“Without literature, life is hell.” ― Charles Bukowski
Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, is well known for its art, literature, theatre and music. A city with a rich history of brilliant writers, including the great Allama Iqbal himself. But for several years now, Lahore had been yearning for something to quench its love of knowledge and literature. On the 23rd and 24th of February 2013, this wish was fulfilled.
The Lahore Literary Festival took place at the Al-Hamra Arts Council, situated on the Mall Road. The heavy rain didn’t stop the lovers of literature from showing up on the first day of the event. There was a pleasant diversity among the various sessions that had been organized. But by far the most inspiring aspect of the event was the interest and participation of the youth.
“When the revolution comes they will take your Birkins and turn them into a herd of cows!” – Tariq Ali.
The inaugural session was conducted at 9:30 am by Tariq Ali on ‘Politics & Culture: Past & Present’. The venue was already swarming with Lahoris eager for the festival to finally begin. Tariq Ali, a graduate from the Oxford University UK, is a famous writer and commentator with several books and BBC documentaries to his credit. He answered a lot of queries and left the audience keenly awaiting the forthcoming sessions.
The only disheartening part of the event was not being able to attend each session as each time slot was reserved for three separate sessions. The crowd remained energetic throughout and not once did the numbers seem to decrease. It seemed as if only more people kept coming till the very end, making it hard to find places to rest.
I desperately wanted to attend ‘The Holy Warrior & the Enemy (1958-2008): Film, News Media and Music in Frontline Pakistan’ but it was packed up. Instead, I attended ‘Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew’ with a heavy heart. To my surprise however, the moment the author and speaker, Shehan Karunatitaka, started talking I was left mesmerised. He spoke of his love for cricket and his endless quarrels with his wife due to his addiction, and convinced me which book I must read next.
As the sessions changed we had the opportunity to interact with others in the same quest for knowledge. Age didn’t matter and each person had a wealth of information to share with each other. The day was followed by sessions like ‘Globalization of Pakistan’s Literature’, ‘Pakistan: A Modern Country?’ and ‘Polemics of Time & Space’.
I particularly enjoyed ‘The Courtesan in Literature – From Umrao Jaan to Gohar Jan’. The panel included Afzal Ahmed Syed, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Navid Shahzad and Zehra Nigah. They spoke about courtesans, who are different from prostitutes; their journeys, lifestyle and purposes. They also discussed courtesan romanticism, weaknesses and strengths along with the Eastern appeal of the character as many directors and writers have made them their subject. It intrigued me to such an extent that my imagination floated with the poetry and the prose that was quoted. It was truly heartfelt, helping one fall in love with words, making one think that arranging words in a poetic manner can make the comprehension of feelings so much deeper.
The day came to an end with a great mushaira followed by a kathak performance that left the audience applauding with joy only to return with the same zeal the next day.
The 24th of February was a bright, sunny day that further lifted the spirits of the festival participants. The day started with ‘Future of Urdu literature in the Punjab’ and ‘Commonwealth, Nationalism, Globalism: Storytelling in the 21st Century’. Then came Manto by Ayesha Jalal (his grandchild), who talked about Manto’s writings on partition and aspects of human nature. She said: “I really think Manto has not been translated adequately yet.”
Next came ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia’ – a book by Mohsin Hamid. The book’s appeal lies in the fact that it has no names, which serves to widen the scope of the reader. His earlier book, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, has already been made into a film. He stated: “there are yellow balloons outside, I wish there were yellow kites instead”, as he reminisced about the days when Basant was celebrated with great fervor in Lahore. The comment was received with heavy sighs and roars of applause from the audience.
‘Beyond the Veil’ by Tehmina Durrani was yet another pleasure to attend, and the queues for this one really did seem to break the record! ‘Beyond the Veil’ is Tehmina’s journey through the various phases of her life.
The author confessed “I couldn’t have written ‘My Feudal Lord’ but because of the injustice, my reality was different to what I was supposed to be.” She explained that it was painful to bear the consequences of the book when even her own parents disowned her for thirty years. Talking about the changing times, she said “I find the new generation very open to my book today, which is a sign of acceptability”.
The ‘Conversation with Bapsi Sidhwa’ was indeed the highlight of the festival, an honour for all who attended it. Listening to her talk so freely about her feelings, encouraging the youth and highlighting the positives of Pakistan was heartening. She read from the book ‘The Crow Eaters’, talked about ‘The Ice Candy Man’ (a book based in Lahore), and shared her life journey, love for writing and the story of how she wrote her first novel as a newly wedded bride.
The festival wrapped up with a riveting performance by Laal Band and Qiyaas. Everyone danced out all their stress and the emotions bottled up within them. As a great weekend came to an end, there were hopes that the next one would be an even bigger and better experience.
As Sir Francis Bacon said “knowledge is power”. And with this festival, Pakistan showed that it has a great weapon, which will serve the youth of this country well.
Lahore Literary Festival awakens "The City of Sin and Splendor” from a Medieval Slumber.
In a season of political rallies and long marches towards Islamabad, accompanied by long spells of power-cuts, something truly splendid was needed to restore the mood of a city, known for its love affairs with aspiring writers, artists and poets. Recently it invited a mix of writers and literary giants like Bapsi Sidhwa, Ahmed Rashid, William Dalrymple and Mohammad Hanif to a two-day event – the first ever Lahore Literary Festival. The festival attracted throngs of students and book lovers. After Dehli, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur and Karachi, Lahoris had been yearning for a festival of their own, and as a result they showed up in massive numbers. According to a report in the next day’s Dawn newspaper, almost 30,000 people visited the venue in a short period of forty eight hours.
Not very long ago it used to be the time of year when Lahoris flew kites to celebrate Jashan-e-Baharan (Festival of Spring). However, right-wing elements maneuvered a ban on Basant in a city whose skies, devoid of colorful kites and passionate citizenry atop their houses, feels dull and lifeless. I am not sure about others but at least Bapsi Sidhwa and Pran Navile, nostalgic lovers of ‘The City of Sin and Splendor’, must have been overjoyed to visit this city; the favorite playground of their rich imagination, where their characters were never afraid to fall in love. Both of them, lost and febrile members of a dying generation, seem always on the lookout for a new way of telling a familiar story about the city they love the most.
On a cloudy day of early spring, intermittently punctuated with spells of rain, the audience made their way to the festival to enjoy the event like a picnic party. Their wishes were granted when they were offered free umbrellas with cups of cappuccino and stalls full of food offering traditional Lahori cuisine: Pathooray, Haleem, Dahi Bhalle and Chicken Biryani.
The first day opened with jam-packed halls and a keynote speech by Tariq Ali. Known for his critical views about the military and politicians, he left many disappointed with his outdated rhetoric. His praise of Imran Khan and the PTI drew great cheers from the crowd.
Next followed powerful sessions by William Dalrymple, Bapsi Sidhwa, Pran Navile, Mohammad Hanif, Tehmina Durrani and Dr. Ayesha Jallal. These writers especially utilized the event, taking the opportunity to interact with their readers, launch their newly published books and offer several necessary and unnecessary readings in whichever sessions they could make it possible. On one occasion, Declan Walsh, The New York Times‘ correspondent to Pakistan, had to stop Nadeem Aslam because the latter started reading a lengthy chapter from his newly published novel,’ The Blind Man’s Garden’, instead of answering a direct question.
Bapsi Sidhwa, Intezar Hussain and Pran Navile shared a very interesting session on Lahore. Time and again they kept fusing their memories with their writing, and shared their fears and concerns about a rapidly changing city in whose streets they spent their childhood.
Tehmina Durrani’s session was another feast. In a hall fully lit up for security reasons, Tehmina secretly appeared on the stage flanked by statue-like Elite Force commandos. The famed writer of ‘My Feudal Lord’ and ‘Blasphemy’ started her session with Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. With a backdrop playing the slideshow of her photos, books and awards, she touched upon her usual theme of marital violence in Pakistan. Dressed in bright colors like a newlywed bride, she advised the audience: "The women in my situation do have a weapon – it is the pen”.
Mohammad Hanif, the witty and satirical writer, launched his new book about the missing Baloch and recited his poem, mentioning the plight of the minorities, and the oppressed and underprivileged in a power-crazy country. He expressed his distaste about his frequent visits to literary festivals in the Subcontinent and pointed out that while in Karachi the families of Baloch missing persons asked him about their loved ones, he felt ashamed that instead of doing something to release their relatives, people were busy organizing literary festivals.
To make this event all inclusive, the administrators took Arundhati Roy on video call to share her views with the audience, and the reasons behind why she rarely appears at literary festivals in the emerging cosmopolitans of the Subcontinent.
Lahore, my beloved city, looked more beautiful than ever before in the presence of so many intellectuals, writers, academics, theorists and poets. The sonorous rhythm of incessant rainfall, whose drops were aware that they were the harbingers of the spring which will soon be here, made the whole scenario part of an enchanted world.
Lahoris, otherwise known for their culinary habits, were eager to wrest the moments of rare solace and happiness. These people, including my humble self, had come to drink deep at the fountain of knowledge. I felt elated at seeing young boys and girls engaged in healthy discussions and questioning the most famous writers and thinkers from Pakistan and around the world. They enjoyed differences of opinion and clapped eagerly when something was said in favour of humanity. This is the real Pakistan.
Pakistanis are currently engaged in a complex struggle to define their identity in the context of changing global scenarios. Ayesha Jalal stressed the need for action, as it is high time we made our contribution towards our motherland. Khaled Ahmed talked about the discourse of national narratives which happen to be a synthesis of sub-national narratives that remain suppressed in the presence of the colonizer. He contended that once the older power arrangements give way, the sub-national narratives assert themselves. The writers from India seemed to be open to discussion and no more ossified in the grand narratives of Partition. One thing I strongly missed was my friend Dr.Saeed ul Rehman, whose article on Pakistani writing in English appeared the same day in Dawn. His presence would have made my cup of coffee more enjoyable (although coffee does not make people wise).
Long live my Lahore, my Pakistan, and long live the world.
(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 8)