Salute to Sabeen from Delhi: love and hope

Salute to Sabeen from Delhi: love and hope
Badges produced by the May Day Bookstore and Café for their May 1 event. Photo: Sharad Sharma

A May Day event at a bookstore-café in Delhi honours the inspiring Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud

On May 1, 2015, the slain Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud was honoured at a bookstore-café in a lower middle class neighbourhood. The event took place at the May Day Book store and Café in New Delhi, run by the progressive publishing house Left Word Books.

May Day Bookstore and Café's tribute to Sabeen Mahmud on May 1, 2015. MDBC Facebook profile picture.

May Day Bookstore and Café’s tribute to Sabeen Mahmud on May 1, 2015. MDBC Facebook profile picture.

The Delhi-based political cartoonist Sharad Sharma of Bolti Lakeerain (featured by Aman ki Asha in 2011) who attended the event brought the event to the notice of friends beyond borders. He posted photos of the badges May Day Café had produced for the event featuring Sabeen’s smiling face on his Facebook page, with the caption: “Remembering those who deserve to be @ May Day”.

Sabeen’s The Second Floor bookstore-café in Karachi carries Bolti Lakeerain comics books and was planning a forth coming workshop there with cartoonist Nida Shams.
Sudhanva Deshpande, Managing Editor at Left Word Books, is happy that the annual May Day celebration of the three-year old May Day Bookstore and Café “has become quite an event on Delhi’s cultural/political calendar,” as he puts it.

The event combines book sales, including used and rare books, with coffee, snacks and a range of short performances and talks.

The bookstore-café’s connection with Pakistan was “in a sense, seeded right at the outset” says Sudhanva — the very first performance to take place in this space was the Laal Band from Pakistan led by Taimur Rahman, on May Day 2012.

As they geared up for their annual celebration of International Workers’ Day this year, the Delhi activists heard about Sabeen Mahmud, a kindred spirit in Karachi, being gunned down.

“We didn’t know her personally, nor had we visited T2F, but we had heard of the space, and at the back of our minds had been this idea of somehow connecting with them sometime. So Sabeen Mahmud’s assassination felt somehow closer than it might have, ordinarily.”

They promptly made a “spontaneous and instinctive decision” to observe May 1st “as a day of saluting her”. They printed badges with her picture to hand out to visitors that day.

Banner with Faiz Ahmed Faiz's immortal line 'Bol ke lab azad hain tere': Sudhanva Deshpande of LeftWord Books addresses the May Day event in Delhi.

Banner with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s immortal line ‘Bol ke lab azad hain tere’: Sudhanva Deshpande of LeftWord Books addresses the May Day event in Delhi.

The one person they knew who had performed at T2F was going to be out of town and unavailable that day, but the evening before the event, another friend called to say he would bring along someone who knew Sabeen quite well. “Would we be able to give him five minutes to speak? We jumped with joy!” recounts Sudhanva.

Sameer, Sabeen’s friend for some thirty years, as he said, spoke from the heart, talking about her spirit and her courage. He said that when he spoke of her, he spoke with two emotions. “One was anger — anger towards her killers but also anger towards the circumstances that make a life such as hers so challenging.”

The other was love, for “when Sabeen poured her meagre savings into creating a space for open dialogue, she was motivated by love above all. Much has been said about Sabeen’s statement about fear being a line in your head. When we succumb to the pressures of the extremists, Hindu or Muslim or Christian, we succumb to that fear. But we have a choice not to, we have a choice to live with hope. This is the hope that Sabeen symbolises.”

And so it is that far from Karachi, those behind at May Day Bookstore and Cafe in Delhi dream of a radical literature festival “that is not prisoner to its own branding and corporate sponsors, a festival that crosses boundaries, a truly people’s literary festival, a festival that connects a May Day in Delhi with a T2F in Karachi,” as Sudhanva puts it.

“Even though she is no longer around, we feel that Sabeen would have been happy at such a mad dream. And who knows, with her inspiration, we might still make it happen one day.”

— aka

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