By Vikram Seth
I am delighted to be invited by my friend Nuscie (Nusrat Jamil) and Razi Ahmed to attend the Lahore Literary Festival. Oddly enough, I feel as if I participated in it a year before it was actually founded.
At the Karachi Literature Festival two years ago, my friend Cheanie (Nasreen Rehman, Nuscie’s sister), who was to interview me then (and intends, viruses willing, to interview me now) fell suddenly ill—and Shaista Sirajuddin, who never travels as a rule, nobly agreed, at very short notice, to desert her dogs and fly in from Lahore for the day in order to take her place. She is an enthusiastic and exacting representative of academic Lahore, and I felt very much under the extension of a Lahori aegis that afternoon.
I know that I am supposed to be writing this for the Lahore Literary Festival, but part of the reason I am delighted to attend is because I had such a good time at the KLF. And since I have the floor—or the page, rather—I would like to thank in particular Ameena Saiyid, who invited me to the KLF and took such good care of me there—and Varda Nisar, who accompanied me around what is still, colonially, called ‘Interior Sindh.’ Not to mention Hamudi (Hameed Haroon), who befriended and bullied me, made me feel enormously welcome in his home and his city—and, indeed, saved my skin on one rather precarious occasion. But, back to Lahore.
Dilli wallas are supposed to have a sort of umbilical bond with Lahore (it having been the great metropolis when Delhi had become an economic and cultural backwater). But, since I was born after Independence and Partition, I have never really felt it. I have got to know Lahore mainly through Cheanie and Nuscie—in other words, through my friends. And perhaps most of all, I have got to know it through the presence of their mother, my beloved Qamar, whom I visited in this city when she was ill, and who died in this city six years ago. I will be in Lahore on that day, the 5th of March.
I should mention that Nuscie’s invitation to attend the festival came at a time when I was working on A Suitable Girl (which is a sort of sequel to Boy) and thinking a lot about Lahore—the period of Shastri and Ayub Khan, and of the 1965 War. It is strange to think of that conflict as having taken place 50 years—two generations ago; and sad to think that only the slowest of progress has been made in this long intervening period to establish peace between the two countries. The reason that I have Pakistani friends is because I belong to a class that can travel abroad. I met Cheanie and her family in London. The not-so-affluent and the poor, who cannot meet abroad, remain in ignorance of each other and are deprived of any possibility of real friendship or understanding.
This time, incidentally, I hope to find the place where, in 1923, my father was born—the village of Guruharsaya in the Okara district of those days. (My father’s mamun was an engineer on the canals, and his home acted as his sister’s maike.) But the last time I went to Lahore, I had to tell him that I was unable to find Guruharsaya. Ninety years is a long time, and, of course, given what happened, many names have changed.
My father is still, blessedly, alive. I should like to be able to report back to him this time that I have indeed found his birthplace.
I shall certainly report back that I have found my friend Qamar again. I understand that she will be at the full in Lahore on March 16, at 10:10 p.m. The skies are bound to be clear, and I plan to remain here to greet her.