This year the festival was discussions, author signings, film screenings a mushaaira, a concert and more
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam
Entering the first session I attend at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012 (KLF) titled “Changing Paradigms of Literature: Urdu and Beyond”, Shobhaa De is tugging at my heart strings as I know she is in another part of the lit fest, adding the glam quotient to the festival and saying it like it is.
The session starts late like most of the sessions at the festival. In my hand is the programme of the two day festival that has just kick-started, promising 50 plus enlightening sessions. Talks, a mushaaira, a concert, film screenings (at another venue), author signings and more. As I skim through the programme, the session begins. KLF has arrived!
Bilal Tanweer, one of Pakistan’s young writers making waves, is the moderator. He is trying to make an excited audience settle down and signalling the hotel employees to not disrupt the session by stacking chairs that should have been stacked the evening before.
Dr Syed Nomanul Haq, a historian and academic, and main speaker for this session starts slow, unlike the festival which is off to jumpstarts from the word go. He picks up pace as he embarks on an engaging talk about how literature has to be more than activism. His words about how Faiz’s centenary ended up celebrating the “message” of jab taaj uchaalay jayein ge rather than Faiz’s poetics and the “silk” in Faiz’s poetry resonate inside me for the coming two days at the festival. While the KLF is certainly a promise to revival of the arts and literature and has become a hub of thinking minds, I personally felt it reeked too much of activism. Literature and that too in the current situational context of Pakistan cannot be separated from highlighting social issues. But blatant activism has found its way into the KLF. Perhaps KLF is juggling too many roles at the same time. What needs to be understood is that letting literature take its natural course would in fact highlight Pakistan’s issues in a more subtle but impactful way. Reintroduce literature and reading, and a society will progress effortlessly. For activism, other forums can and should be used.
In and out of about a dozen sessions over the two days, I am window shopping in a galore of inviting options. Even the purposeful walk from one session to another is a joy. People seem excited, and are talking in positive tones — about ideas and solutions, about writers of yesteryear and those of today. Writers, journalists, activists, literary critics are all in a single venue. The sight is almost pristine. How often do you see this in Pakistan?
This year’s festival had rare gems on book stalls. I found Al-Ghazali’s “Wonders of the Heart” and works of Sant Kabeer and Meera Bai translated in Urdu. Best buy for me was De’s “Shobhaa at Sixty” which I got signed by the diva in a star-struck moment.
Highlights of a few sessions that left me craving for more are in order. In “A Conversation with Hanif Kuresihi”, the writer lived up to my expectations — brilliant, witty and every bit as sarcastic and impatient as expected. “The process of writing is chaos. It’s boring. If only people knew how I suffer,” shared Kureishi. He made up for his acerbic words by reading an excerpt from his novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” and saying “If people read me, I am still very grateful”.
A delightful session was “The Re-birth of Ibn-e-Safi”, the prolific fictional writer who thought of themes much ahead of time. It was refreshing how his son Ahmad Safi, himself a short story writer, took ownership and pride in his father’s work. He revealed that a compilation of his father’s poetry was underway. Another session of the same genre was chaired by renowned Urdu novelist Intizar Husain. Titled “Reading Urdu Classics Today”, the session boasted of Iftikhar Arif, Zehra Nigah, Syed Nomanul Haq, Khalid Jawed and Asif Farrukhi, names that make literature buffs sit up. The dwindling number of people who today read Urdu literature and classics in particular, is dismally low. Re-introducing Urdu literature is a real challenge.
The session on “Kashmir”, though energised through heart-felt interjections by writer Mirza Waheed and the able moderation of Victoria Schofield among other panelists, had less attendance, as it coincided with the session called “Satire/Comedy”. But what left a mark on the audience was Waheed’s (himself a Kashmiri) comment, the gist of which was that Kashmir is always seen as a territory. Where is the human-centred angle when we discuss the solution to the Kashmir issue?
As for the “Satire/Comedy” session, it had to be one of the highlights of the festival. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, the witty left-winger columnist, found more than his match in the brilliant wit of both stand-up comedian Saad Haroon and Ali Aftab Saeed of Beygairat Brigade. Punch-lines like Haroon saying, “”Maya Khan is the best investigative reporter in relationships after Sex and the City” provided all of political catharsis and comic relief to the attendees.
Literature’s power was at its peak in the session “Pakistani Contemporary Fiction Writings”. Transporting the intently engaged audience to another world were Mohsin Hamid, H M Naqvi, Shehryar Fazli and Ayesha Salman, reading out excerpts from their books. The former two, in the deep and baritone voices, left an indelible mark. It took time to snap out of that session.
“Writing about Pakistan through a Foreign Perspective” was a session which literally had a near-stampede situation as so many people were trying to cram into a tiny room. Moderated by Raza Rumi, it had a sizable panel of foreign journalists. While the earnest sincerity of reporters like Declan Walsh touched a chord, it was the brazen comments of the Indian journalists that gave it an energetic luster. Alhok Bhalla, for example, said: “Indian media is both schizophrenic and hysteric when it comes to Pakistan.”
Vikram Seth from India was candid, relatable and pleasant. Seth’s session was a huge hit, as was the one with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy who hopefully shall bring the Oscar home for her documentary film “Saving Face”.
All through the festival, I enjoyed observing the potpourri of people. The white-haired literati in pure cottons and kolhapuris stand along socialite glamorous women of Pakistan with streaked, re-bonded hair in gliterrati chappals. Media persons, politicians who for once are lost in the crowds, children and the elderly that are here walking slowly with the help of sticks, they were all here. But perhaps the most encouraging to me are the families that are visiting the festival. In 7 series cars or on rickshaws, they are here to give their children a taste of literature and books. For unless literature trickles down to the masses (and I use the terms “down” and “masses” squirmishly for a lack of better words), desired change through literature will remain a dream. In the years to come, the biggest challenge I foresee for the KLF is to make it more than an elitist soiree where everyone who is anyone wants to be seen.