Sabahat Quadri Works


The Magic Circle

Getting back to work after a long break should have been harder than it has been. Just like coming back to my blog after an extended absence should have been awkward.

In both cases, it has felt like slipping into an old, comfortable pair of tracks. I’ve come back to my blog after almost three months. It’s been considerably longer since I worked a 9 to 5 job―almost ten years. I’ve had a lucrative freelance career as a designer, but last year, I made a life decision that made me reconsider my choices so far. Among them, a freelance career that often meant late nights, working weekends and the occasional dry spell (which was accompanied with a corresponding dip in financial freedom) seemed to be too ad hoc, too uncertain a future. I was already writing, after all―another career that offered no steady or certain income.

Last year, in November, I walked back into the rat race, but this time, I was determined to do it on my own terms. My previous jobs, every job I’ve ever held, took everything from me. I worked late nights and weekends, eschewed family for colleagues and bought into the philosophies and lifestyles of my employers. I followed them around with stars in my eyes. I had worked with heavyweight intellectuals, journalists, writers, artists and architects―within Pakistan, but heavyweights nonetheless. Getting into the ‘magic circle’ was a natural progression from our college, where many of the same heavyweights were invited to conduct seminars, workshops and projects.

There are two main art universities in Pakistan―the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and, more recently, the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture in Karachi. Most of the artists that founded Indus were graduates of  NCA or Karachi’s Art Council (which only dispenses diplomas and has no status as a university). So the magic circle was inevitably small. It overlapped heavily within literary circles, and through the years, these two circles have grown to include theater, film, TV and music.

It’s not unheard of to have whole families involved in a film or TV production. If a child is a director, his or her sibling may be a musician, a parent a screenwriter, another sibling an actor. Even if they don’t work on the same project, they will be the ones leading the charge for each of their industries. They will have the contacts, the exposure and the financing (because of the family name) to fund any project they choose. This isn’t a bad thing―at the end of the day, each project taken on by a dynasty means jobs and exposure to a wider circle of people. To some extent, the magic circle has grown, as it should. In other ways, however, it’s woefully static.

…where were the fresh voices, the new faces, the next generation?  In a country of 180 million people, were there only 200 intellectuals?

I saw just how static at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) this year (5 – 7 February). Three days of panel discussions and book launches sounds exciting, but by day 2, I realised that I had heard almost all of these speakers before. I’d been listening to them since college, back in 1991, and while they had new things to say and the panel discussions were exciting, it got me to wondering―where were the fresh voices, the new faces, the next generation? Were they just not invited? Or didn’t they exist? How was it that, twenty years after I had graduated and moved on from these voices, they were still the only ones leading the charge? In a country of 180 million people, were there only 200 intellectuals?

The magic circle is still a magic circle, and the sad thing I’ve come to realise is that there is no mechanism, no market drive, no ladder that will allow, for instance, a talented writer from Sukkur (Sindh’s third largest city), who works as a delivery boy by day, to be ‘discovered’, or to break into the magic circle unless he travels to one of the three major cities (Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad). Even if he gets to the city, the path to fame would be TV or film. Writers don’t make it to publication unless they follow the trends and positions of a newspaper, which are often liberal and leftist (so if you’re to the centre or the right, you’re stuck with the smaller publications, none of which will grant you a foothold with publishers or anyone from the magic circle). I know an author from Peshawar who can’t get the country’s oldest English newspaper, Dawn, to review his book because he leans right in his writings. (On an unrelated note, he self-published his first book, and couldn’t get a review until he invented a publishing house and plastered a logo onto his cover!)

That’s why, in a literature festival, panels will include artists, actors, filmmakers, fashion designers, jewellery designers, politicians, musicians, and (I’m not kidding here) nuclear physicists. Perhaps this is a sad reflection on the paucity of writers in Pakistan, but its also a clear indicator of the insularity that defines our creative world.

I thought I had left it all behind, but it seems that any job in the world of writing or art will bring me right back into the magic circle. It sounds contrary, but I prefer not to be a part of the circle. While they are the polar opposites of the conservatives, the liberal left of the magic circle is equally fanatic and extreme. Holy words for them include ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’. That’s not a bad thing, except that there is little democracy in the magic circle (I’m beginning to understand why cronyism and nepotism is not considered corruption in Pakistan) and speech is free as long as you’re using the same buzzwords they are.

A culture of Exclusion

The thing is, I am acceptable to the magic circle for one basic reason: I speak English fluently. There’s no other criteria, unless you’re exceptionally gifted and have been recognised internationally, more powerful than being one of the tiny one percent of the country that speaks English. This wasn’t the trend thirty years ago. The language of choice back then was Urdu. But we’ve evolved. We’ve ‘broadened’ our horizons, forged a new path, tightened the boundaries and closed ranks…

It comes down to this: our cultural leaders are the elite members of our society, and all our artistic and creative activities are by, for and of the elite. And because the emerging generation of spokespeople for these fields are predominantly English-speaking (to the extent that many of them will be unable to read Urdu, even if they were born and educated in Pakistan), they’ve effectively excluded one hundred and seventy-nine million people from their circle. 179 million people who may be brilliant, talented, incredible artists and writers, but who will have to learn another language in order to be accepted by the small number that control expression and ideas for the entire country.

Maybe I’ll have to wait a hundred years to see the real cream of Pakistan rise to the top (I’m exploring cryogenics as I write this). Maybe this is a natural part of a nation’s evolution.

But what, with an imported language barrier that erases our own rich history, are we going to evolve into?

The image above is from the Digital Library of India, Public Domain

4 responses to “The Magic Circle”

  1. Hi Natasha,
    It’s good to see you back, and I hope you benefited from your break.
    Yes, it is a shame that people elevate themselves by excluding others – sadly your magic circle of ‘intellectuals’ are not alone in this practice. As human beings, we have a long way to go before we have a society that values each individual’s contribution – and we are all the poorer because of it.

    1. Thank you for the welcome back, Teagan. I don’t know if I’ve benefitted, but life is certainly different – in a good way. I’m fired up about my writing and have made some fabulous friends.

  2. Idiots!! that’s what we are going to evolve to… mere echo mouthpieces, with no self at all…

    1. As Teagan says, this isn’t unusual. There are plenty of people, however, with sensible, moderate ideas that aren’t exclusive. They just need a platform, like blogging! 🙂

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