Pakistan Times is elated to release an exclusive interview of Madam Ajeet Cour with special courtesy to Dhaka based Weekly Blitz. Madam Ajeet Cour 74-year-old Founder-President of Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature; which has been working tirelessly, with total passion, dedication and devotion, since 1987, to create cultural connectivity in the SAARC region. SAARC FESTIVAL OF LITERATURE is being held at Agra, the city of Taj Mahal, over four days, 13-16 March, 2009.
I was in fact invited by esteemed Ajeet Cour to attend this Festival; unfortunately my prior commitment did not allow me to be on this event. I sincerely appreciate her efforts for organizing this event for only artists and writers can play role in diffusing tensions in SAARC region. In this regard i am really grateful to Mr. Frank Huzur who played a positive role in conducting this interview.
Profile: Ajeet Cour was born on November 16, 1934 in Lahore, Pakistan. Having begun her writing career as a romantic, she has matured into a realist. Her short stories portray the unequal situation of women in human relationships, suffering from under-privileged positions in relation with their husbands and lovers. Throughout her works she projects a woman’s failure to find a home instead of merely a house.
More recently Ajeet Cour has emerged as a crusader for women’s issues in perceptive columns displaying a courage of convictions. Readers eagerly look forward to her reportage of cultural events. She has many awards to her credit including Shiromani Sahitkar Award, 1979; International IATA Award, 1984; Sahitya Akademi Award, 1985; Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award, 1989; Punjabi Sahita Sabha Award, 1989. At present she is chairperson, Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi. The Library of Congress has twenty-one works of her in its collection.
Lets discover what she bears in her heart and head:
How does it feel to orgainse a literature festival of writers of SAARC region in the aftermath of Mumbai terror attacks?
Ajeet Cour: The tragic incidents of unprecedented horror in Bombay have pushed all of us in the creative fraternity, particularly the sensitive fiction writers and poets, artists and academics, social philosophers and peace activists and journalists of both Pakistan and India, in deep depression. There was unbelievable outpouring of anger and hatred, first against our own government followed by contempt against our immediate neighbour. But I honesty feel that when the river is in flood, and the winds are howling, blowing in the opposite direction, that is the time for creative and sensitive people to hold hands and swim against the current. Writers have been putting their pen to paper against terrorism in Great Britain and the USA. Penning protest literature against the cancerous menace in Saarc societies has never been felt more than now.
We feel all of us the creative fraternity of the neighbouring countries, should put in more effort, be more genuinely aware of the turbulences, and should own our responsibility to have serious deliberations about the issues of fundamentalism and terrorism, and recognise the evil design of forces, which manufacture terrorism.
At a time when public sentiment is hostile towards Pakistan, how difficult and challenging it is to convince authors, poets and artists of Pakistan to participate in the 29th SAARC Festival of Liteature?
Ajeet Cour: It has been difficult and challenging task to engage authors and poets from Pakistan, as much as it has been to convince writers and poets in India to explore the ground of solidarity and engagement. At the outset itself I made it clear to participants from Pakistan that we are meeting to talk peace and hold each other in tight embrace of friendship and conviviality and that Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature will not allow debates and discussions on contentious issues like Kashmir. However, some intellectuals from Pakistan and India took strong exception to my peace pilgrimage in guise of literary debates and wrote to me in protest. I have been forthright in my conviction that contentious issues should be left for politicians to rant and rave about. Writers have unique opportunity to rise above narrow, partisan considerations. It’s high time we seize the historic moment and raise our voice against common enemy of terrorism.
Why did you choose Agra, the city of Taj Mahal (one of seven wonders of the world) as a venue for the festival?
Ajeet Cour: The city of Taj Mahal, Agra, was on my mind for quite some time. I conceived the festival of literature in Agra before mind-numbing terror attacks on Bombay. Since the Bombay attacks have acquired symbolic value for ghastly targeting of heritage hotel like Taj, the venue of Agra acquires more resonance in these times. I am confident the city of Taj will send out the larger message of peace and justice. Peace and justice is the final end of our battles in life. Those who are abandoning non-violence are not only bypassing history, they are freezing and betraying history. The history of Saarc countries has been a history of peace and justice. Writers are coming together to drive home this message hard and fast.
You are organizing writers’ meet of SAARC countries since 1987. What has been, according to you until today, the greatest achievement of your Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature?
Ajeet Cour: Since April 28-30, 1987, I have been working tirelessly with total devotion and commitment. It was the first-ever revolutionary endeavour for cultural connectivity with neighbouring Saarc countries. Until then, writers from Pakistan had found it enormously difficult to get even visa. I ran from pillar to post in the Ministry of External Affairs, convincing recalcitrant minds to allow for the first-ever Indo-Pak Writers Conference. Writers from Pakistan set foot on Indian soil for the first time since the partition of the country in 1947 for the first ever Indo-Pak Writers Conference. My endeavour gradually bore fruits and I succeeded in organizing the first-ever SAARC Writers Conference in April 2000. Now, Foundation of Saarc Writers and Literature is honoured with the unique status of SAARC Apex Body, with exclusive mandate to use the acronym SAARC and the SAARC Logo for all its activities connected with writers and literature, and culture-oriented programmes in all eight SAARC countries. In 1999, I reached out to the writers, scholars, academics, journalists and artists of Afghanistan. Last year in 2008, I have begun to invite writers and poets from Myanmar, too.
India is hosting quite a great number of literary festivals, of late. Jaipur Festival is another one, attracting writers from far and wide. How different would be SAARC Festival of Literature from Jaipur Festival?
Ajeet Cour: Frequency of hosting festival of all hues, cultural and literary, has of course reached new high in recent decade. Festival always make us more wiser. However, I would like to make it clear Jaipur Literature Festival is different from SAARC Festival in its scope and dimensions. The Jaipur Lit. Fest enjoys unprecedented corporate sponsorship, and it is more of a carnival of contemporary literature in English. SAARC Festival, over the years, has given maximum significance to literature in regional languages, literature of the marginalized and those living on the fringe of society. Besides, Foswal festival accords priority to vanishing arts form, folk tales and young writers.
How do you look up to the Government of India in organizing the festival? In these times of terror-stricken streets, how has Government of India responded to your literary initiatives?
You are an eminent fiction writer, by all standards, acclaimed in not only SAARC countries, but also far and wide through translations of your seminal works in Punjabi. Do you go by certain benchmark in promoting writers in the SAARC region?
Ajeet Cour: Like I said earlier, my focus, unflinching focus is to provide platform for writers and scholars, poets and academics, journalists and artists, peace and human rights activists, visual and performing artists, publishers and the literary minds, playwrights and translators of the SAARC region to interact freely with their contemporary neighbouring creative and intellectual fraternity, discussing issues connected with the written word, with history and historical memories, with the anguish of exiles and homelessness, with rootlessness which makes us outsiders, with understanding and respecting the otherness of the others, sharing their common concerns with poverty, illiteracy and hunger, with terror and fundamentalism, with saving the sanctity of the written word, with the marginalized in literature like dalits and ‘Adivasis’: the people with centuries-old oral literature, with the urgent need for peace and tranquility in the region.
You have been popular for your creative affinity with former Indian Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh. With his passing away in evening of 26th of November, how do you look back at his legacy and his contributions to your literary and peace initiatives?
Ajeet Cour: The passing away of V.P.Singh left me grief-stricken, tragedy struck me deep within, for it was not an ordinary loss. He was a poet and painter first to me and my painter daughter Arpana Caur. Ever since the inception of Foswal, he was passionately associated with the dream of Foswal. We fought shoulder to shoulder for the rights of displaced, marginalized and tribal. The news of his death in the evening of 26th November 2008 was a bolt from the blue. That it coincided with the deadliest terror attacks on Indian soil, Bombay, further compounded my woes. The Indian media, especially television channels, virtually ignored the news, giving precedence to TRP-boosting hysterical coverage of the terror attacks.
You are hailed as an enthusiastic promoter of young writers of all genres. Are you satisfied with themes and subjects New Age writers are taking up in their literature?
Ajeet Cour: There is a saying in youth we learn; in age we understand. An Irish proverb says praise youth and it will prosper. I am a firm believer in promotion of young writers. In each Festival of literature, I make humble efforts to discover young talents in the Saarc countries. Young writers are dealing into a wide range of themes, though, majority of them are fascinated by exotic themes. I only urge them, exhort them not to forget their roots, for in their roots and civlisational links are buried myriad sources of novel literature. I feel happy over the unprecedented success of young authors like Arvind Adiga and Basharat Peer. More importantly, both these success stories in modern literature are journalist-turned-author. They are setting a promising precedent for a vast crowd of young writers and journalists.
You are inviting writers to talk about their roles in soothing the troubled hearts in conflict zones. You yourself have written about your own experience of that terrorized decade in Punjab, speaking fearlessly about state terror, helping to bring cases of the Supreme Court even and the horrors of massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, Kanpur, and various other cities in 1984. Does conflict and turbulence bring out the best out of a writer?
Ajeet Cour: The age of turbulence has always stirred hearts and minds of sensitive souls. History is replete with scores of precedence when some of best narratives were woven in hours of monumental tragedy. Leo Tolstoy’s epic literature, War and Peace is a tribute to conflict and turbulence in Franco-Russian territory, just as Khushwant Singh’s A Train To Pakistan is a tribute to horrific events of partition. Literature itself is a war between emotion and intellect. Living in the age of terror and conflict does jolt our senses to think through the prism of death and devastation.
A question that left and i leave it for you to decide; can people from all walks of life think similar way?