LAHORE Feb 23: Rainy weekend spell it was, but there are few things that can put a damper on the spirits of Pakistanis coming together for a cause. I say Pakistanis, rather than Lahorites, since the Karachi Literature Festival was held just last weekend, and unfortunately there were far more troublesome happenings going on in the country then; but the show did go on. As much as Karachiites enjoyed their festival, so did we in Lahore.
As one foreign speaker was overheard saying to another panelist, “There is a remarkable young crowd,” I would go a step further and say that the total turnout was rather astounding. There were sessions I attended in which people filled up the aisles, and had to be turned away in droves. So, I guess it would be safe to say we do still have the reading habit. Or maybe the listening and discussing habit.
There were discussions aplenty of course, and at times with surprising, spontaneous results. You could, say, have gone into the session titled ‘A Sense of Place’ expecting participants Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ebba Koch, Jeet Thayll and HM Naqvi to skirt around the sense of belonging, only to find the conversation digress to the process of writing. The flow, of course, being as centrifugal to an engaging dialogue as a good novel. The form and format of writing were touched upon, too. “Your stories choose you,” said Mueenuddin, and not the other way round. While Thayll’s take on structure was, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s what keeps me interested.” And Naqvi’s response to whom he felt he writes for: “I write without any reader in mind, because I feel useless if I don’t produce my quota of 300 words per day.” The last word in this one has to be given to Thayll, whose statement “it’s a heroic activity, writing a novel,” evoked due amusement in the attendees.
The tone of humour continued in the following session, ‘Globalisation of Pakistan’s Literature’. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, it seems, enjoys his comedic twists and puns as much as Daniyal Mueenuddin... and as much as we do. Audience engagement was high in both sessions, and the questions were many and varied. Reflective of the variety of people present, too, one would say. How can you not enjoy a discussion that starts off with a panellist responding to the moderator’s question about Pakistan’s literary boom with the retort – “if you can call five or six people a boom!” To which Mueenuddin added “boomlet” as a more apt description, saying “people are interested in Pakistan because this is where the other kind of boom is happening!” The tone was just right for candid interaction, without which a festival would not have been fun. And as the discussion took a contentious bend as well, touching upon the notion of English language novelists’ pandering to the West, or not, there were also serious issues dwelt upon.
Serious issues were certainly not missing from the menu. In the course of the day, Ayesha Jalal, Francis Robinson and Tariq Ali debated ‘Pakistan, a Modern Country?’ Moderator Owen Bennett-Jones did not have to play much of a role here to guide the conversation along, as the three participants managed their roles in the conversation adroitly, and the talk did not require any nudging along to get from point a to z. But then the nature of the discussion was such that only the most skilled and knowledgeable of talkers could have managed to pull this one off without getting into an imbroglio; and they did. After all, it is not easy to manage “exploring identity in an age of transition” in the given frame of an hour when there are so many divergent voices that have to be taken into account. Nevertheless, there seems to be consensus on some issues in the country, if the participants attending can be considered as a cross-section of educated Pakistan, at Tariq Ali’s closing statement of “we need to shift the current paradigm of politics away from the PPP and PML,” there was uproarious applause.
Along similar themes of identity, and globalisation, the Polemics of Time and Space II was a well-moderated module. A very brief discussion on contemporary Pakistani art preceded by a presentation (read: slide show) on the same by Quddus Mirza, this one left one wanting for more. The time divide was perhaps a little unfair to panelists Amin Jaffer, Rashid Rana, Naazish Ataullah, Dr Dina Bangdel and Quddus Mirza, moderated by Salima Hashmi. The discussion panel had just about started warming up to the issues facing contemporary Pakistani art in a regional and political context, when the time slot was up. Another half an hour would have been good, as it were this was the only session I attended on day I that could not be opened up to the audience at the end.
Much as the literary debates also brought into question the point about selling to the West, so too in art was the question of “art that is commoditised” brought up. Bangdel and Jaffer brought in a more cosmopolitan outlook to the discussion, but were certainly not differing in points of view from the Lahore-based artists. The consensus in this discussion centred on Rana’s bringing up the point that art should no longer be compartmentalised; or regionalised, as it were. “There are multiple contexts in which an artist produces work which can be understood across countries,” he stated. “I think we need to grow out of the idea that art should be classified as Pakistani.” Perhaps day II will bring more discussions along these lines.