Book review: Making a case for the Presidency – Hillary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

Before saying more about Hillary Clinton’s recently published memoir Hard Choices, I want to begin by admitting that it will come as a huge surprise for me if she decides not to contest the 2016 US Presidential Election. That will not just be the case because of the momentum around Hillary and the Democrats’ optimism that they will return to office in 2016, but also because of the entire tone of this book.

Hard Choices, which narrates the story of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as the US Secretary of State, quickly climbed the best seller list of The New York Times, and only fell to second place once a book revealing the rumored tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas hit the market. It seems that the only thing readers are more interested in than Hillary is Hillary herself.

All autobiographies, including this one, are meant to portray authors as heroes and are thus written with the intention of telling the story of the author’s life with as much nobility as is plausible. Naturally then, after reading this book you may catch yourself wondering why all the problems in the world hadn’t gone away by 2013 when she ended her tenure as Secretary of State.

But what makes this book somewhat different is that it is less about Hillary herself but more about being the chief diplomat of a global superpower that is insecure about its influence in the world and fears that it is on the decline. Hard Choices is worth reading because of the insights it provides into the strength of American democracy and two of the greatest moments in America’s recent history – the humiliation that America felt on the world stage after the 2008 financial crisis and the taking out of America’s Enemy Number One Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Hillary describes in detail, and with some thinly-veiled amusement, how she was poached for the position of Secretary of State by the Obama Administration – the same campaign staff that had left no stone unturned in the previous two years to highlight her unsuitability for public office. After conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, she was fairly adamant to return to her job as Senator of the New York State. What changed her mind, however, was a “sense of duty and service” inculcated in her by her parents and “a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” Yes, reading this book is a little like watching “The West Wing”, a romanticized American television series about the White House.

The book again adopts a diplomatic, humdrum tone, with Hillary detailing how the White House was supportive of almost every decision she made on who she wanted on her State Department team. That’s a little hard to accept on face value for someone familiar with the age-old wariness that characterizes the relationship between the State Department and the White House, both of which share much-guarded territory as representatives of the US President on the global stage.

Eventually, though, Hillary bounces back to her rather undiplomatic self in part, talking about the difficult things about the job more candidly. “I had logged in more miles and sat through more awkwardly translated diplomatic speeches than I imagined possible,” she writes at one point, in a line that perfectly captures the essence of her time as Secretary of State. In the short span of four years, she travelled to 112 countries, including China and Japan whose emergence as global business centers was adding to the anxiety that the US was feeling with regards to its own financial health. In many of these meetings, the leaders of the newly-confident economic powers never missed an opportunity to lecture her on how the United States was doing it all wrong. She makes it obvious that those were not her most comfortable or cherished moments from those meetings, even though a number of them ended in successful outcomes.

Her sharpest criticism, however, is reserved for the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This section, I believe, is the actual test of the book’s objective: be a feel-good story for America and Americans or have a serious discussion on American diplomatic history. No points for guessing which way the book tilts (it’s the former). For example, while she clearly mentions the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency’s links with the Afghan Taliban from the 1980s struggle against the Soviets, she fails to mention the American role in the conflict that is a well-documented part of history. Although I had little expectations, this omission was still a slight disappointment for me since, for the most part of the book, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad decisions made by American diplomats that have led to some of the deadlocks she tried to break.

Interestingly, though, she only mentions those mistakes in the context of events that she considers her diplomatic victories, such as Myanmar and China, or when there is an opportunity to blame others for their behavior. For instance, she accepts that complications were created by America’s quick and irresponsible exit from Afghanistan in 1989, but only to chastise Pakistan on what she calls irresponsible behavior towards its counterterrorism policies. She also takes no clear position on drones, insisting that the Obama Administration does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties and hides behind the fact that the program is classified information.

More diplomatically, the book is planned such that while the chapter on Pakistan begins with the Bin Laden raid, it carefully moves on to say nicer things about the two countries’ strained relationship.

Her description of the OBL raid is another part of the book that convinces me of Hillary’s ambitions to announce her intention to run for president. She makes it clear that during deliberations about whether America risked irreparably damaging Pakistani national honor by sending in US Navy SEALs, her priority for American honor. “What about our national honor? What about our losses? What about going after a man who killed three thousand innocent people?” she asks an official who brings up the question about Pakistan. It is clear that in Hillary Clinton’s mind, Pakistan was less a partner and more a threat in America’s quest for fighting militancy and militants. And that view of Pakistan is shared by her compatriots, many of whom see Democrats as soft on Pakistan and other countries that harm US interests. By emphasizing Pakistan’s role towards securing America while also clearly mentioning her frustration from “too much double-talk from certain quarters in Pakistan or the still-searing memories of the smoking pile in Lower Manhattan” as the reasons for her support to the Bin Laden operation, Hillary appears to have the intention to ensure that the American public knows her strong position on the matter as well as understands the need to continue US engagement with Pakistan.

She then moves on to describing her first trip to Pakistan in 2009, where she was famously likened to an angry mother-in-law by the Pakistani media, and was a “punching bag” particularly over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. She bravely tackles the failure of America’s approach to development aid for Pakistan, admitting that the “toxic politics” of US-Pakistan ties have become a huge hindrance in addressing Pakistani peoples’ anti-American sentiments.

While Hard Choices is not the most engrossing read, and tends to be almost tedious at some points, it is worth a read to understand the persona of Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have generated the sort of respect that even conservative America is waiting with bated breath for her to announce her intention for 2016. In May, I attended a Ready for Hillary event in Chicago. For a Thursday evening, technically still a weeknight, it was packed. Speaker after speaker, including the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel who is close to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, stressed that it was time for a woman in the White House. Clearly, if Chicago is any indication, America is ready to elect Hillary Clinton as its next president. Hard Choices will give you the clearest glimpse into why. Hillary Clinton is a seasoned policy wonk, one who knows the world and who the world knows. As America begins its economic and diplomatic rise, an event it has been craving for since the financial crisis of 2008, Hillary Clinton may just be its best bet.

A shorter version of this review was printed in Dawn’s Books and Authors magazine here: http://www.dawn.com/news/1125712/cover-story-hard-choices-by-hillary-rodham-clinton

Lahore Literary Festival: Remembering Benazir Bhutto

In the stronghold of their biggest rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Lahore Literary Festival’s Sunday session on Benazir Bhutto’s biography Daughter of the East was a resounding hit.

The session, although not very well-attended, was brilliantly planned and one could tell that a lot of thought and discussion had gone into organizing it. While moderator Victoria Schofield, a British biographer, and the book’s author Linda Bird Francke had a conversation about the writing process of the book, audio and video clips of Benazir were played that moved the audience to tears.

Schofield began the session by asking Francke what her first impression of Benazir was. “I hadn’t known her before [writing the book]. She would take me everywhere and she did not hold back. She was emotional and angry, and was honest and forthright with me.”

Francke was of the view that writing the book was a cathartic process for her. “She was in perilous position when we did this book. She did it to keep herself alive – by keeping her story alive in the US, we were keeping her alive in Pakistan,” she said, mentioning all Benazir’s friends from Harvard and her social circle in America that was working to make sure she stays relevant to politics even when she was not in Pakistan.

They then cut to a short audio clip of Benazir talking about the death of her brother Shahnawaz. The audio wasn’t clear, but everyone could feel the pain in her voice.

Realizing that the session had become too serious, Schofield switched the conversation to lighter moments and Francke’s sense of humor did the trick. “There were plenty of light moments. The first rally I went to with her, the crowd was so dense that I lost a shoe. I was also told to get off the stage.”

Benazir was very particular about her appearance, it seems, as Francke narrated tales of her love for exercise and make-up. In the mornings, Francke said, she would march up and down her garden for 20 minutes because she had read about its benefits in some ladies journal. “I would be running alongside her!”

Once, she even gave Francke a makeover who she always used to describe as a “women’s lib type”. “She pulled a miracle morning. She did my nails and my hair, and she thought I looked much better after that.” All this was happening while the Pakistan Army’s soldiers stood guard outside and Benazir’s life was in considerable danger.

Schofield then asked Francke if she ever felt insecure when she was with Benazir. “I never felt endangered when I was with her because she didn’t. The only time I did was when I was leaving Pakistan after 6 weeks following my first visit to the country. She called me and told me, you are red-listed which means that you’re an unwelcome foreigner here and they will thoroughly search you at the airport.”

PPP guards were sent to escort Francke to the airport, who accompanied her throughout the process and took her to the first class lounge, waiting outside until she had boarded her plane. “It was like a scene from Argo. Once I was in the plane, I handed my work to the stewardess with my sister’s address written on it, and told her that if anything happened to me, this was to be shipped to my sister in London. The only reason of my fear was that I had her diaries which were clearly not too flattering for Zia.”

So how long did the first draft take to write such an all-encompassing book, Schofield asked Francke.  “It took me six months, but this book never ended. I finished it four times!”

Francke then listed each time when she felt she was finally done with the book but something would come up and she would have to update the book again.

The first time that she thought the manuscript was complete, Benazir announced that she was having an arranged marriage. “Then, we met in London. Her fiancé Asif was there and her mother was there too who was very happy that Benazir was finally getting married,” she said. “The night before her wedding, she was still working and we were recording. The lights were flickering and she was furious, claiming that Zia was trying to destroy her wedding.”

The second time was when she met in a restaurant in Long Island, US. “The idea of the meeting was for her and Sanam to read through and sign off the book. They ordered potato skins and realized that there was bacon in it. So they are sitting there with a candle, picking it out. Benazir had ordered skimmed milk with ice!” This was in 1989 and just a few months later, in May, Zia ordered elections and the book went back into the writing phase.

The third time was in August 1989, when Zia died. “I was going on vacation and I am greeted at my resort by the manager who has a huge pile of messages for me. And I find out that Zia is dead. I go back on the plane and the book starts again!”

The last and final time that the book had to be updated was during the November elections. “I am in Larkana in Sindh and the women have camped out, singing and dancing. Then we went to Naudero. And then miracle of miracles, she wins! December of that year, she was named the prime minister and the book finally ended.”

The session then closed with the clip of her last rally in Rawalpindi, from December 27, 2007. There was loud clapping when her voice was heard and she was shown making a speech, and then there was pin drop silence as the sound of the bullets and bomb that killed her boomed through the room. The impact was huge – many in the audience left the hall teary-eyed.

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789969/lahore-literary-festival-remembering-benazir

Lahore applauds Lahore at Lahore Literary Festival

It came as no surprise that the Lahore Literary Festival’s “Lahore in Literature” session was a love fest, given the Lahoris’ obvious affection for their city. The entire Lahore, it seemed, was in attendance and the doors to Alhamra Arts Council’s largest hall had to be locked as it was filled to the brim.

What was surprising, and quite disappointing, was the absolute lack of direction of the session which could have been one of the more interesting ones had it been conducted better.

Moderator Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer and activist, began the session with Pran Nevile, the author of Lahore – A sentimental journey, who called Lahore an “eternal city, which can only be felt and experienced.”

“I have travelled all over the world but Lahore is Lahore,” he declared. “I have carried Lahore in my heart. It has been with me since childhood.” At this point, members of the audience were beside themselves with joy at this affirmation of their city’s superiority from a foreigner’s mouth.

Talking about his emotional connection with Lahore, Nevile said that the first time he had visited the city after partition, it was like a pilgrimage for him. “I visited Lahore for the first time in 1997, 50 years after I had left it. I did not want to visit Lahore before finishing my book on Lahore [which was published in 1992]. By the time I visited, two editions of the book had come out,” he said.

Alam then switched the conversation over to architectural historian Ebba Koch, asking her if she felt there was a misappreciation of the many monuments in the city. Koch disagreed. “As soon as I crossed the border into Lahore, I was impressed by the warmth, the openness and the culture of this city,” she said, delving deep into how Shalimar Gardens is an architectural phenomenon because of its design. By now, the audience was struggling to understand both her accent and her technical appraisal of the gardens.

He then asked celebrated novelist Bapsi Sidhwa, a number of whose novels have been based in Lahore, if she felt that Lahore was a violent city as comes across from tales of the 1947 partition or is it a city of courtesans, high art and culture. “It is certainly not a violent city,” said Sidhwa, with an obligatory reference to Karachi’s violent crime situation. She then made another trite statement about Lahore’s food. “It is just a city where people indulge their appetites. I don’t think there is any city that has more eating places than Lahore.”

Speaking about her book Beloved City: Writings on Lahore, known as Lahore: City of Sin and Splendour in Delhi, she said that it is really a labor of love for her. “It took me three years to develop this book and go around collecting stories for it. I owed it to my city. It is a city that I know best and I want to write about. It is the city that has nurtured me as a writer,” she said, leading to another round of applause by Lahoris for Lahore.

When Alam asked her to read something from the book, she refused to do so saying that the publisher had printed it in too tiny a font which was difficult for her to read. She chose, instead, to read from her new book The Language of Love. After she had been reading for 15 minutes, the crowd began thinning out.

Alam then shifted the conversation over to author Intizar Hussain, who was undoubtedly the highlight of the entire session, asking him what it was about Lahore that it had been the subject of many a literary works.

Hussain was in full form as he spoke about the city that he clearly feels very passionately about and has observed over many, many years. “In 1947, so many writers migrated to Lahore and so many migrated from Lahore,” he said.

He then moved on to relating several entertaining personal stories where Lahore had featured prominently. “Once, a long time ago, I wrote a story on Krishen Nagar to which a woman from India wrote a rebuttal titled ‘Intizar Hussain ruko’ [wait, Intizar Hussain]. In her story, she laid out an entire map of Krishen Nagar as it was before the partition,” he said.

In the second story, he narrated how he was travelling from India to Pakistan by train, with his wife and a couple of other Pakistani poets, when they got held up at the railway station in Amritsar and had to go through questioning. “When I said I am from Lahore, he [the person questioning them] asked after a short pause ‘How is FC College?’. I said it’s good. He said ‘And Gawalmandi?’, that’s also fine, I responded. As I had made inroads into his heart because of my association with Lahore, I told him if I miss the train, I will live with you because I am now your guest. Due to our camaraderie, he immediately put us one of the cabins on the train that were reserved for some dignitary!”

He was so involved in the third story that he completely dismissed Alam’s efforts at concluding the session that had reached its end. While he was describing the Mall Road of his times, he had to be cut short a little more forcefully. Nevertheless, he managed to make his disappointment heard. “This is not the Mall Road that I saw. It’s completely commercialized now.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789965/lahore-literary-festival-lahore-applauds-lahore

Lahore Literary Festival: What’s in store

Lahore is a city that nurtures talent, many a Lahore lovers will tell you. The organizers of the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival went a step further – they gave us the opportunity to meet this locally-bred talent.

In a fantastically moderated session, writer Afia Aslam introduced the audience, mostly comprising school students and friends of the panelists who had come to show support, to three aspiring writers from the city all of whom are waiting for their books to be out this year.

The session, despite all the hurdles in its way to success, was fascinating because of Aslam’s great questions and the boundless enthusiasm and energy of the panelists. It began 20 minutes late, as the organizers tried to find a venue for it as they had to move it from the Main Garden owing to rain. After changing locations twice, they finally found a nice, cosy spot and the session began. Panelist Anam Zakaria described it best when she quipped how apt it was that a session on aspiring artists was this chaotic before finally settling down.

Aslam began the session by introducing each of the panelists. Kanza Javed, who spoke very eloquently about her novel Ashes, Wine and Dust, was the only Pakistani to be shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2013. Haroon Khalid, who Aslam called an overachiever since he has already started on his second book, has written an exciting travelogue on festivals of religious minorities that live in Pakistan. He has included 19 festivals of five groups, including the larger Hindu and Christian minorities and the smaller Bahaai community. Anam Zakaria has also written a travelogue about people travelling between troubled neighbors India and Pakistan.

Each of the authors then explained their book, before reading out an excerpt for the audience. Javed said that she had used each of the things used in her novel’s name to describe and represent the relevant period from the life of her protagonist Mariam. ‘Ashes’ is her childhood, ‘Wine’ encapsulates her experiences in Washington DC and ‘Dust’ is when she has to return to Lahore following a tragedy that changes her life. Considering that Javed herself had studied literature in DC, Aslam asked her how much of her book was biographical. “Well, I certainly drew from my own childhood for the Ashes part. But I had written about DC before I had even visited it. But when I did a year later, I realized to my delight and surprise that I was right!” Javed said.

Introducing his travelogue, amid requests to speak up in the absence of microphones, Khalid said that he had tried to explore what it was like being non-Muslim in Pakistan.

Zakaria said that she had spoken to and traced four generations of Indians and Pakistanis and their perception of the partition of 1947. “When I started working with CAP, I was working on the Oral History Project where I spoke to the partition generation many of whom told me stories of how Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony. At the same time, I started working on the Exchange for Change project, where I saw that these young children had hostile opinions about each other. So it was a quest for me to find out where did the disconnect come in between all these generations.”

Seeing that most of the audience members were students in high school who would soon be making decisions about further study, Aslam asked each of the panelists what they had studied in college.

“When I was younger, the only period I would wait for was English. So when the time came for college, my father said you should study literature,” said Javed. “The first two years of college were very intimidating. I was reading Hemingway and Shakespeare and I just put my manuscript aside! Then I studied South Asian Literature and decided it was time to go back to my work.”

Khalid had the audience very amused by his first comment. “I hated reading and writing! I would always get a B or C in English when I was in school!” he said. “Then I took Anthropology at college and I absolutely fell in love with it, even though teachers told me I would have to read and write a lot. Now, writing has become an uncontrollable urge to express what needs to be shared.”

Zakaria had a similar answer. “I was never the sort of person to go out and talk too much to people. At college, I studied International Development. So I kind of decided to get over myself and just go out and write about what I needed to.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789972/lahore-literary-festival-stories-from-gaza

Lahore Literary Festival: Stories from Gaza

If there was one session that you should have regretted not attending at the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, it was the one with British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who spoke about her fascinating novel “Out of It” that has been widely appreciated globally.

In its review of the novel, The Guardian had said that Dabbagh’s “writing is both literary and accessible, fast-paced, passionate, exuberant and heart-lurching.” That is exactly how she was inside and outside the session, when she would smile brightly every time a fan went to over to her with a request to sign her book that they had just bought.

Brilliantly moderated by Aysha Raja Alam, owner of a quaint bookshop in Lahore, the session wasn’t very well-attended but those who were in the audience left feeling like it was a morning well-spent. Alam, who was extremely well-prepared for her session, structured it such that she would ask Dabbagh a few questions and then ask her to read specific passages from the novel.

The novel, Dabbagh’s first after a list of short stories, describes the life of a Palestinian family under siege while Gaza is being bombed. The novel follows the lives of siblings Rashid, who is constantly looking for a way out of the conflict zone, and Iman who begins to get involved in the conflict before moving out to London. Their oldest sibling Sabri, meanwhile, works on writing a history of Palestine while sitting on his wheelchair.

Responding to a question on how she chose her characters, which were unlike the characters found in works on Palestine, Dabbagh spoke about her view of the Palestinian liberation movement. “It is a cause that attracts nutters as well as genuinely committed characters. So in my novel, I was careful not to offend some activists who are doing good work by choosing a main character that is unsympathetic to the cause [Rashid]. When I first started writing, I knew I was really attracted to a certain aspect of the revolution – people who have failed the revolution or those who feel that the revolution has failed them.”

Elaborating on her understanding of the movement’s dynamics, Dabbagh said that when she was in Gaza in May, she realized that being in Palestine is a transformative experience. “In Palestine, your ideas matter. People are judging you on your views. You feel as if they are checking you out. So your opinions matter. It has a specific draw for people who are thinking critically about morality.”

Alam then asked Dabbagh to read a passage where her protagonist Iman is in London and having to grapple with a tragedy back home. Was it an angry passage, she asked. “It was slightly angry. At some times, people find it strange that you’re affected by something happening somewhere else.”

Dabbagh said that even though she had lived outside of Palestine, she had always been very connected to it. But also she would see from the Arab world were the same images all the time. And that was something the she wanted to change – bring a fresh perspective from the conflict-ridden region through her writing. “I would read a lot about it but couldn’t find anything very exciting, or at least as exciting as I wanted it to be. So I kept a global perspective on my characters,” she said.

Two young women, who were both aspiring writers, then put some very intelligent and thoughtful questions to Dabbagh. One of them, who herself writes short stories and is working on a novel, asked about how the writer had made the transition from short stories to a novel. “Basically, in a novel, you can give the reader breathing space,” Dabbagh told her, explaining that more descriptions can be and should be added. “I was used to working in short lengths and on deadlines, so that really helped me with refining my novel.”

The second question was about why Dabbagh named her book Out of It. “It means three things. Firstly, it is out of Gaza, the place. Second it means outside of politics and third, it talks about being out of one’s mind.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789972/lahore-literary-festival-stories-from-gaza

Karachi Literature Festival: Jaun Elia may have been known for his verse, but compilation now gives fans prose to adore

KARACHI: So you think you have read everything ever written by Jaun Elia? Think again. And you think he never sought anyone’s approval? Think again!

In a small room, perhaps the smallest of all of Beach Luxury Hotel’s convention rooms, enthusiasts and fans of Jaun’s poetry were introduced to his prose work on the second day of the fourth Karachi Literature Festival Saturday.

A compilation of his prose, titled ‘Farnood’, was launched on Saturday in a session moderated by poet Shahida Hassan.

The book has been painstakingly compiled by Khalid Ahmed Ansari, a devoted Jaun fan, from various sources and includes essays and editorials written by Jaun since 1958, the year he moved to Pakistan.

Hassan recited a few couplets from Jaun’s first anthology ‘Shayad’, to an audience that hung on to her every word and sometimes finished her sentence for her. The most popular couplet it seemed was this damning satire that is as true for this day as it was for when he wrote it:

Yeh basti hai musalmanon ki basti; Yahan kaar-e-maseeha kyun karein hum?

(In this area, only Muslims live. Why should we do here as messiahs do?)

Journalist and writer Shakeel Adilzada, who was very close to Jaun as well as his older brothers Raees Amrohvi and Syed Muhammad Taqi, introduced the book and spoke at length about his association with Jaun.

“He was my brother, my mentor and my teacher. Everything that I have learnt is through being in his, and his brothers’ company,” he said. “The writings in this book date to 1958 when he was writing for ‘Insha’, a magazine edited by his brother Raees which is why Jaun agreed to write editorials for it. He was but a poet and all the prose he had ever written was in his love letters! So when he finally managed to write his first editorial with much difficulty, he showed to everyone for approval. It was much appreciated, and from then on he became comfortable with prose.”

“A lot of this work comes from ‘Suspense’ digest, where it became very popular because of how different a tone it took from the rest of the digest,” said Adilzada.

What set Jaun’s editorials and other prose apart, just like his poetry, was his incessant need to experiment with thoughts and with words. “He always liked to experiment with names and liked ones that sounded different. For instance, Hammorabi,” he said, pointing to Jaun’s nephew who sat in the audience.

“Jaun would often create very strange new names. Even my name is one of his creations,” he said, chuckling. “My name was plain and simple Mohammad Shakeel. He wouldn’t hear any of it and changed it to Shakeel Adilzada (Shakeel, the son of Adil). Since then, it has stuck.”

He said a special thank you to Ansari, saying that the compilation of such a book would not have been possible had it not been for him. “I would like to appreciate Ansari for his diligence and perseverance. All this work of Jaun was scattered and it took two to three years to compile it all. We are fortunate that he decided, and managed, to do it.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

A conversation with Shobhaa De: At 64, Shobhaa De is still going full steam

KARACHI: For someone with a phobia of needles, Shobhaa De is remarkably comfortable poking others with her razor sharp words regardless of how uncomfortable it may make them.

“Last week, I was at a dinner, when a minister seated at my table said snidely ‘she writes very critically about me and attacks me on TV’. And I turned to him with a smile and said ‘you’re very lucky it is only occasionally’,” said De, while speaking at the Karachi Literature Festival, which kicked off on Saturday.

“He told the host he had a stomach ache and was gone within five minutes,” she continued, wittingly.

Possibly the most glamorous 64-year-old on both sides of the border, De didn’t disappoint to live up to her ‘Superstar writer’ title.

De is primarily known as a gossip columnist, despite having worked on 17 novels – her 25-year-old Socialite Evenings now a Penguin classic – and appearing as a panellist on many television shows about women in India.

This is, perhaps, because of her unapologetic stand on refusing to weave a narrative from the perspective of a victim – a role that most women writers in the subcontinent have taken upon themselves.

“Women are meant to write about suppression, depression, oppression and repression; I understand, but that’s not my life. I don’t want to glorify suffering or make women martyrs and victims in our society,” she explained. And she was honest about it: “It would be hypocritical.”

Almost wishfully, she added, “It would be so much more pleasant if we could do away with the filter of gender.”

De also questioned why women have to be referred to by their gender before their profession. “I am against this categorisation. You don’t say male doctor, male writer, male sportsperson, then why woman writer? As a publisher myself today, I protest against tags like Chicklit, which are meant to communicate that ‘oh, we don’t take it seriously; we enjoy it and then chuck it away’.”

De’s disdain for all prescribed roles is underlined in her latest book, Shobhaa At Sixty.

Like most of her other books, her photograph is splashed on her latest book’s cover. This time, however, it is from a photo shoot she did for Vogue magazine when she turned 60.

Her publishers, almost expectedly, wanted the usual bindi and sandoor as the cover.

“In our society, a woman is cast aside once her childbearing days are over. Once a grandmother, your role is to babysit your grandchildren, while others travel around the world. I have six children and I am a grandmother. But my cover breaks the image of what a 60-year-old should look like.”

But while she speaks openly and candidly against being catergorised, she appears most comfortable in her role as a mother, in every way that society defines it.

Responding to a question by a woman in the audience who said her life plans are on hold while her two-and-a-half year old son takes up all her time, De said, “A two-and-a-half-year old son is a tyrant. Forget about doing anything else until he grows up.”

But, she was careful to add that a woman must not put her life on hold. “I believe all women are essentially born jugglers, we are built to multitask without any song and dance.”

As the session drew to a close, it became apparent that the audience did not want to let her go.

The last question, not surprisingly, was what to expect in her next book.

“It is about an oily, sleazy, despicable politician in Delhi,” she said, adding almost incorrigibly: “I want my future novels to be even raunchier than the old ones.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2012.

http://tribune.com.pk/story/335227/a-conversation-with-shobhaa-de-at-64-shobhaa-de-is-still-going-full-steam/

Kashmir is a place Indians want to know about: Basharat Peer

“I received letter after letter saying “we love the writing, but we’re sorry”. Most rejections came from England,” Peer told a riveted audience at a session, moderated by Javed Jabbar, of the second Karachi Literature Festival on Sunday.

Surprisingly, India was most receptive towards the possibility of publishing his book. “I had no problems in India. Kashmir is a place Indians want to know about,” the author said.

“Finally, I had to change my publisher and met an American woman over coffee, who told me she will sell my book in two weeks,” he recalled.

English-language readers should be grateful to that American woman, for Peer’s Curfewed Night provokes every reader to think of Kashmir beyond what history books provide.

Peer believes that before 1990, Kashmiris did not know violence. “They were not aware of what violence does to you or to society,” he said. “In residential areas, contact between military and the people is never pleasant,” Peer says, adding that a whole generation of Kashmiris is now coming forward with a will to tell their truth. “A new generation is coming up and bringing out people’s stories. Kashmiri journalist Mirza Waheed has written a book called ‘The Collaborator’ and a young filmmaker is making a movie called ‘Hurd’, which is the Kashmiri word for autumn.”

After 2008, there was a transition in Kashmiri politics, he says. “The phase of Kashmiri-driven insurgency is over. Now, the fight is like the Intifada in Palestine. There is no gunfire, but there is stone-pelting. There are protests. And then, when you talk to people, they tell you their stories. You ask them ‘what did you see’?”

It is what they have seen that Kashmiris carry with them wherever they go.

Peer has written his book from many places – from his home in the capital of Indian Kashmir, Srinagar, to a coffee shop in New Delhi, where he studied at the Aligarh Muslim University and a library in New York City, while he was enrolled at the Columbia University.

For Peer, being in Indian Kashmir was not a requirement to write – his memories were all too clear. “Sometimes, it is important to be in a place that allows you to work.”