Poets like Kishwar Naheed, Ahmed Faraz and Fehmida Riyaz take their popularity very much in their stride but their stardom never ceases to surprise visitors from India. Publisher and writer Urvashi Butalia recalls last year's women's conference in Lahore which ended in a mushaira. "There were more than 200 people who came to hear poets like Kishwar Naheed and Zehra Nigah reciting their poems at the conference," she recounts.
In fact, the older generation sometimes bemoans the fact that poetry is no longer "in the air" as it used to be in the glorious days of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but there is perhaps no other country in the world—with the possible exception of some Latin American nations—where poetry continues to generate the kind of public enthusiasm usually reserved for a rock concert. A few days ago, for instance, Ahmed Faraz was scheduled to read his poetry at the Mohatta Palace in Karachi. "Everyone was tremendously excited about it, though the event ended up being indefinitely postponed," says Uzma Aslam Khan, whose debut novel, The Story of Noble Rot, was published by Penguin India two months ago. "Poetry is still quoted in drawing rooms, still sung in ghazals, and when veterans like Iqbal Bano perform, the hall is packed." And poets number among their fans not only the country's glitterati, but customs clerks and even rickshaw-drivers.