Islamabad Literature Festival 2013: Tarrar in a society of taboos

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on May 3, 2013.

Islamabad – Mustansar Hussain Tarrar, a renowned Urdu writer, hopes he could write his major novels in a society where there was no sword hanging constantly over the heads of writers.

Tarrar was speaking at a reading session for his new book “Ay Ghazaal-e Shab” at the Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) on Wednesday.

“Fifty per cent of the subjects are still a taboo in our society,” Tarrar said. “I wish I would get to live in such a society which is not shrouded by fear.”

When during the questions and answers session, an audience member passionately asked Tarrar why he was not standing up for the truth and following the example of many writers before him who opted for the gallows over compromise, Tarrar, with a soft smile on his lips, said “I admit that I am a very cowardly writer.”

The unashamed and honest reply drew some giggles from the crowd but it also exposed a worrisome aspect of the Pakistani society.

The country has historically witnessed censorship on free speech, especially under Martial Law regimes, but society has increasingly grown polarized over ideas, objects and texts that do not sit well with a particular ideology. Tarrar appeared to be voicing a feeling shared by many Pakistani writers who, even in urban settings, feel insecure and worry they might be targeted by extremists on the basis of their writings.

Despite the antics of a cantankerous moderator who almost derailed the session singlehandedly, Tarrar did not disappoint his fans who showed up in numbers to see their favourite writer at the Islamabad Literature Festival on Wednesday.

Tarrar did not show any visible signs of anger but took sarcastic digs at the pretentious questions-cum-comments posed by the smug, and admittedly ignorant, moderator, Ahmed Shah. The conversation got so uncomfortable and awkward that at one point, Tarrar had to say that the moderator was incapable of the kind of discussion he had expected at the session and Shah had to

When Shah asked Tarrar about the number of novels he has written, Tarrar quipped that he doesn’t keep count and gave the analogy of an “Arab sheikh” who keeps fathering children but never bothers to count them.

To another question about critics, Tarrar drew applause and laughs from the crowd when he said, “if the critics do not take me seriously, then I don’t take them seriously either.”

He said he had worked on TV because he was a full-time writer with economic constraints.

Tarrar said he is proud of “writing for the gallery” and he is not embarrassed that he is called a popular writer. The label of “popular writer” is often used in literary circles to describe a writer who produces texts that are a hit with audiences but possess little or no literary merit.

Earlier, Tarrar read a detailed passage from his latest book “Ay Ghazaal-e Shab.” The title of the novel is borrowed from the opening line of a poem by legendary poet Noon Meem Rashid — the poem is also printed in the novel’s foreword.

The passage Tarrar read showed two actors enacting the Krishna-Arjuna dialogue from the Mahabharata for a stage play when the actor who is playing Krishna launches into an unscripted philosophical rant about religion, life and death.

The influence of poetry on Tarrar’s latest prose was evident again toward the ending sentences, which heavily referenced the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

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