RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Karachi Literature Festival 2012

Diary Diary – What Did I Do At The Karachi Literature Festival

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.


Bullet Points: A session with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy at the Karachi Literature Festival 2012

  • 12th February 2012. Carlton Hotel, Karachi. Day 2 of the Karachi Literature Festival 2012 (KLF)
  • The announced event with Sharmeen is supposed to start at 5 pm. I go to a volunteer at 4 pm to confirm that it is on. She tells me with surety that all sessions in the Theatre have been cancelled.
  • The skeptic in me always needs a second opinion. I ask another volunteer. He tells me it is very much on.
  • I reach the stairs leading to the theatre at around 5 minutes to 5. Many people are returning. “It’s packed. They are not letting anyone in,” they say.
  • Not giving up so easily, I climb up to the door, tell at least 6 people I am a journalist, reach the door, am relieved to find someone I know volunteering (yes, contacts work in Pakistan) who lets me in, and am inside the packed auditorium. I sit on the floor near the stage with many others. I am perhaps the last person, almost, to come in. The doors are shut.
  • Unlike most sessions at KLF, this one starts on time. Moderator Bilal Tanweer and Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy are already on the stage.
  • The tone of the moderator’s questions and Sharmeen’s answers is candid. Sharmeen sounds unrehearsed. Spontaneous. But some of her answers remind one of recent stuff about her in print media. Well, it IS the same person. How much novelty can one expect?
  • Clips from 5 of her documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “Saving Face” have a powerful impact on the audience.
  • Disfigured at the hands of war, the children of Iraq; acid victims of Pakistan; the feminist movement in Saudi Arabia; bombed girls’ schools in Swat; the plight of the transgender community in Pakistan – powerful themes in each of the clips has the audience emoting and engaged. Sharmeen is very obviously pleased at the crowds’ engagement.
  • The tone of the session is succinct. The Q & A session with the audience is interesting. The best question, to me, is the last one, from an ex-pat Pakistani woman, who after expressing admiration for Sharmeen’s work, asks aren’t such documentaries that show the “real but ugly” scars of Pakistani society going to leave a negative impact and promote stereo-typical images of Pakistan, specially to the global audience? I crave to add this to that question: The documentaries are well-made, yes, but should it not be more than the “tsk tsk factor aka sympathy vote” for Pakistan that we need? Shouldn’t the media create global empathy for Pakistan, rather than sympathy? Sharmeen vehemently explains her stance, and talks about how “Saving Face” is not just about acid victims but how real people like a doctor, a lawyer and parliamentarians came forth to help these women, as a community, and how Pakistan can together fight back these problems.

I hope her desired intent comes true, and her documentaries leave the impact that is intended. And I pray she brings home the Oscar.

Here are some of her quotes from the session that were the highlight of the session:

  • “I have no formal training in documentary film making.”
  • “You cannot be taught film-making in a class room. You have to go out there.”
  • “It is important to tell stories.”
  • (When asked why her stories are often told by children as central characters): “Children tell stories without any filters. Children connect to a global audience and break barriers.”
  • “I am an angry person. When I am angry about something I know this will make a really good film.”
  • “We need to cultivate film makers in Pakistan.”
  • (When asked is she ever afraid for her life, as she touches dangerous subjects): “I believe very strongly in fate. One should not take unnecessary risks. But I don’t believe I should stop telling the kind of stories I tell for fear of my life. So yes, I am fatalistic in that sense.”