A Tagore in Lahore

Sharmila Tagore stole the show amid deliberations on Pakistan’s quest for a coherent national identity

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published:March 5, 2016 12:16 am
Sharmila Tagore, Lahore, Lahore Lit Fest, Lahore Literary Fest, Lahore Lit Fest speakers, Sharmila Tagore in Pakistan, Lahore Lit Fest Sharmila Tagore, Lahore news, Pakistan news, India news. Indian express Sharmila Tagore at a session during the 2016 Lahore Literary Festival. (Source: Lahore Literary Festival/Facebook)

This year the Lahore Literary Festival (February 20 and 21) got snarled up with security concerns and had to be hurriedly organised in the Avari Hotel on Lahore’s old artery road — The Mall — and it was rescued by an Indian, Sharmila Tagore, a scion of the Tagore clan. The big hall under a marquee was full as she told her story of growing up in the high-culture milieu of her Bengali Brahmo family, which included the great Rabindranath Tagore through “her mother’s mother, Latika Tagore, who was the granddaughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s brother, Dwijendranath.”

Perhaps few in the audience knew that she was now Ayesha Sultana, after marrying, in 1969, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, the Nawab of Pataudi and former captain of the Indian cricket team. As Hameed Haroon, the most articulate of the Haroon business house of Karachi, led her through her life’s journey, from her apprenticeship with the great Bengali film-maker Satyajit Ray to popular Bombay movies, the audience was spellbound with her ability to express the most complicated concepts with ease and fluency. It was rare to come across a beautiful 71-year old South Asian with such a golden tongue. Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came down from Islamabad to meet her, after his brother Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif made the LLF possible despite dire security warnings.

Dawn reported what a businessman, who had come only to attend Sharmila’s session said: “The LLF is a festival of love, as Sharmila Bibi will certainly tell her Indian audience, telling them how Pakistanis had loved her. If the two governments also show the same spirit, all will be well for both sides”.

Pakistani scholar Shuja Nawaz, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Centre in Washington, author of the most revealing book yet written on the Pakistan army, Crossed Swords, discussed Pakistan-US relations with ex-ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman, and author Steve Coll. He had this to say about an “over-diagnosed Pakistan” and its relations with India: “The future landscape in South Asia will have to be connectivity and interdependence”.

Farzana Shaikh, a Karachi-born Columbia University PhD, member of Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs, Chatham House, author of Making sense of Pakistan (2010), which was selected by The Guardian as one of four essential books for the UK Prime Minister Cameron’s government. At LLF, she took part in a discussion of the Arab Spring and its “frank obituary”, bringing her insights of the state of Pakistan’s trajectory to bear on another session she attended on “From mazar to madrassah” with Supreme Court advocate Salman Akram Raja and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s I.A. Rehman, about how Pakistan began as a movement of people linked to the liminal and inclusive culture of the shrines of sufi saints before declining into medieval legislation, dictated by madrassahs funded from abroad in favour of hard Islam and covert jihad. Raja, currently fighting a case against the abolition of modern banking under Islam, made significant legal contribution to how Pakistan evolved into a hard-shell religious state before the Middle East followed in its tracks. Farzana Shaikh’s dictum was recalled: “It is the country’s problematic and contested relationship with Islam that has most decisively frustrated its quest for a coherent national identity and for stability as a nation-state capable of absorbing the challenges of its rich and diverse society”.

Ahmed Rashid whose last book, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (2013) was heretofore his most negative verdict, led the discussion on “Contemporary great games” with former foreign minister of Pakistan Hina Rabbani Khar, Steve Coll, and discussants from Uzbekistan, Italy and Sweden. The mainstay of the debate was the observation from Khar that the new emerging power of the world was not a state but “non-state actors” who had penetrated all states and could not be challenged under the current tenets of international law.

In a well-attended session, “Unveiling the titan,” Syed Babar Ali, head of his business house known as Packages Ltd, dominating Pakistan’s packaging market up to 75 per cent, discussed his book, Learning from Others (2016), and regaled the audience with his school-day memories of Harcharan Singh Brar, a Sikh boy who remained a lifelong friend and became chief minister of Indian Punjab; and a firebrand speaker Romesh Thapar who got into trouble with Lahore CID after a speech he had delivered against the Raj. (Ali mentioned his recent visit in New Delhi to late Romesh’s sister, India’s great living historian, Romila Thapar.)

The other highlight of LLF 2016 was Pasha Haroon, author of Gilded Memories of Early Pakistan Years. What fascinated the large audience was the story of Pasha in her own words as the niece of Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III — the 48th imam of the Ismaili Shia — married in 1937 to Yusuf Haroon, son of Haji Abdullah Haroon who was one of the central figures of the Pakistan Movement.

Other sessions included “The world of (late) Intizar Husain”; “Life with my father, George Orwell” (with Richard Blair); “Lahore: The architectural heritage”; “Creativity, capital and chaos: Future of the metropolis” .

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’
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