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Poets Printery

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Talking to Pakistani Poet and Writer, Nayyara Rahman

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As India and Pakistan celebrate their 69th Year of Independence, Amitabh Mitra talks to foremost Pakistani poet and writer Nayyara Rahman about love, life, chasing passions, poetry and indulging in it by the Pakistani youth of today. Nayyara lives in the beautiful city of Karachi, she visits Delhi often and her poems on Delhi have been published in Dilli, An Anthology of Women Poets of Delhi, Edited by Semeen Ali.

1. Dilli is a city to which you are joined with memories and belief. This familiarity evokes the beauty and the splendor of a common culture, India and Pakistan. As a young poet joined so articulately to both these countries, do you believe, young women which this book represents, fuse their emotions, loving and living, irrespective of our boundaries and differences?

I believe they do.

I have been following up on the interviews, the reviews Dilli has received. Even without knowing the poets of Dilli in person, I certainly feel there is a strong commonality, and some very deeply felt and shared values.

2. Tell us about Karachi, where you were born. Karachi is at the helm of South Asian Literary and Art Creativity. I wish, someday I can come to Karachi and bask in the beauty of its history, people and life in general. What is present scene of Pakistani Poets writing in English in Karachi?

I hope you come to Karachi soon too!

Whether it’s still politically correct to call Karachi a port city (It has expanded to so much more than that!) I am not sure. But its past as a port city has had a great contribution, I feel, to the flavor and quality of Literature that has come out of it. I am quite sure we are the country’s most diverse and “globalized” city, where ethnicities, religions, hereditary vocations, poverty and wealth are juxtaposed and interdependent. For instance, when people hear of the “Islamic Republic Of Pakistan”, they do not realize that Pakistan’s first capital was Karachi. And amongst its architects, Karachi counts a much-revered Hindu Mayor, a Zoroastrian industrialist/philanthropist, and a Jewish Builder whose pre-partition buildings are still in place. Something else I hope you find in your visit to Karachi is that while the present and future walk hand in hand, the past doesn’t walk away. You can feel it in Saddar, a commercial hub, where buildings from the time of the Raj are still occupied, still flourishing. This doesn’t deter the business of the enclosed Mobile Phone Market nearby. You can feel it as you stroll in the Arts Council of Pakistan. Where the future of literature, music and theatre unfolds whose walls are still fragrant with the 1960s and 1970s. It’s a wonderful, comforting feeling.

There is a debate on whether commercialization overshadows culture in Karachi. But I feel the pace, the bias towards industry, the historical claim on this city are just some of the things that add to the variety of art forms and the almost biological bond we have with it. In Karachi’s unquiet, urban rush, it’s difficult to spot the lonesome, leisurely artist. But the same rush compels people to internalize art in their lives in some form or the other. So although everyone is not artistic, art finds its way, everywhere and to everyone in Karachi.

The present scene of poets in English in Karachi—they’re active. The Second Floor, T2F hosts open-mic sections which encourage young, mostly unpublished poets to express themselves. Several times each year, the Arts Council organizes book-launching ceremonies for young and established poets, and to celebrate the work of litterateurs.These are in all languages.

We are also host to the annual Karachi Literature Festival, which of course, includes poetry. In addition to all of this, there are also private literary sessions in which poets collect to read, write and improve on their poetry.

3. How do you perceive Pakistani Writings in English in the context of cross culture changing and increasing globalization?

Most of the Pakistani Writing in English I have read is from the diaspora, or authors based in Pakistan with a significant part of their lives spent abroad. That does a few things. First, depending on the maturity and objectivity of the authors, it brings balance to their outlook. And introduces a “plural” viewpoint in their writing. They can relate better to the increasingly globalized culture that is permeating geography. They introduce the Pakistani reader to things he or she would not know of otherwise, and conversely, introduce their international readership to another face of Pakistan.

Having a finger on the pulse of globalization is something the Pakistani Writer in English already does.

The second thing it has done has carved a niche for Pakistani Writing in English. If we approach publishing as an industry, I am sure books in Urdu and other national languages will do better in terms of volume. But not in terms of revenue, branding or global sales. And a big reason for this (in my opinion) is that writing in English is seen as something for the elite. While this does result in some benefits, such as a minimum standard of quality writing for publication, its downside is that it isolates readers of “Mainstream” literature. And an “Urdu/Punjabi/Sindhi/Balochi/Pashtun” writer will have to work very hard to be accorded the same opportunities as his/her counterpart in English.

While themes like “Development”, “Democracy”, “Terrorism”, and “Patriarchy” in one form or the other have been surfacing in recent work, I think this is more effective in reaching out to a global audience, than it is in reflecting the breadth and extent of Pakistani Literature in English. We can (and would like to!) write about much more, but for that publishers and (more importantly!) readers need to accept us on a broader canvas.

4. Tell us about yourself, your closeness in relating Pakistan to your writings and how close they are to Indian Writings in English.

Here’s a fun fact. In 2007, “Neither Night Nor Day”, which featured one of my short stories, was published. My short story depicted “typical middle-class” struggles—unemployment, or rather the competition for gainful employment; the unspoken defeat of a woman struggling for economic and emotional emancipation. Class differences, class cruelty. These are fairly universal issues, I think. But the most responses I’ve received on this story are from India, more than Pakistan or any other country. That tells me something about the common ground we share, on and off the page.

I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in the midst of Indian Writing in English. And my realization as a teenager—that an interpretation of the world, a largely unexplored one— exists–started with Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”. Her style was startling, piercing and yet for some reason, had a sort of “Apnapan” that I hadn’t come across in writing from other parts of the world.This still happens when I read something from a South Asian author.

It’s difficult to box a place into my writing. Places have characters and personality. And if (in my opinion) someone is writing about a place, they’re actually describing this all-enveloping character. I’m fortunate to be a Pakistani that way. Because to write about Pakistan, is to write about a character with sharp extremes, and some shocking (but also very beautiful) contradictions. To do justice to this, one needs to have maturity and balance.

5. Unbridled love and passion, fashion and beauty, women and culture, connecting to the city of Delhi, this was a catharsis which I experienced sometimes in the eighties, do you think the book Dilli could bring out those emotions and can we replicate it another such publication for the city of Karachi?

I think Dilli, our anthology, can evoke all this and more. Delhi’s character, I suppose, has grown dramatically since the eighties. But it hasn’t aged. In each visit, which in my memories, is like a pilgrimage, I found Delhi young, vibrant, cosmopolitan, with a deep reverence and acceptance for its past. Even as my Dilliwallay friends debated the price of preserving heritage, as the future bustles restlessly around it, the argument wasn’t about what should stay and what should go; but on how to make room for both, in a way that is respectful, non-patronizing and socially un-injurious.

Etchings of the Raj mounted on IIC’s walls; strolling on the grounds of Humayun’s tomb, driving past billboards of glamorous, global celebrities endorsing very “Desi” issues, like family planning or fair-price transport are some memories that come up again and again when I think of Delhi.
I would absolutely love to have such a publication come out for Karachi! Absolutely!

6. What it is to be in love, and its madness installed in poetry forever?

Being in love with poetry—and in literature in general, is like embracing a disease. I mean that in a good way.
You learn that humility will offer a sturdier friendship, especially in comparison to noisier, tangible friends. You school yourself to remain hopeful, but are not swayed by every wave of optimism, from inside or outside.

This does not mean a love affair with poetry is a journey of pessimism. It is a journey of hope, where the truth will always be clear to you. But where you will lie, often. Because those around you aren’t ready for the truth. And lying brings them so much comfort and assurance. It’s familiar. It’s what, and how you talk, every day.

You will also pray, often. That someone, somewhere who needs to hear the truth is prepared to. Poetry is that prayer.

And because (true) poetry is unapologetic, unselfish and often, irreverent, it can raise its eyebrows where you can’t. It can cheer where you should be mourning. And it has the power to smile when you have neither the courage, nor the strength to.

Photographs of Karachi, Pakistan

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