Something happened to Hanif Kureishi on Saturday night. A few possibilities follow.
1, He was abducted by terrorists and threatened with a life teaching their children English in North Waziristan unless he said extremely complimentary things about Pakistan. 2, He fell in love with a dusky local beauty and, realising his life now lay here, decided to put a positive spin on the place. 3, He raided one of Karachi’s ‘wine shops’ and went on a mind-blowing bender.
This third option could also explain why Kureishi, the keynote speaker at the Karachi Literature Festival’s closing ceremony on Sunday evening, had not actually written a speech.
Any of the three could explain why he spoke with such delight about his time in Karachi, enthusiastically heralding a new generation of writers from the country and expressing that he was “very impressed with people’s desire to speak.” Above all, Kureishi had felt a rare ‘buzz and excitement’ at the festival.
It helped that he was talking to someone he clearly liked and respected, someone who understands the writer and his work. This someone, Susie Nicklin (Director Literature at the British Council), joined Kureishi on stage and said the writer had opted for a conversation over a speech because it would be ‘fresh and vibrant’. This was more than an excuse for not doing his homework; it turned out to be true.
In his short time in the country, Kureishi has grasped that “everybody here knows that politicians are liars.” Literature offers a space without such manipulation; a story is “one place someone speaks from the heart.” Karachi has re-energised this sense in Kureishi: “You come to a festival like this … you get a sense that the writer matters.”
Naming Mohsin Hamid and Mohammed Hanif as examples, he said Pakistan was producing ‘important writers’ who would ‘start the ball rolling’ for a new batch. Perhaps Kureishi has formed this impression because Pakistan is a ‘highly politicised country’ which needs its writers, who ‘begin the argument’ and fulfill that most useful of functions in a democracy: being a ‘nuisance’.
He also stood up for the very notion of a literature festival. Agreeing that writers – and readers – are solitary creatures, he said nevertheless that ‘no writer exists on his own’ and argued that “you have to get a sense of a living culture, what others are doing.”
Yes: a living culture. Speakers and moderators at this festival, too often, had given the impression that literature was a dead thing and they were its earnest undertakers. Kureishi sparkles in print and in person because his words are always alive, whether they punch you, kiss you, or just ask you in for a cup of tea.
Kureishi also thinks we’re funny, describing Karachiites as people with ‘a good sense of humour’, something which has stood us in good stead given our political history, for ‘dictators don’t like jokes.’
He ended with gratitude, saying it was a ‘real honour’ to be at the festival, which he predicted would get ‘bigger and bigger … and more significant’ as the years pass on. Ultimately, Kureishi had felt ‘a real sense of love’ at the festival.
So that explains it: it was option number two.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.