People & Society Tapestry

Meeting of the Minds

Published 02 Apr, 2015 10:35am

On a cool Sunday afternoon this February [2014], in a darkened hall at the Alhamra Arts Complex in Lahore, a panel of six people sat discussing the unprecedented rise of literary festivals all around the world since the turn of the millennium. These were people responsible for literary events in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Germany and India – the latter represented, in fact, by Namita Gokhale, a veteran author and organiser of the now world-famous Jaipur Literature Festival.

Guests at the Karachi Literature Festival – Aliraza Khatri
Guests at the Karachi Literature Festival – Aliraza Khatri

The session, ostensibly meant to explain to a curious audience why Lahore is now suddenly host to this annual event about books, art and authors, seemed quite well timed. Pakistan is a country that saw the fifth iteration of the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and the second iteration of the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) this year. Even the Islamabad Festival for Literary Summons and Show Cause Notices might come back for another round if enough bureaucrats sign up for it.

As more and more people throng to these events, there are inevitable questions about the reason for their existence and their social function and value. Strangely enough, the sessions themselves weren’t much help in finding the answers. The organisers of these various festivals confessed that their initial aim was simply to promote English-language literature in their country and were equally stumped at the direction these festivals have since taken and the success and popularity they have garnered. Gokhale had not envisioned an event, attended by 200,000 people, promoting poetry and prose in India’s multitude of regional languages, as well as playing host to some of the most biting political debates of the times. The festivals have come to present a case of public events taking on a life of their own, beyond the range of ideas of their founders and sponsors.

But these are the success stories — there have also been festivals that have sputtered and stagnated in their infancy, unable to satisfy the often spontaneous and always evolving tastes of their audience. The KLF could have gone the same way, had it not done a few things right, more of which will be discussed later.

When I first looked at the programme for the KLF this year, I felt the same way one does when staring at a favourite dish that has been served reheated. A lot of the sessions had suspiciously similar names to those at the fourth KLF held last year — or the third edition the year before, for that matter. Keeping things interesting is not just a matter of introducing new authors — which, to its credit, the festival did in swathes, hosting both Bilal Tanweer and Omar Shahid Hamid, two authors who released Karachi-specific books, late last year. It is not just a matter of inviting more foreigners, either. It is the planning of the sessions that needs to be better imagined, the lack of which brings a mundane predictability to the KLF.

Every year, the discussion keeps spiralling back to the idea that the Pakistani identity is simply too complex and multifaceted to be confined to the pages of fiction.

For instance, there is the annual session in the main garden of the Beach Luxury Hotel on making authors feel guilty for misrepresenting Pakistan in English-language fiction or of having the hubris of trying to represent Pakistan at all. Every year, the discussion keeps spiralling back to the idea that the Pakistani identity is simply too complex and multifaceted to be confined to the pages of fiction. Perhaps, this is why places like Sweden have found it more comfortable to discuss, explicate and dispense awards on literature; it must be easier when everyone is called Sven and speaks the same language. But the garden session disappoints also because every year it overstretches its own ambitions.

The latest version was called ‘The Pakistani Novel in English: International Representation and Local Reception’. Need I even debate where that went wrong? The panelists, which included authors Uzma Aslam Khan and Shandana Minhas, looked mortified at the prospect of unearthing representational authenticity in their works and were quick to point out that narratives, characters and the words weaving them together can only offer the nuances of life as observed by the writer and not the totality of experience as lived by people.

Omar Shahid Hamid, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz and H. M. Naqvi – Hamza Cheema
Omar Shahid Hamid, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz and H. M. Naqvi – Hamza Cheema

The much beaten dead horse of English as a choice of language also came under the usual assault. Author H M Naqvi was right to point out that it is about time we took ownership of English, considering how long it has been around and how enough people think of, talk about and experience Pakistan in that language.

After this ritualistic self-flagellation, the main garden gives way to a number of diplomatic and journalistic affairs every year, also covering the problems of representation in the media and academia, while simultaneously trying to improve Pakistan’s foreign policy from a stage in Karachi. These sessions were amusing the first year, tiring the next and have become positively soul crushing in their repetition now.

In the smaller rooms, there are the same debates about reading and writing, printing and publishing that we have heard before — too many random foreigners, too little variation in theme. This year’s programme could easily have been mistaken with last year’s. Even the Urdu mushaira and the excellent ‘Dastaangoi’ act from across the border were repeat performances. The best sessions were the ones with the least people on stage, such as Ataul Haq Qasmi recounting anecdotes of drunk and lurid behaviour from our Urdu literary greats, which made at least one hall at Beach Luxury Hotel reverberate with cheers and guffaws. This anecdotal account of our artists’ antics, instead of a theoretically framed discussion of their work, is a more common literary public engagement and one with which the local audience is visibly more comfortable. Because even if these literature festivals are modelled on their international counterparts and must, in deference to the theory of globalisation, follow a standardised format, they will inevitably retain the local flavours of the literary gatherings that preceded modern day literary festivals by centuries.

Yes, some people don’t like undermining the primacy of the text and making a celebrity culture out of writers who they think should only be known to audiences through their work, but that is the way it has always been in this part of the world. There is a cult of personality about everyone from Ghalib to Manto to Munir Niazi to Jaun Elia. Their eccentricities and romances have filled the popular imagination as much as their writing has.

Likewise, the numerous book launches had the most engaging effect on the crowd, giving them up close, personal and interactive time with the writers who reciprocated ideas about conceiving and crafting their texts. In a hall fittingly called 007, a particularly rapt crowd sat listening to the police stories that formed the basis for Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner.

Uzma Aslam Khan receiving prize for best fiction from Ambassador Dr Micheal Koch, and co-founders of KLF Dr Asif Farrukhi and Ameena Saiyid – Muhammad Umar
Uzma Aslam Khan receiving prize for best fiction from Ambassador Dr Micheal Koch, and co-founders of KLF Dr Asif Farrukhi and Ameena Saiyid – Muhammad Umar

The KLF also saw the introduction of awards this year. Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and The Drone received the The KLF Peace Prize and Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin received the KLF Embassy of France Best Fiction Book Prize, respectively. Make of that what you will.

The LLF was generally less self-congratulatory and slightly more inventive with its sessions. Much of it had to do with the sessions’ focus on the city itself, its historical relationship with art and literature and how artists from beyond the border – or further, beyond many borders – saw Lahore and related to it. The banners on the brick walls of the Alhmara Arts Complex said of the migrant literature festival, “From the city of lights to the city of kites.” Notwithstanding the irony of Karachi recently holding a Basant festival while Lahore did not, there was a real sense of this ancient city deserving, even demanding, a literary gathering of its own.

This was evident in the first day’s session called ‘Lahore, Literature and Longing’. It featured art historian F S Aijazuddin who put together a visual tribute to 19th-century Lahore and Pran Nevile, the Indian author whose family nestled in this city before Partition, and who wrote the most beautiful ode to his ancestral home, 20 years ago, fittingly called A Sentimental Journey. It was also evident in the promotion of an anthology of graphic narratives centred around Partition, This Side That Side, which unfolded a fascinating story of how lawyer Rafay Alam and artist Vishwajyoti Ghosh brought these narratives together. Alam’s family moved into the Ghosh family house in Lahore after it was vacated in 1947 and the two discovered this fact during a chance friendship they kindled while studying together in England.

If the KLF has disappointingly become more about the Oxford University Press than literature, Lahore’s sophomore effort seems to have resisted the urge to become a mere showpiece for its sponsors. There are no endless talks about the education emergency and the sponsors’ concerted efforts to combat illiteracy. The LLF, of course, has the advantage of being younger and having Karachi’s mistakes to learn from — although that is not to say it won’t make mistakes of its own.

Of course, there are things Karachi and Lahore both festivals. Read anything about these events and you will realise most of the crowd-pullers at both of them are Indians. We all love it when famous Indians come to our cities and tell us how much it feels like home (despite our best efforts to make it otherwise). There is an irrepressible urge to reconnect with that large land mass that used to be us and still trickles through in the form of film, music and literature.

Vikram Seth – Asif Umar
Vikram Seth – Asif Umar

Lahore’s lineup of Vikram Seth and Mira Nair had more popular appeal among the literary crowd, whereas Karachi went the academic route this year, by inviting Dr Rajmohan Gandhi (although he might have been promoting a book about the history of Punjab at the wrong festival) and Ashis Nandy, an intellectual heavyweight in his own right. Both Seth and Nair spoke at the biggest halls in Alhamra, seating almost 400 people. They were the highlights of many people’s weekend, who were still talking about the multitalented Seth’s love for music and Nair’s love for Lahore well after the event was over. Nair’s session, called ‘Salaam Bombay’, with film critic and teacher Mira Hashmi, had a queue of hundreds outside the hall trying to get a peak.

Both cities also hosted multiple panels this year with visual artists, art critics and gallery curators, which was not only a refreshing change from the purely textual discussions but also important in the sense that if literary discourse has been trapped in drawing rooms in recent decades, art hasn’t even left the walls. Karachi saw an in-depth conversation with award-winning artist Naiza Khan while Lahore got a chance to converse with Shahzia Sikander and Rashid Rana. Even people who were familiar with their work confessed that they had never heard them talk about making and selling art in Pakistan.

Kathak performance by Nahid Siddiqui – Asif Umar
Kathak performance by Nahid Siddiqui – Asif Umar

Both festivals featured a Kathak dance performance by the seemingly ageless and incomparable Nahid Siddiqui and Lahore went the extra mile to bring in the outstanding Sachal Studios Orchestra, an instrumental jazz fusion ensemble that brought the second day of the LLF to a close with the resounding echoes of a standing ovation.

It was strange then, given the positive energy that these festivals inspired, to read in online articles, in newspapers’ comments sections and on social media pages, of a growing dissatisfaction with the continuing trend of literary gatherings. Stranger, still, when you consider that attendances reportedly exceeded the 50,000 mark in both cities. The only other time so many Pakistanis will flock together to one place is to watch a game of cricket, and that too only if we are winning.

So, why are these seemingly popular events attracting so many detractors? To be sure, the criticism doesn’t follow the success: The festivals have, from the onset, attracted accusations of elitism and a commercially motivated ‘selling out’ on the part of the attending intelligentsia — which, in most cases, refers only to leftist social and political activists whose apparent function in life is to suffer their burdens in pained consternation, never to be seen smiling or conversing casually in public. In any case, accusing a literature festival of elitism perhaps isn’t the most historically nuanced take. Art and literature have traditionally depended on patronage from the elite. Some of the most famous and most aggrandised names of the Subcontinent’s literary canon wrote under pension from the nobility or the state. It is with the utmost respect to the institution that is Faiz Ahmed Faiz that one humbly points out that the poet of the beaten and downtrodden used a lexicon and wrote in idioms that the downtrodden barely understood. The proletariat remains trapped between their regional languages and the two official languages of Pakistani literature and state, where Urdu can be as alienating as English. Similarly, Allama Iqbal’s choice of Persian as the source of his poetic vocabulary, to match his lofty poetic ambitions, can also be traced back to the Muslim elite and the language of their power and authority. Iqbal never wrote in Punjabi, his mother tongue.

The mushairas and mehfils that have sustained literature in the Subcontinent haven’t always been terribly public affairs. Save a few, they have also been the purview of royal courts, bungalows, clubs and hotels, with limited invitations and little public interaction with the artists. If socialites flock to these events now to see who is important enough to invite back home for dinner, well, it is what they have always done.

Any cultural event where we can talk about this violence, this turmoil and our associated fears and insecurities in a public forum, at least threatens to foster some communal spirit, which is always a good thing.

Elitism, then, is the last thing these new age literature festivals can be accused of. This was the third time I attended the KLF and, to my memory, none of the sessions have ever been ticketed. There are social boundaries at the gates of the venue, of course, but you do see a fairly diverse cross section of people sauntering around looking at books, with friends or family in tow. Diverse enough that any left-leaning student of the humanities could call it an authentic cultural event and not just a protracted drawing room conversation. The free entry is not the case the world over, by the way. Most literature festivals around the globe are priced affairs.

Mira Nair (R) with Mira Hashmi – Asif Umar
Mira Nair (R) with Mira Hashmi – Asif Umar

Among the critics, there are also the quietly despairing sort who don’t understand the point of having literary conventions in times of violence and turmoil. Books, they say, don’t win wars or solve any problems, though the readers of Sun Tzu and Tolstoy would disagree. Any cultural event where we can talk about this violence, this turmoil and our associated fears and insecurities in a public forum, at least, threatens to foster some communal spirit, which is always a good thing. In any case, more cultural events rather than fewer is a good rule of thumb and should simply be accepted on face value, like the uncontested virtues of being kinder, more polite and respectful of differing opinions.

But the critics have been vociferous in condemning these festivals as cultural dilution by corporate and, more sinisterly, foreign donors. They warn us of the farcical notion of making a literature festival a symbol of resistance — against fundamentalist ideas, religious and social dogma, hateful and violent indoctrination – when it is really just a celebration of the generic, soulless, global capitalist culture. That these warnings appear in corporate newspapers don’t temper their criticism one bit.

While it is true that some of the flag-bearing sponsors from European countries might publicly endorse these events as a historic stand against barbarism – and, more privately, may even extol the virtues of integrating Pakistan into the global reading, writing and festival-attending scene – none of the sessions had anyone claiming their book will stop a terrorist, even for the two seconds it takes to read the title. Writers want to connect to their readers; their readers want to connect to each other. No matter how embattled we are, we do retain simple pleasures like reading and being around like-minded people. It is not about offering concrete resistance. It is a way of building alternative public space, which in recent decades has almost completely been conceded to the religious right. It is alternative, singular, not the tsunami of change that is going to turn this country’s fortunes but just the public assertion of things that we as a people enjoy doing, things that are important to us.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that the Punjabi sessions in Lahore produced the most impassioned question-and-answer intervals. It didn’t matter that an academic discussion of Heer Ranjha wasn’t the most original thing in the world. The assertion of the Punjabi language in a public sphere, especially next to Urdu and English, was a satisfaction in itself.

We do, despite assurances to the contrary, have a reading culture. No, we don’t bury our noses in books while sitting in trains but that has more to do with a lack of trains than a lack of books. You would be hard-pressed to find an urban middle-class home without a reasonably well-stocked bookshelf, even if just with pulp magazines or monthly digests.

Alhamra Arts Complex in Lahore has not been without its drawbacks. While the modestly sized hotel in Karachi had problems of proximity and noise control: A rooftop session on art took a turn for the bizarre as the speakers were drowned out by music blaring from the gigantic speakers in the main garden and some of the smaller hotel rooms were clearly meant for dining only, and not as standing spaces, packed to the rafters, for poetry recitals

Lahore’s less modestly sized theatre halls were also problematic in their own way. They are built to be enclosed spaces, and the entrances and exits are quickly sealed after the audience is seated, making it impossible to walk from session to session or even attend all the ones you want to. In my three visits to the KLF, I have been stepped on, pushed, shoved and even accidentally tickled due to the number of bodies jostling in cramped spaces, but I have never missed a session I wanted to attend. This happened to me three times in Lahore. A quick word with other attendees confirms that it was a similar case for them. Perhaps, Lahore could use one or two open air panels as well, for those who want to saunter around, maybe grab some tea or a bite to eat without missing out on anything.

One of the book stalls at LLF – Hamza Cheema
One of the book stalls at LLF – Hamza Cheema

Particularly missing in Lahore was the lack of a single open space for all the book stalls, most of them having been shoved into one auditorium or the other, where browsing books meant colliding with people trying to get in and out of sessions. It is unclear how much Lahoris like to read, but they certainly like to buy books. They deserve, at the very least, a consolidated space for their spending.

Finally, a bit about the crowds at these festivals. Here is where Karachi indisputably wins: The diversity in class, ethnicity, languages spoken and literature sold in Karachi was unmatched by the homogeneity in Lahore. This is, no doubt, a reflection of the two cities themselves. But even the short drive from Islamabad that encouraged a lot of people from the capital to attend the LLF, did not really do much to diversify the crowd. A lot of the visitors from Islamabad were diplomats and dignitaries in disguised attendance.

Visitors attending the session – Mahjabeen Mankani
Visitors attending the session – Mahjabeen Mankani

That is not to say the crowd in Lahore wasn’t more colourful than the one in Karachi. Lahoris, to their detriment, are unapologetically fashionable: Wacky pants, neon-coloured shirts, skirts, high boots, more sunglasses than you could find at a biker convention, sometimes two to a face. Outside the halls and auditoriums raged a veritable war of fashion. One woman in a brown skirt was carrying a black handbag so large it looked like she was taking out the trash. The crowd in Karachi felt almost conservative in comparison. One would hope that as the LLF grows in stature, it starts attracting crowds from other cities in Punjab that are a closer drive than Islamabad, which may bring more diversity to the mix.

Coming back to the question of why do literary festivals exist and why have they spread so rapidly to all corners of the world like a cultural epidemic? I think the answer lies in the public sharing of tastes, values, and in cases like ours, ethnic and linguistic identities. It is the feeling of finding out what you have in common with people you otherwise see from a distance through windows and railings. A friend of mine claims he is now very bored by the idea of book signings and panel discussions, yet still attends all three days of the KLF every year. When asked why, his response is simply, “Oh, this is where I meet other people like me.”

This story was originally published in Herald’s March 2014 issue. Subscribe to Herald in print for more.