

Dawn newspaper reports:

From Karachi to Islamabad, Shia parties such as Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM) and the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO) as well as civil society activists gathered to protest the three blasts in Quetta on Thursday which claimed over a hundred lives – most of them of Shia and Hazaras.

On Friday, distraught relatives of the victims had begun a protest in Quetta. Accompanied by coffins holding the bodies of those killed on Thursday, they said they would not move or bury their loved ones till the army took control of Quetta.

By Saturday, a stunned nation appeared to have rallied around in support of the protesters by holding protests. In Islamabad, a protest organised by Shia groups blocked a main road for several hours. Although the protesters dispersed late in the night, they promised to return for a peaceful demonstration on Sunday morning.

The same newspaper, on its homepage, carries the headline: “Turning Point?”

A candelit protest in Islamabad. Photo by AP

There have also been protests in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi with people criticising the provincial government for failing to protect Shia Muslims in the region. This neglect comes in spite of years of shootings, suicide bombings, hundreds of lives lost and reports that sectarian violence has become more pronounced. Human Rights Watch said at least 320 members of the Shia population were killed in targeted attacks last year. The Financial Times and the BBC have decent primers on a situation that is by turns bleak, chaotic and confusing not least because it is competing with other, multiple nightmare scenarios for the country. Dawn has a timeline on Hazara killings in Balochistan. The South Asia Terrorism Portal has datasheets on how people are dying.

So why are these protests happening, why now? How have Pakistanis gone from trashing their cities in fury at a schlocky no-mark anti-Islam film to enduring freezing temperatures to mourn alongside the genuinely demonised and persecuted? I fully accept that not all Pakistani Sunni Muslims are expressing solidarity with their Shia Muslim countrymen, that those registering their anger are in a minority and that the number of this weekend’s protesters pales in comparison when compared with other public demonstrations. But it is an improvement. That there is any measurable outrage at all is amazing given the country’s catastrophic start to 2013. Indeed the BBC’s Pakistan correspondent Aleem Maqbool remarked it was unheard of for people to still be protesting on a Sunday when the attacks had taken place on a Thursday. The writer Bina Shah was more downbeat about the ramifications from the latest bloody episode.

…while they are physically killing the weak and the vulnerable - the Shias, the Christians, the Hindus, the Ahmedis - the rest of us are suffering from this cancer too. We cannot be healthy when parts of our body are being amputated in the most brutal way. How do you live in a country that’s killing you, bit by bit? I don’t know. But I suspect we’re all about to find out.     

You can read the full post here.


Shah is right. It is not simply the Shia Muslims of Pakistan who are being attacked, it is the Ahmedis too. The dead have their graves desecrated, the living have their mosques destroyed and their brethren gunned down. Christians are hounded on spurious blasphemy charges. Where is the government in all of this?

President Zardari and his cabinet was busy in what they saw as a matter of greater importance – staving off  Tahir ul Qadri, an otherwise unknown cleric, who seems to have caught our political leadership napping. Simply by saying the right things and launching a march to Islamabad, he has upset the great democratic government which supposedly owes its strength to its popularity amongst the people. So shaken is the government by Tahirul Qadri that it has drafted in thousands of law enforcement personnel from other provinces to save its seat of power. Maybe it would have made more sense to deploy some of these personnel for the safety of the Hazaras.

Instead of catching the bull by the horns, we continue to ignore the problem. First the Ahmadis were attacked. Then members of other religious communities. Now it is Muslims of different sects. What next? When will we wake up from our slumber and realize that unless we deal with this problem, gradually no one will be left alive or unaffected in this great country of ours?

That extract is from a blog by Kamal Siddiqui and it can be found here.

Lest anyone get too misty-eyed about the country turning a corner, Zainab Imam writes on the reality of being a Shia in Pakistan.

93 of us perished yesterday. I don’t mean Pakistanis, I mean Shias. And as much as it pains me to identify myself as something before a Pakistani, this state seems to have left little choice for us.

Dawn was right to use that question mark.

I don’t want to discuss Tahir Ul Qadri for the very reasons mentioned by Siddiqui. The cleric and his much publicised long march are a distraction and a drain on the country’s already exhausted energies and resources.


He should realise there is a time and a place for everything. Now is not the time, Pakistan is not the place. His march could “scupper elections”, as Saeed Shah writes, by causing polls to be delayed or even cancelled.

Mr Qadri insists he wants the elections to be held on time and that his reforms could be implemented without delay. He has called for the Election Commission to “pre-clear” candidates, after checking that they paid taxes and had not defaulted on loans. But political observers see a wider agenda. Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch, said: “It appears that Tahir ul-Qadri wants to derail the democratic process.… This would be entirely unacceptable because Pakistan is on the cusp of the first transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

His prominence and sabre rattling has rather captured the imagination of the media for two reasons: he’s not Imran Khan and journalists tire of writing the same Pakistan story over and over again namely Taliban/death/India/Taliban/death/cricket. Qadri’s rhetoric and showboating come as a breath of fresh air.

But it’s not the first time he’s stolen the limelight with a well-meaning but ill-judged initiative. In 2010 he launched a 600 page fatwa condemning terrorism. The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker assessed the enormous edict here. As Pakistanis, Afghans and Iraqis will tell you - if they weren’t so busy tending to their dead and injured - Qadri’s fatwa doesn’t have as much penetration as suicide bombs do.

That’s as much space as I’m prepared to give Qadri. If you want to know more about him you can find things here and here and here (that last link from Canada’s Globe and Mail). 

In Case You Missed It - and it’s easily done with so much of it around - here is this week’s death toll in Pakistan. It is not comprehensive - I am entirely reliant on media reports for numbers - so this list is only indicative. It is indicative THAT YOU SHOULD NEVER GO ANYWHERE NEAR QUETTA. Drone deaths are well documented elsewhere so are not included here.

January 13 2013: A blast in North Waziristan kills 14 security force personnel. Separate explosions kill two militants and a person in a market. One person dies after an IED hits a passenger coach in Parachinar. A teenage girl is shot by her brother in what western media would call an “honour” killing.

January 12 2013: A child dies in Brewery Road, Quetta, following an IED blast. A nurse is shot dead in Nowshera, KP.

January 11 2013: Two men die after unidentified armed men attack a Nato supply terminal in the Hazarganji area of Quetta.

January 10 2013: At least 114 people killed in bomb blasts in Mingora and Quetta. A Pakistani soldier is killed in a Kashmir border clash. Three people are shot in “different incidents of target killing” in Quetta.

January 8 2013: A man is shot in Quetta.

January 6 2013: A Pakistani soldier is killed in a Kashmir border clash.

Penang Thang - part three

Little India, Kuala Lumpur

Little India doesn’t get the (human) traffic of tacky tourist spots in KL such as Chinatown, but for me it’s a far more interesting and far more real place. I don’t want to use the A-word (authentic) but it is…the above picture is a roundabout. Because nothing says India like elephants. Look - here are some cars!

I was meant to go on a (free) guided tour of Little India courtesy of the Malaysian Tourist Centre, except it never materialised. Clearly, every Saturday doesn’t mean every Saturday. But for the price of £9 (about 20MB of data charges when roaming) I took myself off on a tour around the sticky sweaty streets around KL Sentral.

I started with the Vivekenanda Ashram, built in 1904. Swami Vivekenanda was a spiritual leader who visited Malaya in 1893 on his way to Chicago.

That’s a statue of him out the front. I started peeping around the sides and the back of the building used for cultural and religious activities. This is what I saw from the road, looking to the back of the property.

  Nice enough. Then I did a 360.


I mean, really Malaysia? You think KL needs more condominiums? No wonder she looks so fed up.

Oh no wait. She was waiting for her kid, who was at karate practice. It might be judo. It was definitely some sort of martial art. It was very cute, although not if you got your moves wrong. Then, a teacher would hit you with a belt.

I went out the side gate, which led me on to a series of neat terraces known as the 100 Quarters, so-called because they were the pre-war digs for government servants exported by the British from India during the colonial era. The houses straddle three streets - Lorong Chan Ah Tong, Jalan Chan Ah Tong and Jalan Rozario.

Oh sure, they look cute from that perspective. And then…

It’s those pesky condominiums again. Staying where I have been - out of town, around 12 minutes on the LRT - you get to see an aerial view of the poorer neighbourhoods in KL as you head towards the gleaming towers. Tourists are so busy looking up, they forget to look down sometimes.

I swoop back on to the main road - Jalan Tun Sambanthan - and someone has gone crazy with a paintbrush. Little India is bright, busy and fragrant - everything the subcontinent is famous for. It reminded me of a steamy and tropical version of Southall.

Along Jalan Berhala is a Buddhist temple - Maha Vihara.

It was founded by the Sinhalese community in 1894.

I tried to get a close-up of these two monks, who were sitting in a swing. In the end I just asked if I could take their picture, they didn’t look too thrilled.

There aren’t that many resident monks so, looking at the website, I’m guessing that these two chaps are Ven. Siridhamma and Ven. Gnanadhamma (who looks like he’s put a bit of weight on).

After pottering about the temple, I followed the street and took a right down an alley to find two dinky but divine locations.

Taking my steer from Malaysia Traveller the larger oneis a Chinese temple, Seng Hong Yokong, while the smaller one is the Shri Krishna Shrine.

A little further along, on Jalan Scott, is the Sri Sakthi Vinaygar Temple.

Little India is hardly off the beaten track. But I didn’t see that many tourists there. There were more locals going about their business, which I like about the area. True, the main parade has been thwacked about the face with paint and gaudy light fixtures but there are still plenty of streets that look like this for example:

It’s hot, there’s no AC, the sidewalks are uneven and occasionally you get the whiff of an open sewer but hey! That’s Truly Asia, Malaysia.

I have a thing about signs and I’ve been photographing ones that tickle my fancy.

A bold claim, methinks.

I did stop off here for some chapatis, tadka daahl and nimbu pani . Cost? Rm 10.40. That’s just over £2. Really tasty. And yes, really authentic…It is indeed a hut.

Almost adjacent to Aston Villa (ha ha) is the glorious Sri Kandaswamy Temple

a South Indian style temple that has been gracing Malaysia for the past 107 years. Sri Kandaswamy Kovil appears elegant and graceful with lofty towers, beautiful vimanasbearing golden domes, well decorated halls, elegant and majestic pillars, mind inspiring architecture and sculptural works to instill devotion in one’s mind.

The temple has a sacred pond, a sacred tree and a sacred garden. It also has a pair of peacocks.

So that was my little jaunt around Little India. I enjoyed it because it felt like a normal, lived-in part of a city that sometimes seems to be very one-dimensional. I like that people are maintaining thousands of years of tradition, in spite of the high rise towers springing up around them, retaining a distinct culture and religious identity.

Whitening deodorant, hijab shampoo. Really ladies?

Huh? while I was scrolling through channels last night looking for Eurovision I saw an advert for whitening deodorant. It whitens your underarms. Makes them fairer. It’s aimed at the Pakistani/Indian market - the video I’m posting is not the one I saw but it gives you an idea of the product’s aims. The subcontinent has a huge appetite for fairness and lightening treatments. Now I know these creams and lotions have been around for years and I know that skin shade counts but it’s not something I agree with or choose to take up. But your underarms? Really? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Someone on the same sofa immediately pointed out that women in the subcontinent can buy a skin lightener for their more intimate areas.   The video is priceless.

Earlier during my Islamabad stay I had visited a spa that offered foot, leg and hand bleaching with prices starting from Rs. 150. My friend - who has lived in Pakistan for several years - asked what the purpose of the treatment was. The spa receptionist replied it was to make those areas fairer. Like, duh. What was the cream made of? Bleach. What sort of bleach, surely not the kind used for cleaning? Oh yes, replied the receptionist. Fast forward to sitting in front of the telly on Saturday night and reeling from the existence of lightening products for things I didn’t think needed lightening, someone on Twitter said there was a shampoo for covered hair. Again - huh? The Jewish Journal says the marketeers claim it deals with the “excess production of oils and build-up of scalp dirt” that can come with wearing hijab.

Blimey. You don’t need a special shampoo for your hijabi hair anymore than you need a roll-on to give you whitish underarms or fairer ladybits. I don’t know what’s more disheartening, the companies churning this stuff out or the women who are buying it.