Everyone we had hoped to meet at this trip is magically on the programme at Karachi Literature Festival, a free 3-day event. At the Beach Luxury Hotel security is tight, starting outside with a metal rod checking under the car (divining for bombs?), and continuing within. It feels like airport security without the frisking or restrictions on liquids. I’m getting used to this, as it’s the same on entering fancy shopping malls or banks, and quite relaxed despite the guns.
The first talk we attend is The Dilemmas of the Transgender, with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, author of Me Laxmi, Me Hijra. Laxmi is charming, intelligent and witty – she soon has the audience eating out of her hand. She and the moderator speak excellent English but most of the talk is in Urdu. My Urdu is improving every day (it was obviously dormant) but I can only understand perhaps 20% of what’s said. Luckily, Laxmi keeps lapsing into English. I may enjoy nature’s femininity, but I’m not a woman and I’m not a man, she says. Hijra means that I leave my own tribe in search of my own true self. And later, We are not taught to be ourselves, and we don’t love ourselves. But if we learn to love ourselves, womanhood is so powerful that man will bend to it... I have to say ‘I love myself’. Then I can ask somebody else to love me. Later, I read a print interview in which she says, “If I were a woman biologically, then I would have loved to be a courtesan”. When I get her to sign her book, we chat and she is interested to hear about the Sanskrit manuscript of 300BC which inspired my poem sequence and play, and which mentions a transgender courtesan.
Aisha and I attend a talk on Fiction, Memory and Colonialism with HM Naqvi, Sadia Shepard (who Aisha knows), Kamila Shamsie (whose work I love) and Christoph Peters. The talk is fascinating and in English, which is a bonus. Afterwards in the food tent, I get samosas and a cup of Kashmiri chai [a deliciously spiced, pink, milky tea topped with pistachio slivers] and Aisha is delighted to find Dominos pizza, as her stomach is tired of being constantly challenged. I recognise Kami, from the BBC documentary ‘How Gay is Pakistan’ and now accustomed to boldly approaching people, I go and talk to her, trying not to feel like a groupie/fan. Kami is lovely and friendly, and tells us she found things somewhat difficult after the documentary came out: she’s had some backlash from it as it showed a very particular angle (a recurring theme) rather than exploring a more balanced view of the transgender experience in Pakistan. My story of wanting to marry my partner of 5 years is not typical, she says. She talks passionately and eloquently of her work as a young activist and what she wants to achieve for LGBTQI awareness and rights: she is a focal person from Pakistan at The Asia and Pacific Transgender Network and Naz Male Health Alliance. I ask how she feels about the groups of young male groupie/fans buzzing around her, and she doesn’t much like their interest but has had to accept it. I feel protective of her, and would like to shoo them away. Kami is much in demand, so we leave reluctantly and with a huge crush on her (OK, I speak for myself, she is magnetic!) and we become Facebook friends.
Day 2 of KLF includes the talk I’m most interested in, Transgender Rights: Are there Any?, with our new friends Bindiya Rana, Kami and Laxmi. The talk is in Urdu and Bindiya’s presence is understated beside Laxmi’s colourful personality, until Bindiya gets up to speak. Pacing the stage and speaking with fire and conviction she reveals herself to be a true orator and gifted political figure. I am proud to know her and full of respect for her determination to fight for the transgender community.
I have noticed that there is a real interest here in transgender, but many of the young men are clearly not here for the talks – their interest is less… honourable.
I am very disappointed to miss From Life to Reel with Shahid Nadeem, playwright and co-founder of Ajoka Theatre, who I have arranged to meet in Lahore, but his event clashed with Bindiya’s. I have wanted to meet him since I saw an adaptation of his play Dara, at the National Theatre last year and was inspired by his talk at the Q&A afterwards. I hope our paths cross over the course of the festival.
Next is The Oscar Lady with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of SOC films. Sharmeen is the reason I am here, and without her introduction, I would not have been able to meet with Bindiya. However, like most successful, famous award-winning people, Sharmeen is incredibly busy promoting 3 films around the world (I’ve seen a recent photo of her with Meryl Streep and Thandie Newton at the US premiere of Song of Lahore), and the festival is the only time our paths cross. She talks about her 3 current films: Song of Lahore is about Sachal Studios, a classical Pakistani and jazz fusion project; A Journey of a Thousand Miles, about a unit of Bangladeshi women peacekeepers; and A Girl in the River, her latest film about honour killings, which has been nominated for an Oscar. After the talk she is swamped by fans.
Later in the evening is a screening of Manto, the Movie, which is based on a TV series by Shahid Nadeem on the life of the celebrated Pakistani writer. I am gutted to miss his talk again, but our ride is leaving, too much Biryani and Dominos has been eaten, and we have another day of the festival to go. The day after, we leave for Lahore.