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Serendipitous Connections

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

LLF Impressions—Part Two

Amna R. Ali

His eye might there command wherever stood City of old or modern fame, the seat Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can And Samarchand by Oxus, Temirs throne, To Pacquin of Sinaean Kings, and thence To Agra and Lahor of great Mogul…”

—John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

In February every year, Lahore draws upon its extensive cultural resources as festivals of literature and poetry brighten the city with literary joys amidst the pall of the country’s political shenanigans and financial woes. Lahore’s Sufi shrines, Mughal mosques and fort, the old Walled City with its formerly grand and now decaying havelis or mansions, as well as colonial Lahore’s Gothic Anglo Indian architecture and its gardens and monuments return to the spotlight, become topics of discussion as some of the world’s best minds see them for the first or second time and become admirers, some devotees.

Great distances are narrowed by literature and every year the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), merits a top position on the global literary map with its annual presentations of international authors. This year in 2023, LLF invited one Nobel Laureate and three Booker Prize winners to its tenth anniversary: Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, novelist and Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, Damon Galgut the South African author of the Booker Prize (2021) winning book The Promise, American literary scholar Daisy Rockwell, the translator of the Hindi novel Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand which won the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction translated into English, and Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka whose book The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida won the 2022 Booker Prize for fiction.

Over the decades, Lahore has seen its fair share of literary greats going as far back as a century ago when Rudyard Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English writer to receive this honour—in fact, the first British Indian. His third novel Kim with Lahore as the backdrop was published in 1901 and was considered his masterpiece by T.S. Eliot and W. Somerset Maugham. In this past century, the work of Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Saadat Hassan Manto and Intizar Hussain, among others, is inextricably tied to Lahore.

Pictures are shared as LLF delegates visit tourist sites; images like the high frescoed ceiling of the Lahore Museum or the Buddhist statues from the Gandhara era, sometimes with the same awe as Kim’s lama who went into the “Wonder House to pray before the Gods there.” After the restoration of the Shahi Hammam, Lahore’s Delhi darwaza too has welcomed visitors of all ilk through its doors, with the famous Wazir Khan Mosque just a stone’s throw away.

“My sense of Pakistan has shifted due to what I experienced; I found people engaged, thoughtful, kind and reflective. And very worldly! I’m not sure why, but I expected a society more bound by tradition and the past, and what I encountered was quite the opposite”

Also at a literature festival, one hopes for serendipitous connections; with words, with ideas, and with people and a place. I accompanied one renowned author for a morning sojourn to the Walled City of Lahore; Damon Galgut who is famous today for having conjured the spirit of South Africa in his award-winning book The Promise; a book that gives the reader a glimpse into a family history and a country over a period of four decades, presenting a varied and divided South Africa. Third time’s a charm, Galgut’s two previous books The Good Doctor (2003) and In a Strange Room (2010) had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in previous years. I’ve also been wanting to read Galgut’s 2014 book Arctic Summer, a homage to E.M. Forster in which Galgut tracks the famous author’s life across England, Egypt and India. Interestingly, Galgut has had a long-term fascination with India, having travelled there frequently over the years, a fascination I hoped would also permeate to Lahore as we made our way to the old city around noon, just before the rush hour traffic hit the Mall Road. Two weeks later, as we caught up to conclude this interview, his answer on how books and travel stretch the mind completely fit the moment. “I’d read up a little about Lahore, but in honesty my knowledge was sketchy. So my mind certainly got stretched—though travel always does that, in exactly the same way books do. I wasn’t there as a tourist, of course, but to participate in the LLF… and that was also mind-expanding. All of it becomes part of one experience: being somewhere new, with a different past and present to the ones I know. Precisely the same effect as reading a novel, which teaches you over and over that the world isn’t made in your own image.”

Damon Galgut in the old city of Lahore

In the earlier part of the day you can have a measure of solitude in the Lahore’s Walled City and we made it to Delhi darwaza, one of the 12 gates to the old city, in time for a leisurely walk in the old alleyways, starting off at the Shahi Guzargah, the royal trail. As we waited for our guide to arrive, Damon spotted dozens of tiny sparrows for sale in a round netting cage, a few of which he decided to buy and release. “Actually, I regretted doing that,” he told me as we walked ahead. “My impulse was purely to set a few terrified little creatures free from their captivity, nothing more. But of course in the process I had to reward the person who had imprisoned them in the first place, which is an incentive to repeat the whole process. It would be better if I’d walked past.” The few minutes that we stood there as those tiny birds took flight, this paean to freedom perambulated in one’s head, possibly as poignant for this award-winning author as it was for me.

The smells emanating from the Mughal spice market on one end of the royal trail followed as we headed to the Galli Surjan Singh, one of the several restored streets by the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) on the way to the Wazir Khan Mosque. The green doors of the almost empty galli look so neat and the sound of music beckoned from a room which was once a grain store. We sat for a few moments to listen to the Ustad sing verses from the timeless mystical poem Chaap Tilak written by 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusro to the accompanying beat of a matka —the accompanist is one of the few left in the country who play this folk instrument; a clay pot, matka, ghatam or gara. Leaving the narrow, well-manicured galli, we weaved our way back to the royal trail and headed to the Masjid Wazir Khan, the mid-17thcentury Mughal era mosque commissioned in the reign of Emporer Shah Jehan, known for its glazed faience tiles or kashi kari, frescoes and terracotta hues. From this luminescent mosque we headed back towards the Delhi darwaza for the now popular tour of the Shahi Hammam—the hot baths fashioned in the Persian and Turkish tradition, built in 1635, recently renovated by the Norwegians and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture facilitated by the WCLA.

We returned to the car to make our way back to central Lahore via the new flyover that leads to the Mall Road. We stopped briefly on the bridge to catch sight of the imposing Badshahi Mosque and I suggested Damon step out of the car to take a few quick pictures. What strikes you as unique in the Walled City and as you view these larger Mughal monuments?” I asked him. “I’m not sure what might be unique in the Walled City,” said Damon nonchalantly. “I have visited India a few times and seen many Mughal sites there too, so some of the architecture and aesthetic was familiar to me. But I think you need some serious learning to appreciate the fine details that might make a particular place distinct from any other. What strikes me as, perhaps, unusual is the vast scale of some of the monuments in Lahore—a scale made apparent by the relative lack of tourist traffic. One can sense the grandeur of the conception.”

Lahore, once the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire and more recently, that of the Mughal empire is definitely grand; and its Walled City is unique as it’s a ‘living protected area’. In our conversation that followed two weeks later, I prodded Damon a little about whether he had been able to imagine or sense the past more visually in Lahore, a city that preserves the memory of its imperial past. Of course, his response was congruent to his world view: “One senses different layers and levels of time. I’m not much good at imagining ‘past worlds’, not in the sense that historical fiction might mean. The past is usually old remains and remnants, and sometimes ruins… which was my experience in Lahore too. The present moment is always the vivid, powerful one.”

With the backdrop of historic, cultural and literary Lahore, the LLF maintains its pre-eminence not least because of its geography. Architectural monuments and relics of the Mughal capital have always allured visitors to reflect on the past greatness of its rulers and the faded splendour of its glory. However, amidst this grand unfolding of the past, it is the human connection above all that centers us in the here and now.

“It doesn’t come down to just one interaction,” says Damon Galgut as we conclude our talk. “Rather, it was the cumulative weight of all the human exchanges I had. My sense of Pakistan has shifted due to what I experienced; I found people engaged, thoughtful, kind and reflective. And very worldly! I’m not sure why, but I expected a society more bound by tradition and the past, and what I encountered was quite the opposite.”


Amna R. Ali is a journalist and editor who has worked at the country’s leading magazines. She has an M.A in English Literature from the Punjab University. She began her career writing for the country’s first weekly magazine The Friday Times focusing on people, places, the arts and culture and has remained with this genre till today. She has written in Pakistan for The Express Tribune, The News on Sunday (TNS); in Canada for the Toronto Star and its bi-monthly glossy magazine Desi Life; and was Pakistan correspondent at The National in Abu Dhabi. She was Assistant Editor at Newsline magazine and most recently Editor at Hello! Pakistan. She currently works as a freelance editor in non-fiction and in the development sector.

Damon Galgut is the 2021 Booker Prize winning author of The Promise. He was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1963 and now lives in Cape Town. His books include: The Promise (2021), The Good Doctor (2003), In a Strange Room(2010), Arctic Summer (2014), The Imposter (2008) The Quarry (1995) The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991), Small Circle of Beings (1988) Echoes of Anger; And, No.1 Utopia Lane (1983) and his first book A Sinless Season (1982), which he wrote when he was 17.


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