By A H. Cemendtaur
to right: Moazzam Sheikh and Saqib Mausoof
Freedom is a powerful concept,
the idea of becoming free a luring proposition. There are
only a handful of countries that don’t celebrate their
‘Independence Days’, all others do for getting
their independence mostly from the few that don’t.
This year Friends of South Asia (FOSA, www.friendsofsouthasia.org),
a Bay Area organization of Indians and Pakistanis, merged
its tradition of celebrating joint India-Pakistan independence
(from their common colonial masters) with the tradition
of holding an annual South Asian literary evening.
The theme of 59th Independence Day literary evening held
at Milpitas Library Community Room on August 19 was ‘Asymmetric
world, asymmetric wars.’ Roshni Rustomji an eminent
Bay Area writer raised in Karachi, Bombay, and Beirut, moderated
the literary evening.
to right: Paul Mckenzie and Jyotsna Sanzigri
A FOSA representative opened
up the session giving a history of FOSA’s South Asian
Literary Evening program. The audience was told that the
idea of arranging annual South Asian literary evenings was
perceived to encourage Bay Area writers who write in any
of the native South Asian languages. Initially the thought
was to accept submissions in all South Asian languages except
English because English writers do get other opportunities
to showcase their work.
But then English was included in the list of acceptable
languages just because English has a strong presence in
South Asia and many South Asians think and express themselves
in English alone. The audience was told that the native
South Asian language submissions to FOSA had been dropping
and in the third annual literary evening there was only
one, all others were in English — and that that was
the kind of asymmetry the writers were expected to reflect
Almost a month before the program FOSA sent a call for submissions
to various organizations and online lists of writers. As
submissions started coming in a review committee comprising
of Anu Mandavilli (FOSA’s president), Ijaz Syed, and
Roshni Rustomji was formed.
The review committee went through the submissions and selected
ten pieces to be read in the program. A classy poster, created
by Samir Shaikh, with three pictures of asymmetry (little
Palestinian kid throwing stone at an Israeli tank, empty
water jars besides a dry faucet with a soft drink billboard
in the background, and sprawling shanty towns around sky
scrappers) was floated over the Internet to publicize the
event. Ramkumar Sridharan with help from Shalini Gera and
Abira Ashfaq created a handbill that provided biographical
accounts of writers reading their works in FOSA’s
The literary session started with Roshni Rustomji reading
her touching memoir in reaction to news about wars, bloodshed,
mayhem, and displaced people. Her reading was dotted by
pauses when she was overwhelmed by emotions.
Jyotsna Sanzgiri a journalist, novelist poet, who lives
and works in Mumbai and San Francisco, read her poem “Mourning”—
the poem powerfully conveyed the suffering of victims of
Amina K Khan, a writer and poet born in Multan and raised
in Lahore currently lives near Washington DC. Her submission
“Protectors of Faith” was read by Abira Ashfaq.
Doug Mackenzie an attorney who calls himself an anarchist
and doesn’t like seeing his tax money channeled to
fund wars all over the world, read poems titled “And
here we thought we weren't responsible”, “I
resolve to love”, and “Power, authority and
Wajahat Ali with his troupe
It was around that time that
young writer Wajahat Ali whose maiden play ‘Domestic
Crusaders’ earned accolades from critics, showed up.
Wajahat along with a troupe of actors did a staged reading
of parts of a new play he has recently completed writing.
The part of the play staged for the audience satirized a
TV talk show hosted by one Bull O’Reilly; the guests
include a lesbian Muslim writer finding everything wrong
with Islam, a male Muslim writer of similar persuasion whose
last name has the “die” suffix, a Mexican-American
repeatedly exhorting immigrants to assimilate, and an advocate
of civil liberties who is frequently shouted upon and silenced
by the host.
Wajahat Ali is a talented writer with a special gift for
creating portmanteaux. Anyone looking for fresh witty voices
in satire should definitely keep an eye on this young man.
Saleem Peeradina, a poet of repute, is associate professor
of English at Siena Heights University in Michigan. Peeradina’s
four poems carrying strong images, were read by Ijaz Syed
- the most powerful image presented in “Split Frame”,
of a starved woman and her child watching an eating contest
Moazzam Sheikh a San Francisco based writer known for his
English translation of Intizar Hussain’s work, read
a short story titled “Rosa.” Rosa is a Mexican
woman who goes through life and many romantic relationships
till she meets Butt, an illegal Pakistani immigrant working
at a restaurant in San Francisco. Their carnal relationship
gets jolted by the historic event now remembered as a three
digit number, 911. Sheikh’s story has a strong potential
to become a good screenplay — a love story woven around
a tragic event - with ample opportunities of love scenes.
Saqib Mausoof a writer, actor, and filmmaker read his memoir
“Travel in times of terror” written during his
recent trip to London. Mausoof’s writing was a thoughtful
reflection of a man making sense of today’s warring
world, and seeking his place in it.
Acclaimed San Francisco poet, performer, playwright and
educator Genny Lim had sent her poem “The Ordinary
Man” to FOSA, but could not come to the program.
Another no-show was Sandhya Sood, an activist, poet, and
performing artist born in East Africa and now living in
the Bay Area. The organizers decided to use the saved-up
time to listen to other writers present in the audience.
KRS Murthy used the opportunity to read his poem in English;
Maheen Adamson read a prose poem in Urdu.