Hanif Kureishi last came to Karachi 25 years ago. It was a productive trip; he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay My Beautiful Laundrette and an incisive extended essay about class, race and post-colonial identity.
This time, one foresees a small column in The Guardian in which Kureishi, as he has done before, concludes that the only hope left for Pakistan is to join India.
For the most part, we deserve it. First, at the Karachi Literature Festival, we send him on with moderator Muneeza Shamsie, who asked questions which would have shamed even a college newspaper reporter: tell us about the different merits of different genres; tell us about the relationship between autobiography and fiction; tell us about how racism is a really bad thing. Why, while you’re at it Hanif, why not tell us how to tie our shoelaces?
Then, we harangue him with questions from the floor, ranging from the tedious (one man hysterically indignant that Kureishi had described Karachi as showing signs of ‘decay’), to the limp (people still banging on about postcolonial identity) to the rudely ignorant (an elderly lady asking why he was a misogynist).
In fact, given that his session started forty-five minutes late, Kureishi might also conclude that the only hope left for Pakistan is to be re-colonised by Britain. Either way, he opened with a charming reading of the first few pages of his first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, a book which becomes ‘more unfamiliar’ to the author as he gets older. His own sons might be the same age as the book’s iconic narrator, Karim Amir, but the voice still expresses the restlessness of the suburbs, the adventure of late adolescence and the celebratory weirdness of being a dark-skinned boy in Britain of the 1970s.
Kureishi’s world-weary monotone couldn’t help but animate itself when reading from this comic masterpiece. He even said the word ‘erection’ in public, surely a first for the festival; judging from the paralysed audience reaction, one hopes not the last.
Egged on by the moderator, Kureishi then rehashed his biography, another wasted precious five minutes with the writer. After all, we could have read on the internet about his early days at the Royal Court Theatre and his time writing films for Channel 4 because he was “the only black or Asian writer they’d heard of.”
Familiar themes came up, such as the ‘reverse-colonialism’ of immigration in Britain, and angry reaction to his novels and films by Pakistanis who thought he shouldn’t be portraying the country or city in a bad light. His response to this was tinged with moments of hyper-ironic naughtiness: Kureishi told a story about a Pakistani telling him – with a straight face – that there were no homosexuals in Pakistan. Not a single one? No, not a single one. Kureishi’s response: “Having been fondled all over South Asia, I’ve had a different experience.”
In fact, it was with these ventures into sexuality and transgression that the talk perked up. It is very much Kureishi’s area, these ‘hush-hush themes’ as one audience member put it. This is when one felt profoundly grateful to have Kureishi here, in our city, to talk about the most urgent questions on how to live, how to write, how to love.
Love of work was also spoken about. For Kureishi, talk of artists being ‘disciplined’ was missing the point: the successful ones work hard because there is nothing they would rather do, even if writing is ‘very difficult’.
There was also a defiant defence of the novel, this art in which you use “all the stuff that’s in your head” to form a “democratic mind – which might be what a novel is.”
Earlier, Kureishi had relayed a conversation from that trip in the 1980s. “We’re Pakistanis,” an uncle had told him, “but you’ll only ever be a Paki.” The truth is that Hanif Kureishi is a Londoner, 100 per cent. He doesn’t much like Karachi, and Karachi, to its loss, doesn’t seem to much like him.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2012.