February 15, 2020
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Pakistan Diary

One accurate indicator of the current state of India-Pakistan relations is levels of cellphone connectivity. My BlackBerry went dead the second my PIA flight landed in Lahore and no new SIM would revive it

Pakistan Diary

Rasleela in Lahore

One accurate indicator of the current state of India-Pakistan relations is levels of cellphone connectivity. My BlackBerry went dead the second my PIA flight landed in Lahore and no new SIM would revive it; I had to borrow a local handset for the duration of my stay. Delhi-Karachi air links being similarly denuded, I had an unexpected bonus of 24 hours in Lahore.

Dinner was at Coucou’s, the rooftop eatery, run by an artist descended from a courtesan of Hiramandi and overlooking Aurangzeb’s magnificent Badshahi Masjid. The food was splendid and my generous host produced the mandatory bottle of bootlegged Black Label. The ten-hour power cuts, though, gave the view a disconcertingly sepulchral air: the floodlit Masjid repeatedly lapsed into darkness, making it an “on-and-off mosque”. Odder still was the restaurant’s decor: fragments of temple statuary, cavorting Radhas and Krishnas and playful Ganeshas, no doubt acquired from Lahore’s Hindu buildings, sprouting everywhere. My Pakistani friends directed special praise at the “lovely Buddhas”. In fact, the large marble figures with decapitated heads and fractured limbs were Jain tirthankaras.

Buddha Bric-a-Brac

My art history lesson continued the next morning on a visit to the Lahore Museum, an elegant edifice of fine brickwork, the unrivalled repository of art and antiquity before Partition. My friend and namesake Ali Sethi, the young novelist, volunteered to accompany me. We passed through the Gandharan sculpture gallery, which includes the splendid image of the Fasting Buddha, but here, as at the National Museum in Delhi, the narrative unfolded like an as-told-to-children story. Infantile labels such ‘Head of Buddha’, ‘Torso of Buddha’ and ‘Jataka Tales’ dismissively downgraded the iconic masterpieces. In the ‘Nepali Art’ section, poor, trashy copies rubbed shoulders with gilded Tibetan period pieces; as for ‘Hindu Art’, Ali quickly propelled me past the dimly-lit glass cases with stone and bronze bits shovelled pell-mell inside. We had better luck tracking Amrita Sher-Gil’s The Vina Player, a small canvas the artist sold with difficulty to the Museum after her triumphant solo exhibition at Faletti’s Hotel in 1937.

On our way out Ali and I buttonholed a kittenish museum official to ask where the prized collection of Mughal and Sikh miniatures was hidden. (This was, after all, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s great capital). She stonewalled us, saying that they were being examined by a new “curator sahib”. Despite persistent inquiries, the curator sahib was clearly observing purdah from the public.

Festival of Absence

A contested battleground of terrorist strikes and gang wars, Karachi seemed a lot calmer and orderly than on previous visits. Its restored confidence is widely attributed to the city’s outgoing young mayor, Mustafa Kamal, an MQM man who has pushed development projects and brought a degree of conciliation amongst the city’s jousting political and economic groups. A sign of the makeover was the first Karachi Literature Festival, jointly hosted by the dynamic Ameena Saiyid, head of OUP and British Council, Pakistan. Inspired by the Jaipur Lit Fest, it was a lively three-day affair. Sadly, most Indian writers cried off. Kiran Desai? Occupied in Cairo. Shobha De? Busy being feted by Louis Vuitton in Paris. Ruskin Bond? Too nervous to travel. And Aatish Taseer (whose father is the PPP governor of Punjab) wrote: “Since it’s out of the realm of Abbu jaani, I would have been happy to accept,” but regretfully was promoting his new book in Europe.

Bohemian Rhapsody

An enjoyable spat occurred during the interaction with Mohsin Hamid, whose novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is to be filmed by Mira Nair. Hamid said he sent drafts of his books to his mother for an early reaction; when he sent her Moth Smoke, his novel set in decadent Lahore, whose young protagonist falls into drug addiction and other bad habits, she didn’t think it was that good. Whereupon, a gentleman in crisp shalwar-kurta, the archetypal conservative, rose to denounce Hamid as a corrupt and degenerate influence. At that moment the lights went out and loud jeers erupted. When they came back on, an unfazed Hamid replied: “Sir, you’re entitled to your opinion. It’s said that nightingales only sing to nightingales. Does that mean nightingales shouldn’t sing at all?” The packed house broke out in wild cheers for Hamid.

Exploding Self-Parody!

My last evening in Karachi was spent with the author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes, Mohammed Hanif, and his talented wife, theatre actor and producer Nimra Bucha. Hanif’s monologue for Nimra, The Dictator’s Wife, has made them the toast of drama festivals round the world. In their living room, I spotted a battered medicine cabinet, exploding with identical-looking books, displayed like ranks of Pakistani generals. These were language editions—from Czech to Finnish—of Hanif’s bestseller. I laughed loud at this insolent gesture of self-promotion and self-parody—a good way of making friends in a nasty neighbourhood.

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